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The Fourth Commandment:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Ex 20:12)
For a summary of this Commandment, read the Catechism #2199.
The first three Commandments are all about direct love and worship of God. In them we learn how to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. Commandments Four through Ten call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mk 12:31).
The Fourth Commandment especially highlights the natural and Christian understanding of the family. It focuses in on the responsibility that children have toward their parents, but it also gives insight into the role and duty of parents, spouses, all family relationships and civil authority. This Commandment covers a wide array of moral questions within the family and society as a whole. Therefore, rather than just looking at the bottom line and upper limit of this Commandment, let’s look at it from various perspectives so as to get a more complete picture of all that the Fourth Commandment calls us to.
God’s Plan for Parents
We begin our reflection on this Commandment by looking at it from the natural design of God. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply” (Gn 1:27–28).
The most basic foundation of all society is marriage and the family. Male and female are called to come together and enter into a covenant of love. This love is a participation in God’s life in the Trinity. The unity of husband and wife, established by the covenant they make through their vows, becomes the foundation for the begetting and raising of children.
Of course the ideal is not always achieved in life, but, nonetheless, the natural design of God for humanity is what we must see as the goal and foundation of human life. Family life, thus, becomes the most basic building block of all of society.
Ideally, it is the love of husband and wife that provides the proper context for children. The mutual love of spouses opens them to God’s creative power to bring forth new life. And this mutual love that they share becomes the foundation for children to be raised in a healthy environment of love and unwavering commitment.
The duty of parents flows from their indissoluble and unconditional commitment toward each other. That love then overflows from their marriage to their children. This overflowing love is a reflection of the love of the Trinity in that the love of Father and Son is the Person of the Holy Spirit, and the love of the entire Trinity overflows upon all of humanity.
The love of parents is such that they have certain duties and obligations toward their children. These duties also should be seen as certain privileges they have in begetting and raising their children.
The responsibilities (and privileges) that parents have begin with providing for their children’s basic needs. They must feed them, clothe them, provide shelter and the like. Their duties, however, extend far beyond the basics. They are also called to nurture them emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. Parents must care for and nurture the whole person, body, mind, soul and spirit.
Practically speaking, this takes on many forms. Of greatest importance is the spiritual nourishment a parent is called to offer a child. This means that, more than anyone else, parents are called to teach their child the ways of faith. They are to teach them prayers and pray with them. They are to bring them to church and make sure they learn their catechism. They are to help them prepare for the reception of the Sacraments so as to grow in grace. And they are to teach them how to live a moral life by their words and their actions. They are to do all they can to nurture a deep, personal, intimate and loving relationship with our Triune God.
Closely connected to this essential duty and privilege is the importance of offering proper emotional and affective support and love. Humans need to give and receive love, and parents, more than anyone, must offer emotional, spiritual and human love to their children. This basic human need helps children to grow into balanced and healthy interpersonal beings who know, in turn, how to show proper love and affection toward others.
Being a Holy Child
The Fourth Commandment especially highlights the duty of children toward their parents. This certainly applies to young children, but it also applies to adult children. The sacred bond of parent and child may change over time, but it always remains. It’s part of God’s natural design for humanity and is also elevated to a supernatural level by His grace.
It’s important to start this reflection by looking at the actual words of the Fourth Commandment carefully. It says “honor” your father and mother. Note that it doesn’t say “obey” them. Of course, for children, obedience is part of the way they honor their parents. Let’s look at how this is lived out in the family at all ages.
Authority of Parents: Parents are entrusted with a certain authority within the family. We begin by simply seeing it as a natural authority that is part of the design of God for human life. This authority encompasses many aspects of family life and is essential to the healthy unity and functioning of a family.
Authority can be abused. When that happens, it causes a certain disruption in the good ordering of family life. Authority can also be neglected, and when that happens, disorder and a certain chaos are introduced. But when parental authority is lived in accord with God’s plan, it brings unity, strength and stability to the family and helps children to grow into healthy and mature men and women.
Parental Obedience: One of the obvious responsibilities of parents is to exercise their proper authority over their children and to expect obedience from them. Children, in turn, honor the God-given authority of parents by submitting to their direction and honoring the authority they have over them. This is good when given and received properly! Of course it doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is good.
