Calling Priests “Father” In Latin

by Jimmy Akin

in The Church

They don’t.

Call priests "Father" in Latin, that is.

This is a fact that came to my attention recently when I was reading a volume of Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions (a canon law journal that prints what its name indicates) that had a revision from the reign of John Paul II of the rescript of laicization that is given to priests who are returned to the lay state (in terms of how they function in the Church; they still remain priests ontologically).

The revision was notable in that it allowed bishops to do things like, after a period of time, allow the ex-priest to serve as a lector or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

What caught my attention, though, was the way the document refers to the priest.

In the English translation, it says something like "Father _____________ of the Diocese of ______________ is hereby . . . blah, blah, blah, etc."

But in the original Latin, it doesn’t say the Latin equivalent of "Father _____________," which would be "Pater _____________."

Instead, it said, "D.nus _____________."

D.nus?

I recognized that as almost certainly an abbreviation for "Dominus" or "Lord," which is a title that is still used for clergy in Latin, as it is in some countries (like England) as a title for nobility.

Thus when B16 was elected, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez announced:

« Fratelli e sorelle carissimi ! ¡ Queridísimos hermanos y hermanas ! Biens chers frères et sœurs ! Liebe Brüder und Schwestern ! Dear brothers and sisters ! Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum : Habemus papam ! Emminentissimum ac reverendissimum dominum, dominum Iosephum, sanctæ romanæ Ecclesiæ cardinalem Ratzinger, qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedicti decimi sexti. »

The blue part would be "Lord Joseph (Cardinal of the holy roman Church) Ratzinger."

(BTW, you can listen to that online HERE. I just love listening to it and recalling that day. I especially like the brief pause before he enthusiastically says "Ratzinger." WHEEEE! I love it. HERE ARE MORE HABEMUS PAPAM RECORDINGS OF OTHER POPES.)

Anyway, after looking at the rescript, I called a friend who is a Latinist and who is well acquainted with Church documents in Latin and asked two questions:

1) Is Dominus the normal honorific used for priests in Church documents.

Yes.

2) Do they use Pater or an synonym?

No.

So it seems that calling priests "Father" is something that happens in vernacular languages like English (Father) or Spanish (Padre) or Arabic (Abunah) but not (at least not typically) in the Church’s official documents.

Interesting.

I said to my friend: "I bet there are a bunch of priests who don’t know they are ‘Lord So-and-So’ in Latin."

My friend: "Let’s not tell them."

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{ 51 comments }

Jeffrey G April 4, 2008 at 6:28 am

In the English translation, it says something like “Father …
But in the original Latin, it doesn’t say the Latin equivalent of “Father …

So they intentionally mistranslate for the tender ears of vernacular speakers?
Personally I think they should go with “Dominus Pater.” Very Star Warsy.

Rosemarie April 4, 2008 at 6:45 am

+J.M.J+
I guess that’s why some foreign clergy and monks are called “Dom” – short for Dominus. Or sometimes “Don,” as in Don Bosco (St. John Bosco). Hey, it all makes sense now! :-) Could that be a throwback to the days when many clergy came from the nobility?
In Jesu et Maria,

SDG April 4, 2008 at 6:49 am

So they intentionally mistranslate for the tender ears of vernacular speakers?

Good Latin to good English. In Spanish, AFAIK, bishops are called “Monsignor” (which also means “my lord”). In English, that’s an honorific for designated priests; it would sound slighting to call a bishop “Monsignor.” It is usually the translator’s burden to adjust for such cultural differences. The “dynamic equivalence” end of the spectrum has its proper uses.

Jeffrey G April 4, 2008 at 7:04 am

Good Latin to good English.
Fair enough. Just don’t be quite as hard on Luther for adding “alone” in his German translation of the bible.
Martin Luther: “I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text — if the translation is to be clear and vigorous [klar und gewaltiglich], it belongs there. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had set about to speak in the translation.”

bill912 April 4, 2008 at 7:14 am

Yeah, I can see the connection between translating one of the Church’s disciplinary documents and intentionally mis-translating the Bible to make the translation say something the original Greek doesn’t.

