Why do we call God “Father?” Exploring the Catholic Church’s teaching on God’s paternal and maternal qualities, and clarifying the use of gender-based titles.
Can we call God, “Our Mother?” I mean, after all, we call Him “Father” even though we know God is neither male nor female. So what’s the big deal with replacing one title for another?
If you’re new to my blog, I’ll have you know: I’m Catholic. Strictly Catholic. I adhere to all the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, even the ones I may not fully understand.
As a Catholic, I believe that God reveals Truth to us in three ways:
- Sacred Scripture
- The Magisterium (official teachings of the Church).
And it’s there I turned to find the answer to this question.
God Transcends Gender
Probably the root of this question is the understanding that God transcends gender. He is not male. He is not female. He is God.
And that’s good! That’s truth right there.
But can we jump from this Truth to the conclusion that, “If it’s okay to call God Father, then it’s okay to call God Mother, too”??
Well, let’s see what the Catechism says…
“By calling God ‘Father,’ the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.” – CCC 239.
Let’s unpack this a bit.
Humans are made in the image of God. We’re created male and female. So it follows that all the qualities we possess stem from God our Creator. And the Catechism backs this up. God’s authority, goodness, providence, immanence, and intimacy, are found in the images of paternity and maternity.
These images help us understand God, from Whom we came.
But do they rationalize calling God “Father” or “Mother”?
Actually, no. This one paragraph taken from the Catechism explains that God is above these titles. We’re limited in our understanding of God. He’s so far beyond our grasp. But we can use the images of fatherhood and motherhood to begin to understand some of God’s qualities. They don’t define His qualities. But they provide an image of them.
Like looking in a mirror. What we see in the mirror is not ourselves. It’s not reality. But it’s a reflection of reality. And guys, sometimes mirrors can’t express the full truth! Those slimming mirrors in retail stores don’t express the fullness of the truth that is my body… they leave a little something out.
Likewise, calling God “Father” or “Mother” doesn’t express the fullness of His Being. It’s an image. A reflection. A mirror that helps us get some sort of understanding, but at the same time leaves something out.
So… Why Father?
So why do we even call God “Father” to begin with? Why not just stick with “Creator”?
Back to the Catechism.
“We can invoke God as “Father” because he is revealed to us by his Son become man and because his Spirit makes him known to us. The personal relation of the Son to the Father is something that man cannot conceive of nor the angelic powers even dimly see: and yet, the Spirit of the Son grants a participation in that very relation to us who believe that Jesus is the Christ and that we are born of God.” – CCC 2780
Okay, because He said so.
Jesus (God, the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity) revealed God as Father to us. Any “Sola-Scripture” fans out there should be nodding their heads at this one right about now, even without the Catechism’s clarification.
It’s like when you’re introduced to your boyfriend’s parents. And they tell you to call them by their first names. You wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first names without this special permission. You’d stick to “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So.”
Similarly, God has given us permission to call Him “Father.” It doesn’t define who He is, but it’s a title which we may refer to Him by. It helps us understand our relationship to Him. It gives us a mental image of a protector and provider. But at the same time, we keep in mind that this title is incomplete.
Yeah But… Why Not Mother?
So now Jesus has given us permission to call God by a gender-based name. What if we’re uncomfortable with calling Him “Father?” What if your relationship with your own father is less than ideal? What if you can identify more with God’s motherly characteristics?
After all, God is above fatherhood and motherhood. He transcends gender. So if we can call God one, then why not the other?
Enter Catechism, stage right.
“To impose our own ideas in this area ‘upon him’ would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us.” – CCC 2779
Idolatry, guys. That’s why.
We know that our language is insufficient to describe God. He gave us permission to call Him “Father.” He didn’t tell us it’s okay to call Him “Mother,” too. And the Catechism warns us, right here, of giving God our own labels. Of imposing our own ideas upon Him.
Just because we feel like God is our “Mother,” doesn’t make it so. Just because our world promotes some crazy ideas about feminism and gender-neutrality, doesn’t mean we can justify labeling God according to our whims. To try to force our political agenda by renaming God is a form of idolatry.
God revealed Himself as Father for a reason. It helps us understand Him as the primary source of life. It reminds us of our role as receivers of all His good gifts. He chose this name for a reason.
And our own ideas of fatherhood, influenced by broken people in this fallen world, don’t change the innate goodness of God’s fatherhood.
We can ponder the imagery of God’s maternal qualities, sure. But we can’t overstep that boundary and call Him “Mother.”
Back to your boyfriend’s parents. If they introduced themselves as “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So,” and you arrogantly proceeded to call them by their first names… Insert all the wide-eyed-jaw-dropped-emojis here.
They deserve to be respected by calling them the titles they choose for themselves. They have a reason why they wish to be titled that way.
And even more-so with God.
We may not be able to understand why He revealed Himself to us as “Father,” but we can give Him the respect of honoring that title.
How About the Holy Spirit?
Well… How about the Holy Spirit then? We’ve got the Father and the Son revealed to us in their more masculine roles. Can we let the Holy Spirit take the “Mother” title?
Once more, from the Catechism.
“The Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).'”
Alrighty, so this implies problems with the “Mother” title. Calling the Holy Spirit “Mother” conjures up the image of a human family, where God the Father and the Holy Spirit pop out a Son: Jesus, through their Divine love.
As we profess in our Creed, Jesus was “eternally begotten of the Father.” This gives rise to our reference as Jesus, the Son of God.
But the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Meaning it’s the love from the Father and the Son that exists as a third Person, not the love between the Father and the Spirit.
When we label the Holy Spirit as “Mother,” that gives rise to the image of Jesus as proceeding from the Father and the Holy Spirit. That’s in contradiction to our Creed!
Admittedly, the Blessed Trinity is a tough cookie to crack. We try to understand their relationship with familiar images, like the love between a husband and wife. But, while, the Trinity is a great tool to help us understand the life-giving love of spouses, the relationship between spouses doesn’t translate perfectly back to reflect the relationship between the persons of the Trinity.
We’re made in the Image of God, not God in the image of us.
See how the roles get confused when we try to fit God in the box of our human understanding?
The Short Answer
So can we call God our “Mother?” All around, we get a big fat no.
Nope, God is not our “Mother.”
However, we can use the imagery of motherhood (as well as fatherhood) to help paint a picture of God. To help us grow in a fuller understanding. In fact, many passages in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament) refer to God’s maternal qualities. Referring to both maternal and paternal qualities that we find evident in God helps form and improve our understanding of Him, even though we know He transcends gender.
But we have no basis in Scripture, Tradition, or the Magisterium for labeling Him as “Mother.”
We must remember: what we know of God is what He chooses to reveal to us. And He chose to reveal Himself to us as “Father.”
So let’s stick with it.
Here are a few more resources explaining why we refer to God as “Father,” but not “Mother.”
Matt Fradd: Can We Call God Mother?
Catholic Answers Live: God as Father