Obedience is owed to a parent in all things that are in union with God’s will. Obviously there are many moral requirements that parents must make of their children. These moral requirements help to form them into morally upright people.
On the flip side, if a parent were to act in an abusive way, demanding a child to act contrary to the will of God, the parent has no authority to do this and causes much damage. Children, for their part, are often left confused and hurt when this happens; ideally, grandparents or other family members step in when it’s blatant or abusive. But it’s also true that no parent will be perfect and will inevitably make some mistakes that can more easily be overlooked and forgiven.
Obedience to parents includes numerous things. Parents should not hesitate to establish good “rules of the house” that are prudent and that are in the best interest of the healthy maturing of their children. Children need to learn self-discipline and responsibility in life, and that often happens through the holy exercise of parental authority.
Honoring of Parents: Children, young and old, are all called to honor their parents, not only obey them. Though obedience is part of that “honoring” for young children, it’s not the exclusive way they honor their parents. Children must also grow in respect for parents and learn to show that respect in their words and actions. Children learn to love others by first learning to love their parents. Parental love is the most important “training ground” for human love and for all healthy interpersonal and social interactions in the future. Therefore, the bond of love and honor between parent and child will have an enormous impact upon who they are and how they relate to people throughout their lives.
For that reason, parents should not hesitate to expect honor, in the proper sense, from their children. They should help to foster respect from their children by being parents who are worthy of respect. Of course all people deserve respect, but when a parent lives a truly honorable life filled with virtue and genuine goodness, this will help foster healthy honor and respect from their children. Therefore, one of the most important things a parent can do is to be a person that children truly look up to and admire as a result of their manifest virtue and goodness.
As children grow into young adulthood, their relationship with their parents will change. The obedience once owed to parents regarding normal daily living will not be necessary any longer nor will it even be helpful. Young adults, and subsequently adult children, need parents to expect them to slowly take more and more responsibility for their own lives. This is especially the case with all the minor things, such as what time to go to bed, cleaning up after themselves, etc. It will also include more important things, such as who their friends are, what jobs or careers they pursue, and the like. Though parents may always be called on at times to exercise a certain influence in the lives of their adult children, there must be a healthy balance so that adult children can take on responsibility in their lives and build on the foundation they were given by their parents throughout their childhood.
As adults, children will always be responsible to continue their love and respect for their parents. They must keep their parents as important parts of their lives, consult them and continually show love and respect toward them. This is much easier when a parent acts in the appropriate way toward their children. It is much more difficult when they are less “deserving” of that respect. It is especially difficult for adult children when their parents fail to respect them as adults and when a parent fails to properly “let go” of their children. This creates a tension that makes for a difficult relationship of proper honor.
Honoring of Elderly Parents: As the old phrase goes, “What comes around goes around!” In a sense, this is true with the parent/child relationship also. Parents are entrusted with the love and care of children as they grow. They must take care of their basic material needs as well as their emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.
But there will come a day for most parents when they can no longer take care of themselves properly due to their old age. When that happens, it is primarily the duty of adult children to care for their parents. This includes all the same needs mentioned above: material, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Yes, society as a whole has a certain responsibility toward the elderly, such as healthcare, financial support (such as social security), etc. But the primary responsibility falls on adult children as a result of their duty to honor their parents.
When parents are blessed with more than one child, their children also are blessed with the interaction of siblings. The natural intention of God for siblings is similar to that of parents, minus the obedience part. Siblings offer each other the healthy opportunity to grow in mutual love and respect.
These family bonds offer a wonderful opportunity for children to learn many basic requirements of human relationships. For example, siblings are obliged to always work toward forgiveness of each other. While it’s never good that siblings fight, it also seems to be inevitable. But God changes this into good in that He allows those moments of forgiveness and reconciliation within the family to be moments of mercy and healing. Siblings learn how to experience hurt from the sins of another and to then offer forgiveness and mercy. They also learn how to ask for forgiveness and how to receive it when they have hurt the others.