SDG April 4, 2008 at 7:21 am

Bwaah haa haaa!!!!!!
Now look what you made me do, Jeffrey G. I have to go and apologize to Deusdonat for upbraiding him about laughing in your face. :‑D
Remember when I said “The ‘dynamic equivalence’ end of the spectrum has its proper uses“? Guess why I phrased it that way? Precisely because it’s so well-known that the “dynamic equivalence” end of the spectrum also has definite limitations and pitfalls — and brother, you just highlighted a big one.
This is precisely where you need rigorous formal correspondencenot attempts at dynamic equivalence, which by definition lack the precision needed for careful exegesis. If there’s anything “dynamic equivalence” isn’t good for, it’s controverted, theologically rich material intended for careful reading and study.
“The sense of the text” my eye, Herr Doktor. (Note: “My eye” would here be a good candidate for dynamic equivalence.) As if “only” were commonly understood to go without saying in Greek and Latin, whereas in German you really had to spell it out. If I spoke German I’d invent a really long German compound word right now to describe how preposterous that is.
Luther’s “only” was an overtly exegetical — if not eisegetical — act, not a translational one. It was an act at the service of theology, not at the service of the text.

Pat April 4, 2008 at 7:21 am

Jeffery G,
I hear ya about Luther, but, you see a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. C’mon, anybody who can read can see that. It’s right there in the scripture.- toungue firmly planted in cheek.

Pseudomodo April 4, 2008 at 7:26 am

“””WARNING”””
EVIL FILE FORMAT!!!
Vorbis audio format is used on wikipedia and as we all know Jimmy has warned us about evil file formats in the past!! like pdf….
Just doing my part…
😉

Jeffrey G April 4, 2008 at 7:37 am

SDG,
I find that page I linked to interesting. Especially point 4: Previous translations of the word “alone” in Romans 3:28
The Roman Catholic writer Joseph A. Fitzmyer points out that Luther was not the only one to translate Romans 3:28 with the word “alone.”
Robert Bellarmine
Origen
Hilary
Basil
Ambrosiaster
John Chrysostom
Cyril of Alexandria
Bernard
Theophylact
Theodoret
Thomas Aquinas

Anyway. Sorry. Wildly off topic.

Deusdonat April 4, 2008 at 8:00 am

Just an aside, Dominus (Domina for a woman, as used with leaders of female religious orders) can also be translated simply as “sir” or “ma’am”. Though it literally means “Lord”, which is why it is translated as such throughout the bible.

Fr Augustine Tran April 4, 2008 at 8:11 am

In Latin, “Dominus” or “Reverendus Dominus” (R.D.) is used for diocesan priests. “Pater” or “Reverendus Pater” (R.P.) is used for religious priests.

Cajun Nick April 4, 2008 at 8:16 am

I have enjoyed reading the interactions between Jeffrey G. and the others here on JA.org’s comment boards. I’m not competent enough to really enter into any debate, but I learn alot from these discussions; and, if there are links, I’ll usually follow those, too.
Which brings me to my reason for posting:
Jeffrey G. – Your list of prominent Catholics who also translated Romans 3:28 really caught my attention. But it immediately occurred to me that there is a huge distinction between what they did and what Luther did. This distinction is so huge that it puts Luther’s action in a completely different category.
While the others on the list may have used the word “alone” in connection with the passage, it was done in a commentary on Sacred Scripture. Such commentaries, rightly, are not considered inerrant, not even those by Auquinas, Augustine, or any of the others.
Luther, on the other hand, actually changed Sacred Scripture itself. He wanted it understood as being *the Word of God*.
No translation of the Bible from the original language will be perfect. But we can at least understand that some translations are worse than others – at least in particular instances.

