The 10 Commandments – The 4th: “Honor Your Father and Mother”

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.


As we have seen, the first three commandments govern our relations with God. Our Catechism observes the fourth commandment “opens the second tablet of the Decalogue.” (#2197) When God gave the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, He said, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Ex. 20:12) This is a logical progression, and the fourth commandment does indeed oblige us to respect and obey our parents, or those who take the place of parents in our lives.


However, the scope of this commandment extends far beyond the bounds of our human families; it lays the foundations not only for the commandments that follow, but for all the exchanges and contacts that characterize human society and the Church. We shall consider these (sometimes obscure) reflections of the family as this meditation unfolds, but we must first explore the immense gift God has given us in the family, and the corresponding responsibilities that accompany this treasure.

God asks parents to care for their children, so parents represent God in their children’s lives. This is a vocation to love, so the examples we see of parents’ abusing their children are tragic for many reasons. Our human sensibilities are properly outraged when individuals take unfair advantage over the defenseless and young persons entrusted to their care. But our religious scruples should be offended as well, for such behavior is a deliberate refusal to demonstrate and model God’s parental and guiding love.


The fourth commandment is a positive commandment, directing us to do something good rather than avoid something evil. To honor parents is an essential element of family life, and the family – whether it is composed of those related by blood, or a voluntary organization of individuals who elect to share their lives for the common good – is the social unit which establishes the fundamental basis of all the Church’s social teaching. Our Catechism teaches

The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family…Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administers or govern it.

This commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents [and]…those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons. (CCC #2199)


The fourth commandment sounds very simple, but fulfilling it affects every aspect of our social lives and dealings with one another. However, each of these relations begins with the family, which sets the pattern for our life in the world and our life in the Church. We see this very clearly in the New Testament, where St. Paul compares a husband’s responsibilities to those of Christ’s, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her….” (Eph. 5:25), and where he urges, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Col. 3:21)


Because the family presents so vivid a picture of what the ideal society ought to resemble, “…it can and should be called a domestic church…a community of faith, hope and charity….a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (CCC #2204, 2205) The vocation of marriage calls women and men to give themselves to one another in love, and to share that love with their children. The security and stability of such love enables children to grow without fear and experience the freedom and harmony that characterize life in God’s Kingdom. The family, thus, becomes the classroom in which we come to know and love God, and to embrace the moral values that are necessary for productive social life and essential for our Christian life.


We find these ideas echoed in Evangelii Gaudium, the Apostolic Exhortation our Holy Father Pope Francis, issued on November 26, 2013. He observed,

…the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children, Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction, that can be constructed in any way or modified at will, But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.” (#66)


In his first letter St. John writes, “We love, because he first loved us…And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 Jn 4:19-21) God’s love enables us to love God in return, and then to love God’s creation. Our Catechism applies this principle to the family and states, “The Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task.” (CCC #2205)

This is because no gift is ever given simply to enrich the one who receives it; gifts are given to enrich the entire community. Families enjoy the company of their members, but the greater the wealth these members bring to the family, the greater the responsibility the family has to share those blessings. “The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.” (CCC #2208) Justice demands no less.


And while social institutions must take care not to impinge on the rights of families, they must also be alert to guarantee the necessary elements and services families may not be able to provide for themselves. The Catechism turns to a document of the Second Vatican Council, which expresses this quite succinctly,

Civil authority should consider it a grave duty “to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality, and to promote domestic prosperity.” (CCC #2210, Gaudium et Spes 52.2)


When families function properly, children grow to see elements of their own families in the world. In their peers they see reflection of their brothers and sisters, and in each person they see an individual who is a child of the God who has revealed Himself as Our Father. Thus, the “neighbors” we pray for are not faceless, anonymous “others,” but become individuals with hopes, dreams and needs – deserving respect, compassion and care. The duties of children toward their parents finds a parallel in the duties of parents toward their children, and the Catechism points out, “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.” Such education must involve more than the rudiments of reading and writing; “… [It] must extend to their moral education and their spiritual formation…” (CCC #2221)

Parents…bear responsibility to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. (CCC #2223)

We take into the world the values and lessons we cultivate at home, so we should not be surprised to learn “God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God.” (CCC #2234) It likewise reminds those who govern that their exercise of authority is a service. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Mt. 20:26) and this should remind those who hold power that all power has its origin in God, and must be directed toward the common good.


Needless to say, this presents a picture of an ideal society, in which citizens and their leaders share moral values that enable them to agree on common goals and cooperate on the means to achieve them. What are Christian citizens to do in those unhappy times when they find themselves at odds with their leaders? Our Catechism is unambiguous in its reply

The citizen is obliged in 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 teaching of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s….” (CCC #2242)


October 11, 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and bishops of the world gathered in a Synod, or General Assembly, to consider the challenges the Church faces in the 21st Century as it seeks the most effective ways to proclaim the Gospel. They studied a document titled, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.

The text remarked parish communities are among the logical places to begin and sustain these evangelization efforts. By encouraging the vocation of the laity, the Second Vatican Council engaged an immense and (until then) largely-untapped resource. The New Evangelization is an example of charity beginning at home, and parishes are an essential element in its success, as they offer the resources to reach out to and welcome back individuals who have drifted away from the faith, as well as the resources to awaken the faith in those who have not yet heard the Good News. (#85)

One section of the text, “Transmitting the Faith,” remarked our Catholic faith is under siege from a number of external cultural forces, with the sad result that we often end by living our faith in an isolated manner. The remedy is both private and communal – a renewal of common prayer in parish Eucharistic communities, and embracing private prayer and study.

The new Catechism is an ideal text for beginning these activities, and individuals equipped to lead them are an essential element in the Church’s grass-roots evangelization effort. But even before individuals enroll in parish study programs, the family is the model for the nurturing and teaching Church. And the document clearly states that because families undertake so much on the Church’s behalf, the Church – particularly its local, parish incarnation – must be “…accepted and listened to…The commonly shared goal is to give the family an increasingly active role in the transmission of the faith.” (#111)

The world’s bishops, led by our Holy Father, are calling us to discover within ourselves and our parishes the seeds that can be cultivated into flourishing missionary activity. The family sets the pattern for this activity, and the fourth commandment provides the necessary insight that will enable us to share our gifts, and encourage others to share theirs.


And in all these undertakings we find Mary, whom Pope Francis calls “the Mother of the living Gospel,” to provide an example, of encouragement and hope.

Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith towards a destiny of service and fruitfulness. Today we look to her and ask her to help us proclaim the message of salvation to all and to enable new disciples to become evangelizers in turn…

There is a Marian “style” to the Church’s work of evangelization. Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness, In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves… We implore her maternal intercession that the Church may become a home for many peoples, a mother for all peoples, and that the way may be opened for the birth of a new world.

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