Having considered man’s obligations to God on the first table of the Decalogue, we now move to the second for our responsibilities toward our neighbor. We begin with the duty to honor one’s parents, which the Catechism observes indicates “the order of charity,” that is, one starts to love the neighbor closest to home and then in ever-widening circles from there, including not only one’s parents but also all legitimately “vested with authority” (2249): rendering “honor, affection and recognition” to one’s elders and ancestors, teachers and government officials (2199).
Thus, this Fourth Commandment contains within itself all the following commandments regarding respect for the life and property of others and so serves as “one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church” (2198). It is significant that this is the only commandment that also holds out a promise for its observance: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may have a long life on the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex 5:16); conversely, disregard for this law of God brings in its wake grave disasters for entire communities and for individual persons.
Family “is the original cell of social life”
The Catechism defines a family in this way: “A man and a woman united in marriage form, with their children, a family” (2202); this is obviously quite different from various descriptions we find in the civil realm today. Because of the family’s origin in God (and not in any kind of human construct), it has rights which precede any and “all recognition by public authority”; put bluntly, the family imposes on the State, and not the other way around (2202). Within the family, we encounter a gathering of “persons equal in dignity,” with “a diversity of responsibilities, rights and obligations” (2203). With Vatican II, the Catechism prefers to reflect theologically on the family as “a domestic Church” – “a community of faith, hope and charity” of “singular importance,” an “image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” Herein one also finds the family’s procreative and educative functions, mirroring “the creative work of the Father.” Likewise, it is “called to participate in the prayer and sacrifice of Christ” and must exhibit an “evangelizing and missionary” dimension as well (2204-5).
Sociologically speaking, “the family is the original cell of social life” since it is there that “one can learn moral values, begin to honor God and use liberty well. Family life is an initiation into social life.” This is also the place where people should learn concern and responsibility for “the elderly, the sick or handicapped and the poor.” When families need help themselves, they should be able to count on it from various organs of society, but the Catechism cautions against any violation of “the principle of subsidiarity,” whereby “larger communities will guard against usurping the powers of the family and interfering in its life” (2207-9).
Relying on John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, deemed by many to be a genuine Magna Carta of family rights, the Catechism delineates those rights, which include the right to: “establish a home and bring up children in accord with one’s own moral and religious convictions”; “profess and transmit one’s faith”; “form associations with others families and thus be represented before civil authorities.” Also highlighted are rights to civil protection of marital and family stability, medical treatment, security from the dangers of drugs, pornography and alcohol (2211).
And so, one can see how this commandment “clarifies other relations in society,” both ecclesiastical and civil. It makes a special point of stressing the familial nature of life in the Church since all the baptized are “children of our mother, the Church” (2212).
Filial piety and responsibility
With St. Paul, the text teaches that “divine paternity is the source of human paternity.” With this connection in mind, it is easier to understand why filial piety is so highly esteemed a virtue. We read that “as long as a child lives in the home of his parents, the child must obey every directive of his parents motivated by his good or that of the family”; similarly, that kind of obedience is to be transferred to one’s teachers who stand in loco parentis. Needless to say, one must never obey what is clearly an immoral or unjust order. As children grow up, their relationship to their parents changes, so that the requirement to obey ceases upon their emancipation, but that of respect never does. Furthermore, as the parents age, filial responsibility may well call for increased activity on behalf of the parents. Concern for family harmony also dictates that relations among brothers and sisters be governed by charity. A particular plea is made for extending gratitude toward those who introduced one to life in the Church and have nurtured it: parents, other family members, priests, teachers, friends (2214-2220).
In a spirit of reciprocity, the Catechism turns its attention to parental obligations, starting with the wholesome counsel that “the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not reduced only to the procreation of children but must also be extended to their moral education and spiritual formation,” going on to hold that the “role of parents [in this task] is almost impossible to replace.” Children are not chattel; “parents must regard [them] as children of God and respect them as human persons.” Parents are required to make a home for their children and educate them in virtuous living; they must also see themselves as the first evangelizers of them, initiating them into life in the Church “at an early age,” teaching them to pray, offering them the “witness of a Christian life,” and providing them with a basic catechesis which should “precede, accompany and enrich all other forms of teaching of the Faith.”
Continuing to view family life in terms of mutuality, the text observes that children can “in their turn contribute to the growth of their parents in holiness.” Parents are reminded of their responsibility to choose schools for their children which inculcate and foster Christian values; at the same time, the State is exhorted to provide the appropriate means for parents of all economic backgrounds to be able to exercise their God-given right to freedom of choice in education. A final note concerns the obligation of parents to grasp that, although family ties are important, “they are not absolute.” Hence, parents must realize that their task requires them to teach their young, first of all, “to follow Jesus.” Certainly taking the measure of parental resistance to priestly and religious vocations so often exhibited today, the Catechism enjoins parents to accept and respect such calls and decisions “with joy and thanksgiving” (2221-2233).
Civil authority and citizenship
A final section deals with civil authority, “which can never command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons or the natural law.” When authority is just and functions properly, Christians should see in such superiors “the representatives of God”; a good and holy patriotism enables citizens to recognize their civic duties by loving and serving their country. That concern for the common good will be evidenced in the willingness to pay taxes, to vote, and to defend one’s country. A particular appeal is made for better-off nations to be charitable and open to immigrants who come seeking a better way of life or even asylum; for their part, immigrants must respect the “material and spiritual patrimony” of their host country, obey its laws, and contribute to its well-being.