Deusdonat April 4, 2008 at 8:26 am

Fr Augustine, Hello! And I completely forgot about that! Dominus/Domina is originally associated with “land owners”, which was why diocesan priests (i.e. those who tended church lands) got the title while those in orders didn’t (even though they may have tended their own lands as well).
Wow. this is really taking me back…
Cajun,
I usually find the stuff and nonsense of heretics below comment. And this is no exception. They are of course free to add, subtract or make origami out of scripture. God will be their judge. But your points regarding commentary vs actually distorting scripture are absolutely correct.

SDG April 4, 2008 at 8:27 am

Jeffrey G: That’s a great rebuttal. I never knew that before. Thanks for the link.
This, though, highlights the point I made about “controverted, theologically rich material.” As you may know, the Church has never had a problem with the formula “justification through faith alone” rightly understood. Thus, e.g., Thomas Aquinas could easily affirm that we are justified by faith alone, yet also that we can (condignly) merit eternal life. Where the larger soteriological issues were uncontroversial, “sola fide” could easily be rightly understood and did not cause a problem.
It was sola fide as a Reformation slogan pitted against the larger understanding of justification and salvation that made the language a problem. Now it became necessary explicitly to distinguish fides formata from fides informis, etc.
However many may have interpolated “alone” into Romans 3:28 when it wasn’t a theological issue — particularly in commentaries rather than actual editions of sacred scripture? — it was always an interpolation, not a literal translation. In the absence of theological controversy, it might be an unproblematic interpolation, but when and where theological formulae become slogans and catch-phrases in theological wars, the looseness of interpolation clearly becomes more problematic.
I would thus cheerfully say to anyone who inserts “alone” into the text of Romans 3:28, especially in an edition of sacred scripture (which it is not clear to me is what is happening in many or all of the examples you cite), that to do so is not at the service of the text.

The Sheepcat April 4, 2008 at 9:53 am

For what it’s worth, during the prayers at the foot of the altar at the start of the Traditional Latin Mass, we altar servers twice address the priest as “Pater.”

Pat April 4, 2008 at 9:54 am

Jefferey G.
Ultimately, we all believe that One Person is responsible for writing the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit.
So, the Holy Spirit wrote both of the following vesuses. The one time that the word only or alone is used is in James 2:24 in order to deny that man is justified by faith alone. This must be explained by the Church so as not to make the Scriptures appear to contradict itself. To elevate the term Sola Fide to a level of dogma is at best horrible terminology and at worst heresy.
Romans 3:28 (King James Version)
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
James 2:24 (King James Version)
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
No wonder Martin Luther did not like the book of James.

Jeffrey G April 4, 2008 at 10:02 am

No wonder Martin Luther did not like the book of James.
The early Church was not overly enthusiastic about it either. James was late and reluctantly accepted. As with all the Bible, James was first “canonized” at Trent.
James should be understood through to the rest of the NT.

bill912 April 4, 2008 at 10:09 am

“As with all the Bible, James was first ‘canonized’ at Trent.”
Wrong. The councils which determined which books were Divinely inspired and which were not were the Councils of Rome(A.D. 382), Hippo(A.D. 394), and Carthage(A.D. 397).

SDG April 4, 2008 at 10:11 am

James was late and reluctantly accepted.

We have a word for that. We call it “deuterocanonical.”

As with all the Bible, James was first “canonized” at Trent.

AFAIK, it would probably be better to say it was first dogmatically canonized at Trent. There are certainly official (if not dogmatically defined) canons before Trent.

James should be understood through to the rest of the NT.

There are 26 other books you could make that statement about, with comparable truthfulness (not to mention including the faith of the early church as part of the basis for understanding). Protocanonical and deutercanonical is one thing; a canon within a canon is something else.
It’s also important to distinguish between “understanding X through the rest of the NT” and “explaining away X on the basis of the rest of the NT.” Put otherwise, once you get done “understanding X through the rest of the NT,” you still have to credibly understand X. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with efforts to “understand X through the rest of the NT” that wind up not explaining X in any credible fashion at all.
In the case of James 2, I’ve seen efforts to explain “justified by works and not by faith alone” that lay great emphasis on “faith without works is dead.” It is quite true that faith without works is dead. But once that point is clearly established, it remains to explain in what sense we can say that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Deusdonat April 4, 2008 at 10:18 am

