by Fr. Donald F. Miller, C.SS.R.
The fourth commandment involves both the duties of children to their parents and those of parents to their children. Principally considered here are the duties of children to their parents.
It is not uncommon to hear it said in these times that the fourth commandment of God has fallen upon evil days.The fault is probably equally shared by both children and parents: children, because they permit the free-and-easy spirit of the times to make them think lightly of the obligation of obedience; and parents, because they so often fail their children through selfishness, indifference and failure to direct and discipline them from their earliest years.
This will not be an unwieldy attempt to study all the angles from which the neglect of the fourth commandment can be viewed. It will confine itself to one side of the problem alone, namely, what are the obligations of children toward their parents according to the fourth commandment?
It will consider this question under two heads:
1) The obligations of all children toward their parents in general;
2) the solution to specific problems that arise for children because of the wrong actions of their parents.
- GENERAL OBLIGATIONS
The obligations of children toward their parents arise from two facts that may be seen as an expression of God’s will and the foundation of a natural or divine law.
The first is the fact that, in the very nature of things as God established them, He delegates His authority over children to the parents who bring them into the world.
The second is the fact that children are dependent on their parents, after God, for their very life, and for the physical, spiritual, intellectual and moral development that will form them into mature human beings.
The fourth commandment of God, therefore, merely accepts these two facts and expresses them in the precept: Honor thy father and thy mother.
In other words, this commandment says to every child: Your father and mother are, after God, responsible for your coming into the world. They are responsible, after God, for your proper upbringing, and in carrying out that responsibility they are the delegates or representatives of God.
You, in turn, needed them to be born; you need them to grow into a mature human being; long after you actually need them no more you will owe them your gratitude for what they did for you. Therefore it is God’s will that you honor them always.
The word “honor” in this commandment breaks down into three separate obligations. These obligations are founded upon and similar to the obligations that every human being owes to God Himself, because of the fact that parents are the delegates of God. Consider these three obligations…
What is this love that children are bound to give their parents? Its basis is gratitude; its internal spirit is a desire to make their parents happy and to save them from pain: its external manifestations are words and actions that assure parents that they have the love of their children.
This obligation of children toward their parents never comes to an end, not when the parents are old and no longer needed by the children, nor even when the parents have, by their sinful lives, made themselves in a sense repulsive to their children.
That is because the gift of life is the greatest thing that one person can give to another, and children must be grateful to parents for that gift even when the latter have hurt or repelled them in any of a multitude of ways.
What is to be done about feelings of hatred that arise in the hearts of some children toward their parents, because of their neglect and sins, will be dealt with later on in this article.
In normal circumstances, seeking the happiness of one’s parents, which is the essence of love, embraces two things.
It means wanting to do anything necessary or possible to help them save their souls. All children, no matter what their circumstances or external relations to their parents, can pray for their parents, and this they must do.
Children who come of age only to realize that their parents have faults, or that they are living in sin or outside the true faith or the grace of God, must pray in a special way for them, and back up their prayers by any practical measures that may help to bring them to the grace of God.
Obviously, children are bound to pray for the souls of their parents after their death. But loving one’s parents also means wanting to bring joy to them even in a temporal way.
Thus a child who really loves his parents will show an eagerness to relieve them of some of the burdens of their daily life; to help with household tasks; to give little presents and remembrances on birthdays and anniversaries; to provide opportunities of relaxation and enjoyment for them. At the same time, loving one’s parents means avoiding actions, words, omissions, that would cause them sorrow or pain.
Just as every human creature is bound to cultivate and show reverence for God, so children are bound to respect their parents as taking the place of God. This means that children are always bound to see in their parents the authority that they possess, whether that authority be rightly or wrongly used, whether the parent seems at a given time worthy of the authority or not.
Fairly common offenses on the part of children against the reverence that is due to parents are the following: talking back to them in a bitter and angry mood; calling them scurrilous or undignified names, making fun of their faults; worst of all, striking at them even though it be only by way of a gesture of defiance.
It need scarcely be added that for a son or daughter deliberately to curse their parents would be a terrible sin against the reverence and love due to them.
