In the Jewish faith, it is the Fifth Commandment, for us Catholics it is the fourth, Honor thy Father and Mother. The first three commandments deal with our relationship with God, this next one, honor your parents, highlights the most important earthly relationship we have. This suggests there is a special connection between our parents and God. As we honor the God who gave all life, we honor the parents who gave us life. By honoring our parents, we learn to honor God. By honoring God, we become decent human beings, ones willing to share of ourselves with others. This ‘honoring’ can also be translated as ‘respect.’ We live in a society in which the term ‘respect’ has come to mean that everyone has to respect us, that I deserve more respect than other people…that what I need and want… matters more. In our selfishness, as we view the world revolving around us, this ability to respect someone else feeds a virtue which ends with a fundamental respect for all life. So in this “linking” commandment, we have the ability to see, understand, and participate with the eyes of God. Rather than seeing it as a tedious rule, honoring our mother and father is an expression of caring for another more than ourselves. And who better to share that honor with than the one who gave us life.
The additional virtue which is expressed in this commandment is the gift of obedience. I mention it as a gift because obedience, an essential virtue in community life, becomes essential in family life as well. Many question the passage of St. Paul when he opines that wives should be obedient to their husbands. In Pope Pius XI’s own words: “It refuses... to allow the heart to be separated from the head.” Husbands are called the head of the family. And wives are called the heart of the family. And the head and the heart must work together. There has to be some harmony between the two. “As the husband holds the primacy of authority, so the wife can and ought to claim the primacy of love.” Again, the head and the heart must be in harmony for the sake of keeping the body united. They must be in harmony for the sake of keeping the family united! The role of husband and wife is not about competing with one another — competing in the authoritative level! But it is about complementing one another! Again, one as the head and the other as the heart! And both possess the dignity of being human persons and being children of God. Further in that passage St. Paul says, “Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother. This is the first commandment with a promise, that it may go well with you and that you may have a long life on earth.” So children, this is your duty: honor your parents! And this is the only commandment with a promise. And what is the promise? The promise is that if you honor and obey your parents, God promises you that everything will go well with you and that you may have a long life on earth. Like his advice to husbands, St. Paul says, “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord.” So fathers, you are to discipline your children at times. But God does not want you to get your children to be angry. He doesn’t want you to cause them anger. Anger comes from being unaware as to the ‘why” something is being done. The gift of obedience is doing without completely understanding the ‘why’ but accepting that it is being asked by a loving person, a person whom we completely trust has our best interest.
It is sadly true that many parents because of their brokenness have misused the obedience demanded by this commandment, but it doesn’t negate the commanding. Many of our own experiences, when we have trusted and then been betrayed, have led us off the path of respect or obedience to our parents. Not following this commandment reveals many hurts. We, in the seminary, took a vow of obedience to our archbishop, not the person but the position. It is not asked to make automatons who will blindly follow a person, especially as flawed as all we humans are, but rather to offer respect to accept that whatever is asked has the mark of the Holy Spirit in it and therefore can be accepted without knowing all the reasons. This commandment offers these two virtues which are hard to acquire any other way. We are sometimes asked to trust another person, and trusting another person is integral to close relationships. If, because of our hurtful experiences, we are unable to trust another human being, then how can we trust God, who does not give us all the answers, certainly in this world. The second virtue this commandment fosters is selflessness. In honoring our parents, we are learning a model of self-giving, essential to the second great commandment, to love one another. If we cannot show love and honor to those closest to us, once again, flawed as they may be, we cannot extend that love to anyone else. This acceptance of respect is at the heart of our relationships with anyone. That’s why it is placed as it is, as a bridge between God and the world. Honoring our parents establishes the family as the most important and fundamental domestic church. Finally as best expressed in the Catechism, “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. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it. This commandment includes and presupposes the duties of parents, instructors, teachers, leaders, magistrates, those who govern, all who exercise authority over others or over a community of persons (CCC#2199).”