The early Church was not overly enthusiastic about it either. James was late and reluctantly accepted. As with all the Bible, James was first “canonized” at Trent.
I’m sorry, but I am SO tired of heretics throwing around this red herring. If you can find a bible between the 5th and 16th century without James, the Deuterocanonicals etc, then you have a point. But the fact is you cannot. The Orthodox church (which actually has MORE books than the Catholic church) ALSO accept James and the Deuterocanonicals. Meaning Trent had nothing to do with any of them in the grand scheme, since Trent was not binding on the Orthodox church at all.
*shaking my head in disappointment*

Deusdonat April 4, 2008 at 10:19 am

The early Church was not overly enthusiastic about it either. James was late and reluctantly accepted. As with all the Bible, James was first “canonized” at Trent.
I’m sorry, but I am SO tired of heretics throwing around this red herring. If you can find a bible between the 5th and 16th century without James, the Deuterocanonicals etc, then you have a point. But the fact is you cannot. The Orthodox church (which actually has MORE books than the Catholic church) ALSO accept James and the Deuterocanonicals. Meaning Trent had nothing to do with any of them in the grand scheme, since Trent was not binding on the Orthodox church at all.
*shaking my head in disappointment*

Augustine April 4, 2008 at 11:01 am

In my native Portuguese, priests are called “padre”, which is not the same word for a father, “pai”. As a matter of fact, the Portuguese word “padre” is only used for priests, having no other use. Granted, in archaic Portuguese it was used for father too.
On a side note, the word “dom”, is used for bishops. You know, similar to the Italian “don”, corrupted by the Mafia in the popular culture.

Augustine April 4, 2008 at 11:03 am

I should add that whenever someone mentions that no one should be called “father” I wonder how they call theirs… :-)

Paul H April 4, 2008 at 11:57 am

(BTW, you can listen to that online HERE. I just love listening to it and recalling that day. I especially like the brief pause before he enthusiastically says “Ratzinger.” WHEEEE! I love it.
Me too. It’s hard to express how surprised and overjoyed I was when I watched that announcement live on TV. I had been thinking what many orthodox Catholics were probably thinking — that of course Cardinal Ratzinger would be the best choice, but of course he has absolutely zero chance of being elected, so let’s hope for Cardinal Arinze or one of the other good candidates. Obviously the Cardinals and the Holy Spirit had other ideas — thanks be to God! :-)
By the way, I think they faded out the crowd noise toward the end of that audio file. I remember the cheering going on a lot longer than that, unless maybe I’m just thinking of my own cheering, rather than the cheers from the crowd. 😉

Deusdonat April 4, 2008 at 12:15 pm

PAUL, GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I will be completely honest here: I was absolutely “gunning” for Cardinal Arinze to succeed JP II. On so many levels, he is such a good person, AND a superb cleric: a) He comes from humble beginings b) comes from the 3rd world c) is extremely devout and has the zeal of a convert (he is 1st generation Catholic) d) has an immense social responsibility and e) is EXTREMELY Orthodox, especially on matters of liturgy…and favors the Latin Mass.
So, once again, I am baring my soul when I say I was extremely dissappointed when Benedict was elected Pope, since everyone stated he was chosen to “continue the papacy of JP II”. And, let’s just say I had several issues there. But now I am as humbled as a King at Canossa by the success, compassion and wisdom of Benedict’s papacy (may God bless him and grant him 100 years!). The Holy Spirit is indeed present in our church.

Mary April 4, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Time was when the proper address for priests in English would be “Sir Joseph”, etc.
I believe at the Reformation that this was legally prohibited, leading to our current solution.

DanielT April 4, 2008 at 5:21 pm

I have great memories of that day as well. I’m 20 years old, so I’d never known of any pope but John Paul II. I remember that it was really neat, being at my high school and watching the announcement with Protestants who were just as excited as I was!

labrialumn April 4, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Wow. Lots of ‘Catholics’ who disagree with the Pope. Interesting.
Augustine, so, what -did- Jesus mean when He said that? IIRC, the context was rabbis and priests.