Siblings cannot disown each other in healthy families. Sure we’ve all heard stories of siblings who never speak to each other any longer. But especially in healthy families while growing up, it’s not possible to ignore your sibling every day. And a good parent will help to foster reconciliation when needed. This offers a wonderful lesson for life. They learn, within the family, how to love, forgive and ask forgiveness. They learn what mercy is and what it means to have unconditional love. This is one of the natural blessings of family life as God intended it.
Affection within the Family: One basic human need is that of healthy and holy human affection. We were made to offer and receive proper affection for one another. When this becomes distorted, it can cause grave hurt and come out in destructive ways such as sexual abuse, anger, or resentment. But when lived well, proper family affection adds much to the healthy formation of children as they grow into healthy adults.
It’s quite natural for a mother, for example, to coddle her newborn infant. And it’s quite natural for that infant to cling to his/her mother. As a child grows, that affection will change but should always be there. A father’s affection must also be present in the lives of his children and fulfills basic human needs. When offered appropriately, this affection helps to form a well-rounded young man or young woman.
The scope of this reflection does not include an in-depth analysis of the role of affection offered by father and mother. But it is worth pointing out that there are many studies that show the importance of both. Growing daughters and sons both have certain needs for the feminine love and affection of a mother and the masculine love and affection of a father. And there are many studies that reveal that those youth who lack one or the other, or receive it in a distorted way, are challenged in their affective maturity. That’s not to say that God cannot bring help and healing, but it is important to acknowledge the importance of both a father’s and a mother’s love and affection.
Christian Family Life: Jesus came to Earth and entered into our human nature. He did this within the context of an earthly family. Jesus loved Saint Joseph and His Blessed Mother as a child loves, and He was loved by them as parents love. He had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.
Ultimately, He sanctified human life by the sacrifice of His death and resurrection. In sanctifying human life, He also sanctified family life. Thus, one of the effects of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was the institution of the Christian family.
The Christian family is distinguished from what we may call the “natural family” in the same way we distinguish our life of grace from our human nature. The Christian family is to be understood as a family in which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is alive and well. It means that this particular family is united not only by human natural bonds but also by the grace of God.
A Christian family is one that prays together, speaks about faith and morality, practices charity and makes God the center of all they do. The Christian family is also one that acts as a unique image of the love of the Trinity to the world. They “evangelize” by the witness of their love and unity in Christ. There are many levels of holiness each family may share in, just as there are many levels of holiness that individuals share in. Therefore, the closer each member grows toward perfection in Christ, the closer the entire family comes to reflecting the life of the Most Holy Trinity.
The Fourth Commandment and Society
The family is the most fundamental building block of all of society. This is a key point to understand! It’s key so that the family is able to fulfill its role in society, and it is also key to understand so that society and societal institutions do not infringe on the rights of any family.
As a building block of society, a society will ultimately be strong or weak, not primarily because of the political system in place; rather, a society will be a reflection of the health of the families within it. If there are many strong families, society will be strong. If there is mass disunity and brokenness within many or most families, society will also begin to crumble.
The cultural and political leaders of any day and age must respect the institution of the family and not infringe upon it. Laws and cultural influences must largely strive to support the rights and the health of each family. Parents must be allowed to be parents and live their responsibilities out faithfully. Society must only intervene when there are clear abuses within a family.
Furthermore, an ideal society will foster laws and cultural influences that offer support to families as they strive to live out their sacred calling. When laws begin to conflict with these family rights, action must be taken.
The Role of Civil Authorities
In addition to respect for the family, the legitimate civil and societal authorities must be respected as a result of this Commandment. Here are a few ways this is fulfilled within society:
Law Enforcement: Within any society there must be laws. Laws are good when they help foster the good ordering of society and are in union with, or at least not opposed to, God’s divine law. Therefore, this Commandment requires that we act in obedience to all civil laws that are legitimate.
Political and Civil Leaders: Just as within the family, obedience is not the only requirement of this Commandment. Respect and honor is also required. Therefore, this Commandment requires that we strive to show proper respect toward those within our community who have a unique role of governance. Even if we disagree with some political goal, we must respect the office of those in authority.
By extension, this Commandment calls us to honor anyone who serves the community. Those in the Military come to mind as people worthy of societal respect and honor.