Reverence for parents also requires that children resist every temptation to speak about them in an unkind and derogatory way to others.
A child’s parents may have had very little opportunity to acquire an education, and as a result may be ungrammatical in speech and lacking in some of the refinements of etiquette. Yet these parents may have sacrificed much to give their child the best possible education. It is a terrible thing to hear such a child ridiculing his parents or complaining to others over their lack of social graces.
Even when parents are guilty of great sins, their children should steel themselves to refrain from speaking about their sins, except with spiritual advisers and very close friends whose help and counsel they are seeking.
Like the obligation of love, this reverence for one’s parents should extend even unto their old age, when perhaps they have grown somewhat childish and irresponsible through the weight of years.
It may become necessary for a grown son or daughter who is taking care of aged parents to be firm and authoritative in dealing with them for their own good; but underneath their words and actions there must always be the obvious sense of reverence that a child owes to those who have brought him into the world.
While love and reverence toward parents are duties that bind children throughout life, obedience varies in its binding force according to the age and circumstances of the children.The general principle may be laid down that so long as children remain in the home belonging to their parents and under their supervision, they are bound to obey them.Surely until they reach their majority, accepted as twenty-one years of age, in moral matters children are bound to obey all their parents’ commands, so long as there is nothing of evil in anything they command.
In this regard a child must be early and deeply convinced that its parents represent the authority of God, and that disobedience to them can
be a venial sin or a mortal sin according to the gravity of the matter commanded and the extent of the sorrow brought to the parents by disobedience.
It is no good argument against the binding force of obedience for a child to say that other parents permit things that their own parents have forbidden. It is to his own parents that every child owes obedience, not to what an indefinite group of other parents decide for their children.
When children reach their middle and late teens, it is true that now and then the question may legitimately be raised as to whether a certain command of their parents is a reasonable or unreasonable demand. In all such questions two principles should guide the young people concerned in seeking a solution.
The first is that the presumption is in favor of the authority of the parents as long as no sin is involved. In every human relationship in which one human being is subject to the just authority of another, the subject will at times feel that the commands of the superior are unreasonable. This fact would lead to the breakdown of all authority if it were not accepted as a presumption that lawful authority must ordinarily be obeyed even when it seems to the subject to be ordering something unreasonable.
The second principle acts as a buffer for the first. It is this: that even when a teenager is convinced that a command of his parents is unreasonable, he should not act on his own conviction without having recourse to some other
objective and authoritative guide. This can always be his confessor or pastor, whose decision in the matter should be followed.
How far is obedience to parents binding on sons and daughters who have passed twenty-one years of age, but still live in their parents’ home? Such children are no longer bound to obey their parents in every minute matter that pertains to even their private lives, as young and undeveloped children are bound.
It is assumed that by the time children reach the age of twenty-one, their parents’ obligation to educate and train them has been completed, and they are mature enough to make many personal decisions on their own. But they are still bound, while living in their parents’ home, to obey the latter in all things that pertain to the discipline and external management of the home.
It may be added that, if they have an income of their own, they are bound also to contribute proportionately to the upkeep of the home. It must be remembered, however, that when a son or daughter marries, they have a greater obligation of obedience and subjection to their partner in marriage than to either or both of their parents.
This holds whether the young married couple lives in the home of the parents of one of them, or whether they have brought one of their parents into their own newly established home.
They are always bound to love and respect their parents; but they will ruin or at least diminish the happiness of their marriage if either one of them is more subservient to the will and the demands of a parent than to those of their spouse.
God Himself commanded that when two people marry “They shall leave father and mother and cleave to each other.” This is also the reason behind the advice given to newly married couples that they live apart from their in-laws if that be at all possible.
When true charity makes it impossible, husband and wife must both remember that their first duty is to each other, not to the will of the parents of either one.
Martyrdom by the little fires of hidden fidelities constantly adhered to, of tormenting temptations courageously and perseveringly repulsed, of the exact and loving fulfillment of duties toward God and neighbor, of prayer faithfully practiced despite disgust, aridity and the pressure of work–is it not a martyrdom? Who can estimate the value of its countless offerings which are not publicized but which cost . . . and which count! -Christ in the Home
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