The Fourth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Mother
In the first three commandments, we receive the gifts of God’s self-revelation to humanity. We also learn what constitutes a proper response to this self-revelation and, thereby, a proper relationship to God. As we move forward in our reflections on the commandments, we will see that the final seven are gifts that primarily reveal God’s will for us in our relationships with each other.
The fourth gift: Honor your father and mother.
The “fourth word” of the Decalogue reveals to us the proper order of charity. Charity is a theological virtue, along with faith and hope. The theological virtues are freely given gifts from God that make it possible for us to participate in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
Charity is the virtue by “which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” In other words, charity is both the new commandment and the virtue by which we keep the commandments that Christ gave us. It is the greatest of the virtues because it disposes us to participate most intimately in the life of God, who is Love itself.
Charity is a fruit of the Spirit that blossoms in us when we are in a state of communion with the Spirit. When we are joyous, loving, peaceful, patient, kind, faithful, generous, gentle and exercising self-control, we are in communion with the Spirit precisely because it is only the Spirit who can produce this fruit. These fruits are witnesses to our living in harmony with that for which we were made: eternal life in communion with God.
We are able to do this only by living in obedience to the commandments and teachings of Jesus, which makes it possible for the Spirit, to work in us. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI explains that our saying “yes” to the commandments of love are critical because it is only in service to our neighbor that our eyes can be opened to what God does for us and how much he loves us. “No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love.” (18)
The order of charity
With this understanding of charity in mind, the Fourth Commandment reveals that it is God’s will that, after him, our honor is owed to our parents. Human parenthood finds both its source and foundation in the divine parenthood of God, and, therefore, commands the respect of children. According to the Catechism, it is a respect that derives from gratitude “toward those who, by the gift of life, their love and their work, have brought children into the world and enabled them to grow in stature, wisdom and grace.”
The honor, or respect, called for by this commandment is shown by docility and obedience. Now, obedience gets a bad rap these days. However, obedience comes from the Latin obedire, which has as one of its meanings “to listen to.” And this is exactly what Jesus, the Son of God, did with regard to the Father’s will.
If we look at what Jesus taught, we learn from him that he taught only what he heard from the Father in perfect conformity to the Father’s will (for example, see Jn 8:26; 28). This was because Jesus was/is in perfect communion with the Father and Spirit: “... of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” (Phil 2:2) Jesus maintained this communion throughout his earthly ministry and would not break it for anything. And the essence or living out of this communion consisted in his obedience to the Father’s will. Because the Christian family is also a “communion of persons, a sign and image” of the Trinitarian communion, children should imitate Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly Father in their relationship with their earthly parents.
The Fourth Commandment also reminds us that our duty to our parents does not end with childhood. In adulthood, we also must offer material and moral support to our parents in their old age to the extent that we are able, in the same spirit of gratitude that informed our respect for our parents in our youth. This gift also calls us to respect all members of our immediate and extended family and those from whom we “have received the gift of faith, the grace of baptism and life in the Church.”
Finally, this fourth “word” instructs us to regard those in authority “as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gifts.” From this flows the duty for us to contribute to the good of society “in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom”; to willingly serve our country out of gratitude; and to submit to legitimate authority and service to the common good (which includes paying taxes, voting and defending our country).
Of course, the Church does not teach us blind, unquestioning obedience to our parents, relatives or civil authorities. In short, while respect for our parents continues to be commanded of us at all ages, obedience to our parents is reserved for childhood and is required when directives are for our own good or the good of the family. However, when a child is “convinced in conscience (assuming a properly formed conscience) that it would be morally wrong to obey a particular order,” he or she is not required to obey.
Likewise, the “citizen is obliged in conscience (again assuming a properly formed conscience) not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” In other words, if the choice is between serving God or serving the political community, we must obey God.
All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1822; 2196–2242)
Doug Culp is the CAO and secretary for pastoral life for the Diocese of Lexington, Ky. He holds an MA in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.