Catechesis on the Fourth Commandment

19 Nov

This week we transition from the first three commandments, which set forth our responsibilities to God, to the last seven commandments, which specify how we are to love our neighbor. The first of these commandments is:

Honor your father and your mother.

It’s no accident that our duty to honor our parents comes next. In the first instance, we must honor those to whom we owe our very lives. St. Paul goes so far as to say that human parents are a reflection of God’s fatherhood: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15; cf. Catechism, no. 2197).

The Fourth Commandment is the only commandment dealing with love of neighbor that is not expressed in terms of “Thou shall not.” Rather, the commandment points how we should act to foster life-giving relationships in the home, which has been called a “domestic Church” or “Church in miniature” (cf. Catechism, nos. 2204-06).

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully summarizes the duties of children toward their parents:

“Children owe respect (filial piety), gratitude, docility, and obedience to their parents. In paying them respect and in fostering good relationships with their brothers and sisters, children contribute to the growth in harmony and holiness in family life in general. Adult children should give their parents material and moral support whenever they find themselves in situations of distress, sickness, loneliness, or old age” (no. 459).

Meanwhile, there is a beautiful section of the Catechism (nos. 2221-33) that describes the duties of parents toward their children. I think every Catholic parent would find guidance and even food for meditation in that section. I would only highlight here the parents’ role as the “first heralds” of the Gospel to their children as well as their ongoing responsibility to form their children in the faith and Christian virtue.

When children become adults, parents should welcome and joyfully respect the Lord’s call to one (or more!) of their children to the priesthood and religious life. Sure, parents should also rejoice should their children be called to Christian marriage or the single life, but in today’s social climate calls to the priesthood or religious life are too often opposed or even thwarted by Catholics parents who don’t fully appreciate the beauty and goodness of such vocations.

The Fourth Commandment does not only apply to family relationships.  It calls upon us to honor and respect all who hold positions of lawful authority.  Examples would include our bishop and pastor as our spiritual fathers, as well as our secular leaders. Only God’s authority is absolute, but we are to respect all those with authority in our lives, and obey legitimate exercises of such authority.

Authority should always be exercised as a service, putting the community ahead of one’s own interests.  It should respect:

Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God.  All citizens should collaborate with public authorities for the sake of the common good (see Catechism, nos. 1905-12).  This moral obligation on the part of all citizens includes these duties, among others:

  • Pay taxes
  • Exercise the right to vote
  • Defend one’s country
  • Voice just criticisms in defense of others or the community

While citizens are generally called to submit to lawful authority, a citizen is obliged in conscience not to obey the laws of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral code.  “We must obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

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