Others in Authority: There are many others who hold a place of authority over us within society. For example, teachers must be obeyed and listened to as a result of this Commandment. Or, when we visit a private institution, such as a museum, we must show proper respect toward the rules of that museum and those in charge of it.
General Respect for All: Lastly, just as siblings must strive for mutual respect as a result of this Commandment, so also we must strive for respect for all people within society. We must care for the poor and needy, but we must also strive to show common courtesy toward anyone and everyone we meet.
A Summary of the Bottom Line and Upper Limit of the Fourth Commandment
The bottom line, as outlined above, is quite simple. This Commandment is broken when younger children fail to properly obey their parents. And parents break this Commandment when they abuse their rights toward their children. Adult children break this Commandment when they fail to properly care for their aging parents. And we all break this Commandment when we fail to show the proper respect for those in authority.
The upper limit of this Commandment is best achieved by striving for a deep love and respect for all people. Prayer, love, respect, honor, obedience and unity are the keys to healthy family life as well as life within the larger community. When we see others as images of God and as sacred, we will treat them with the dignity they deserve. We will do so not so much because we are trying to avoid sin; rather, we will do so because of the love God puts in our hearts for all people. We will be good and loving children, faithful parents, charitable siblings and excellent citizens. This Commandment calls us to foster true love and unity within our families first, but from there, within all of society.
As with the other Commandments, let’s look at the ways that the Fourth Commandment is broken in a mortal way. From there, we will be able to see how it is also broken in venial ways.
Grave Matter: How is the Fourth Commandment broken in a grave way? The most extreme examples are as follows: Child abuse, serious disobedience toward parents, neglect or abuse of aging parents, complete disregard for civil laws and civil authority.
Since this Commandment especially highlights the responsibility of a child toward a parent, let’s look at an example of this kind. Say, for example, a parent has clear rules for a teen that he must be in by 10 PM. The teen is in but at midnight sneaks out for a night on the town with a friend. This is a direct and serious violation of the Fourth Commandment. It’s fair to say that this violation is also grave matter.
Full Knowledge: It’s hard to conceive, in the example above, how this teen could not know that sneaking out at midnight is a violation of this Commandment. Perhaps one way this lack of full knowledge could happen is as follows. Say that this teen was never really given much of an explanation of the rules of the home and was at his friend’s house talking with his friend’s parents. The parents of his friend make a comment that there is nothing wrong with a teen going out in the middle of the night and that this teen’s parents are too strict. They say that this is just “part of being a teenager!” After thinking about it, he decides that his friend’s parents are right and that his parents are too strict. Therefore, he concludes that there is nothing wrong with just “being a teenager” and sneaking out at night.
Sneaking out is the wrong thing to do because it is a direct act of serious disobedience. But it is at least conceivable that this teen may not have fully understood that he ought not question the rules of his parents in this regard. If he rationalizes that his parents are too strict, he may lack the full knowledge due to the unhealthy influence of his friend’s parents. As always, this does not make sneaking out OK, but it may reduce the personal guilt of this teen when he commits this grave violation of the Fourth Commandment.
Complete Consent of the Will: As with the other Commandments covered so far, it’s clear that there are numerous pressures and influences on a teen. Say that a teen knows it is wrong to sneak out, but every one of his friends sneaks out on a regular basis. At school, that teen is teased continually being called a “mamma’s boy” and “wimp.” Finally, he caves in to the pressure so that others will stop teasing him. He knows it’s wrong but is deeply struggling with the pressure of others. In the end, if he sneaks out, he did act in grave violation of this Commandment. But, as always, God knows the heart, and the circumstances are such that he most likely was not 100% guilty in the eyes of God for his actions. If his guilt is diminished even slightly as a result of this extreme pressure and “bullying,” he may not be fully guilty of a mortal sin.
Venial Sin: Venial sins are committed against this Commandment all the time within the family. No family is perfect, so there will always be room for growth. Some venial sins in this area will be more serious, but many others will simply be a small lacking of the proper love, honor and respect we owe each other, especially those within our own family.
Next Chapter: Chapter 5 – Murder, Anger, and Human Dignity
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