When human laws impinge on divine laws, believers must disobey, following the Lord’s counsel to render to God before Caesar and the insight of the apostolic Church that “it is necessary to obey God rather than men.” When public authority becomes tyrannical, Christians may rightly rebel, but resort to armed conflict is to be avoided strenuously and its moral exercise is hemmed in by a multitude of restrictions. Finally, we are led to appreciate the role of the Church vis-a-vis the political community: Her role is supra-national and supra-political, that she may always be “the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.” This does not mean that the Church has no political function; on the contrary, she is to be the bearer of a moral judgment, especially “when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls is involved” (2234-2246).
And thus, we can comprehend how respect for parents and love for the family does indeed affect every segment of society, bringing the blessing promised by Almighty God to the Hebrews of old.
Love, respect, obedience
Having acknowledged the love we all owe our parents, we must also state clearly that the onus for observing the Fourth Commandment rests on parents, who must earn the love, respect and obedience of their children. If parents do not set the tone, their children will never respond correctly.
Ask yourself this question: Why were programs like “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” so popular? They depict family life in a most atypical manner, yet their ratings soared. I believe this is the case because modern Americans realize that family life is in great difficulty and they look to programs like these with a feeling of nostalgia for the “good old days” when things were different.
If you study these families, you will notice that they are homes in which parents are honored and their authority is respected. Furthermore, these homes are united in peace and love because of a common agreement on obedience to the Law of God. Indeed, it might be well to ask ourselves if our homes have these characteristics. For the next few minutes, I would like to reflect on this from my perspective as a teacher, more than in my role as a priest.
For years now, we have heard adults say, “Kids aren’t the way they used to be.” And I agree. But I disagree as to why that is the case. Usually, people go on to say that today’s young people are rebellious and obnoxious. And my response is: “When weren’t they?” No, the difference is otherwise, and it lies in their parents.
Having taught for decades, I can say with a great deal of assuredness that most parents today suffer from a terminal illness, and it’s called “acute gutlessness.” They have lost their sense of direction and conviction themselves and, therefore, they are unable to lead their children in positive and constructive ways. That is why children of seven can run a home – parents no longer believe they have any relevant insights to pass on to their children. And so, the children fill the gap by providing leadership for themselves and, ironically enough, for their parents.
Problems with alcohol and drugs and sex are rarely discussed because it may call for a stand. And when they are discussed, the course of least resistance is taken. I recall a girl from my first year of teaching who came to me in tears, saying, “My mother doesn’t trust me. Since the age of twelve, she’s made me take The Pill. ‘You’re going to have sex, but at least don’t get pregnant.’” And that kind of situation is not all that rare.
Discipline, authority, and authentic love
The same kind of problem surfaces with regard to religious observance. How many parents allow their teenagers to absent themselves regularly from Sunday Mass, all on the pretext that they don’t want to harass them and “turn them off completely”? How do teenagers interpret that kind of action? They believe that their parents don’t care enough to put up a fight, and their statements about parental hypocrisy are just given additional credibility. The same is true of allowing children to decide on what school they will attend. How often I have heard parents say, “Johnny wants to go to public school because all his friends are there, and they have a better football team.” Since when does a fourteen-year-old have the knowledge and the right to decide on where he should go to school? Has he ever been told that the Church wants him in a Catholic school, and that it’s a parent’s obligation to have him there? Probably not.
What I’ve been saying may sound very harsh, but it comes from personal experience in dealing with kids who are fed up with their parents, not because their parents are too strict but because their parents are too easy. Young people appreciate regulations, believe it or not! And the reason is because rules let them know where they stand, how far they can go. Clear guidelines, like all good discipline, is a sign of love. Discipline says, “You are important to me. Your growth and development concern me. You are great, and I know you can live up to these challenges and so you will be even greater.” Whenever I gave a student a detention in school, I always reminded him that I was doing so because I loved him. This did prompt one wise guy to say, “Love me less.” But he got the point.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a return to the naïve and unreal world of the Waltons, but I am suggesting that to be a Christian family requires strong parental leadership and, most importantly, parental example. Being a parent isn’t easy; but who ever said it would be? Put in the simplest terms possible, a good family, a happy family, a holy family needs good, happy and holy parents.1
2234 God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God. It clarifies the duties of those who exercise authority as well as those who benefit from it.
2235 Those who exercise authority should do so as a service. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” The exercise of authority is measured morally in terms of its divine origin, its reasonable nature and its specific object. No one can command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons and the natural law.
2236 The exercise of authority is meant to give outward expression to a just hierarchy of values in order to facilitate the exercise of freedom and responsibility by all. Those in authority should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each, with a view to harmony and peace. They should take care that the regulations and measures they adopt are not a source of temptation by setting personal interest against that of the community.
2237 Political authorities are obliged to respect the fundamental rights of the human person. They will dispense justice humanely by respecting the rights of everyone, especially of families and the disadvantaged.
The political rights attached to citizenship can and should be granted according to the requirements of the common good. They cannot be suspended by public authorities without legitimate and proportionate reasons. Political rights are meant to be exercised for the common good of the nation and the human community.
2238 Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who has made them stewards of his gifts: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.” Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.
2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.
2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country:
Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners…. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws…. So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.
The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and all who exercise authority, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.”
2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
2242 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 teachings 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.” “We must obey God rather than men.”
When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.
2243 Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.
2244 Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. the Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man:
Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows.
2245 The Church, because of her commission and competence, is not to be confused in any way with the political community. She is both the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. “The Church respects and encourages the political freedom and responsibility of the citizen.”
2246 It is a part of the Church’s mission “to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. the means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of times and circumstances.”
1Whenever I conduct a Catholic identity assessment for a school, one of my final recommendations is always to provide “parenting” courses. Why? Because this generation of parents, for the most part, are rather clueless in this regard, largely because they were not properly or effectively parented themselves.
Related at CWR:
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 1)” (Feb 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 2)” (Mar 2, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!