SDG April 4, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Wow. Lots of ‘Catholics’ who disagree with the Pope. Interesting.

??? Clarify please?

Augustine, so, what -did- Jesus mean when He said that? IIRC, the context was rabbis and priests.

Yes, and in the verses immediately preceding and following, he likewise forbade his followers the titles “teacher” and “leader” (Matt 23:8-10), on the identical grounds that we have one teacher and leader, the Christ.
I remember from my Evangelical days my Bible teacher preaching on that passage after the worship leader led us in song. As I recall, he focused on what Jesus had to say about calling men “father” and ignored the other titles.

PJO April 5, 2008 at 1:59 am

For what it’s worth, in Spain, formal or legal correspondence to lay, adult males usually addresses them as “don”. Thus, Mr. José Luis Sànchez would be Don José Luis Sànchez. Similar use for women of “dona” (‘n’ should be with tilde accent- I don’t have on my keyboard), whereas I noticed the term “las duenas” (tilde used on the ‘n’ again) was used to refer to all the nuns in a specific convent (in this case, Dominican nuns in Salamanca). I also heard that the honorific use of ‘don’ in organized crime circles in Sicily was a vestige of the hundreds of years of Spanish rule there.
I ask any native Spanish speakers to correct me if I am off on this.
Paz de Cristo,
Patrick

labrialumn April 5, 2008 at 9:22 am

SDG,
Showing me further inconsistencies among evangelicals doesn’t answer my question, nor does the existence of one wrong make legitimate additional wrongs, right?
I’m still curious what you think Jesus meant when He said that.

Laura Peratt April 5, 2008 at 11:29 am

Wow, SDG, I had to get out my dictionary to follow you! That’s good, though. It is always good to expand one’s vocabulary. Thank you, everyone, for a great discussion. These discussions are valuable to me as a new Catholic who is knee-deep in young kids and so doesn’t have the time to actually study these things. I do remember the “faith alone” and “calling anyone ‘father'” controversies from my days as a Lutheran and then as an Evangelical, too. I don’t recall that anyone had a really satisfactory answer, either.
Keep up the great discussions!

Tim J. April 5, 2008 at 7:03 pm

“nor does the existence of one wrong make legitimate additional wrongs, right?”
So, you disagree with people – ministers – being referred to as “teacher” or “leader”? Have you made these views known in your own church? Denomination? Lobbied to have these titles dropped? Or is this criticism restricted to Catholic priests?

Skgyor April 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Remember that Mathew (the evangelist) is all about fitting Jesus with the Jewish people, hence the big genealogy, new Adam and Moses motifs, “fulfill the Law, not break”, etc. As such the Pharisees, who compiled a good portion of the OT and Talmud, were all about the Oral Traditions of understanding the Law. They had several “schools” on various styles and methods of knowing the Law. (Just as now there are several schools of interpreting the bible.) So most (educated) Jews where very particular on which school/teacher they followed and understood, teachers being called Rabbi or Father. Hence the reason Jesus has a discourse on not calling anyone Father i.e. big shot OT scholastic, since He is there to fulfill it.

Skgyor April 5, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Post Scriptum:
When I say bible schools I mean like bible study courses.

Suzelle Kasaian April 5, 2008 at 10:28 pm

Just curious—pardon me if I’m being dense, but how can an “ex-priest” priest be an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist if being a priest is being an ordinary minister of the Eucharist?
If a priest were denied the use of his priestly faculties by his Bishop, wouldn’t this be a contradiction?
I’m not trying to be a wise-acre,
I just don’t understand.

RC April 5, 2008 at 10:42 pm

Simili modo, people can get all picky about how the word “Easter” has pagan origins, but in Latin the day is Dominica Resurrectionis: Resurrection Sunday, which is exactly what some of my Evangelical friends call it.

RC April 5, 2008 at 11:01 pm

The status of being a minister of the Eucharist, ordinary or extraordinary, is a matter of law, not of sacramental power; hence it can be regulated by the law, or restricted by the bishop; it can be lost when the law provides, and is lost when a priest is dismissed from the clerical state.

Pertinacious Papist April 7, 2008 at 5:06 am

I have it on the authority of one David Alexander that when the thurible is brought to the priest in the Traditional High Mass, the master of ceremonies says quietly: “Benedicite, Pater reverende” — one instance, at least, in which the priest is addressed as ‘Pater’.

Deusdonat April 7, 2008 at 11:12 am

Wow. Lots of ‘Catholics’ who disagree with the Pope. Interesting.
LOL. Newsflash: Catholics have been disagreeing with the Pope since the first one, St Peter (hence the epistles). A Catholic can disagree with the Pope and still be a Catholic in good standing. It is simply not wise or prudent to do so on the subject of faith and morals, since the pope is the final authority on such issues in our church.

George April 8, 2008 at 5:21 am

The use of the word “Dominus” is _not_ a throwback to when priests were nobility. Rather, it has a broader meaning that embraces the meaning of “sir”, which itself is derived from the common ancestor whence we get “mon-signor” and, in Spanish “sen~or”, meaning “senior” — one who is my respected superior; in the priest’s case, his seniority is in matters of spiritual authority.
As for “Pater,” they _do_ call priests “Pater” in Latin…when they speak in Germany. Rather than “Vater Ratzinger,” our beloved pope would have been “Pater Ratzinger” upon his ordination, or so I am told by my German friends.

Scott April 8, 2008 at 10:11 am

Jimmy,
Just because Dominus is used in some Church documents doesn’t mean Pater can’t also be used. And, as someone else pointed out, it actually is (in the text of the Extraordinary form).
pax,
Scott

Joshua April 8, 2008 at 10:51 am

Regular priests being called Father is pretty new in english. Reverend or parson would have been more common, with Father for religious priests.
In a 1950’s book on Catholic Etiquette that I have it has both diocesan and religious priests called father in direct address, but on a letter the form was just “Reverend Surname” the latter “Reverend Father Religious Name”
Also of note, in the Latin liturgy priests are given the title domne, as opposed to domine. So in compline you normally sing “Iube domne” asking the priest to bless you, but if no cleric is there it is “Iube domine” asking God directly (so too in the old Mass, a priest at a low Mass said “Iube domine” but a deacon said “Iube domne). This is where the title Dom comes from

Barbara April 9, 2008 at 1:26 pm

but in Latin the day is Dominica Resurrectionis: Resurrection Sunday
I thought it was Dominica Pascal (Passover Sunday). Isn’t that why it’s called the pascal mystery?

Josh April 9, 2008 at 3:27 pm

@ Barbara:
No, in the Extraordinary Form at least, Easter Sunday is called Dominica Resurrectionis. However, the octave is called Octava Paschatis and the season of Eastertide is called either Tempus Paschale or Tempus Paschatis.

Gabby April 9, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Re. Dominus as a title
In French the title for a bishop is Monseigneur, “My Lord”; as in English, said title is also used as an honorific for some designated priests. Most priests are simply called ‘Père’, ‘Father’.

Caroline Rhoads April 21, 2008 at 1:47 am

Life is change. It is impossible to freeze life and make everything remain the way they are. I am so glad that we as Christian can bring positive change to those that need to see the love of Christ… Thank you for your articles! Jesus Is Lord!

Will November 11, 2008 at 1:13 am

In Matthew 23:9, Jesus specifically says do not call anyone on earth father…

bill912 November 11, 2008 at 5:26 am

He also said to hate your father and mother, or you are not worthy of Him. Maybe He wasn’t speaking literally.

bill912 November 11, 2008 at 5:27 am

So what do you call the guy who married your mother?

bill912 November 11, 2008 at 5:31 am

BTW, this post was about calling priests “father” in Latin, which the Church does not do, which you would have known had you actually read the post.

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