The first three commandments pertain to our relationship
with God. They oblige us to recognize God as our Lord and Master, to honor His
Name in language and song, and to pay Him public homage as a people whom He has
called to be His own.
With the Fourth Commandment, we enter on a new relationship
with God. If the first three commandments summarize what may be called
religion, the last seven synthesize morality. From the fourth through the
tenth precepts, our duties toward others are identified as the practical living
out of our duties toward God.
The text of the fourth Commandment is almost the same in
Exodus and Deuteronomy. But the latter contains the former and is more
Honor your father and your mother,
as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may
prosper in the land that Yahweh, your God, gives to you (Deuteronomy 5:16).
As given to Moses, the Fourth Commandment only directly
obliges children to honor their parents. But already in the Old Testament and
on through the New, it was understood to include respect and obedience to all
There is a unique fitness, however, in stressing the honor
that children owe their parents. If they are faithful as children in their respectful
obedience to father and mother, they will have laid the foundation for a
lifetime honor of all rightful authority.
Old Testament Teaching
The biblical precept tells children they must honor their
father and mother. The basis for this duty is the commandment of God. And the
twofold reward is a long life, blessed by God in the land promised the Chosen
People by the Lord.
To honor ones parents means to respect them, no matter what
their age or physical condition; to obey them in whatever they command in
accordance with the will of God; and to assist them, especially in sickness,
poverty, or their declining years.
Underlying this obligation is the virtue of piety, or
devotion to the authors of ones being. Thus filial piety is an earthly
expression of the heavenly duty to honor God, who is the primary Author of all
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the corresponding duty of
parents to their children is also revealed. If children are to honor their
parents, parents are to nourish and provide for their children, teach them, and
train them in the law of the Lord.
Only in this way can family life be developed. In the Old
Testament, the family is seen as a religious unit. The Passover was celebrated
each year within the family. Family solidarity was the bedrock of Israel as
Gods chosen ones. The individual depended on the family for protection and
support. The family shared in the rewards and even the guilt of each of its
New Testament Revelation
The Fourth Commandment was immensely developed by the coming
of Christ. He was conceived and born in a family, and he established the Church
as the supernatural family of the New Covenant. And He clearly separated the
Church from the State, while recognizing the rights of civil authority in
temporal matters for the members of His kingdom on earth.
The Christian Family. When
the Son of God became man, He came as a little child. After the finding in the
temple, the evangelist simply says that Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph
and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them (Luke 2:51).
In this, Christ became the model for the honor and obedience
that children owe their parents. He had a human will which He freely subjected
to the directions of His mother and foster father. Masters of the spiritual
life have written extensively on the lesson that Christ teaches all of us not
only children by His humble obedience at Nazareth. Who is it that obeys,
asks St. Bernard, and to whom is he obedient? It is God that obeys man; God, I
say, to whom the angels are subject, to whom the Principalities and Powers are
obedient. God obeyed Mary, and not only Mary, but also Joseph because of her
(Sermon on He was sent, 1).
In the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph became the pattern for
parents to follow in the exercise of authority. Pope John Paul II makes a great
deal of this:
family, which is a community of persons, special attention must be devoted to
the children by developing a profound respect for their personal dignity, and a
great respect and generous concern for their rights. This is true for every
child, but it becomes all the more urgent the smaller the child is and the more
it is in need of everything, when it is sick, suffering, or handicapped (Familiaris Consortio, 26).
There is a closer relationship than is commonly thought
between respect for the child by the parents and the childs respect for its
parents. Obedience is owed to the parents, but there is such a thing as earning
the respect of their children. The parents esteem for their childrens
personal dignity is necessary if the children are to have a corresponding
esteem for their parents.
Implied in respect and esteem is the underlying love that
children should have for their parents. Here, too, Christ is the model for
children to imitate, seen in the deep love He had for Mary and Joseph.
Spiritual Childhood. Totally
surpassing anything in the Old Testament is Christs profound teaching on
children. Children are to be loved. Taking a child, on one occasion, Jesus placed
it in the midst of His disciples. After He embraced the child, He said to them:
Whosoever shall receive one such child as this in my name, receives me, And
whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me (Mark 9:35-36).
When, on another occasion, the disciples rebuked the mothers
who brought their children to Jesus so He might touch them, He, in turn,
rebuked the disciples. When Jesus saw this, we are told, He was indignant
and said to them, Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it
is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Then he set down the
condition for salvation. I tell you solemnly, Christ declared, anyone who
does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it
Only those will be saved who, during their lives on earth,
have practiced the humility and obedience, the docility and simplicity that
human history associates with children.
Thus, the same St. Paul who told children be obedient to
your parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1), also told Christian believers to
become perfect children of God (Philippians 2:15). If children have their
duty toward parents, all followers of Christ have their duty toward God. They
are to be like children in their complete reliance on the One without whose
love and omnipotence they would not even exist.
Obedience to Church Authority. Christ
repeatedly stressed the duty of obedience to the authority of the Church He was
establishing. In His closing discourse to the disciples, He told them to teach
all nations to observe all that He had commanded. This commission summarized
the whole of the Saviors public ministry. He determined as certain that, when
He left the earth in visible form, He would leave the apostles and their
successors with the right to command others in His name.
Everything that we associate with the Fourth Commandment
about children honoring and obeying their parents, can be applied, in
principle, to the honor and obedience that the faithful owe to those who hold
legitimate authority in the Catholic Church. Yet, as in the case of parents and
children, this is a mutual responsibility of the faithful toward those in
ecclesiastical authority and of those in authority toward the faithful.
The Churchs law is unqualified about the duty of the
Christs faithful, conscious of
their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the
sacred pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and
prescribe as rulers of the Church (Canon 212).
At the same time, those holding authority to teach and
govern the faithful also have their duties. There are at least a dozen
provisions in Canon Law for bishops alone, legislating how they are to provide
for the doctrinal, moral, and liturgical needs of the people under their care.
This means that, Christs faithful have the right to be assisted by their
pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments (Canon
Obedience to Civil Authority. From
birth to His death, Christ practiced obedience to those in civil authority. His
birth at Bethlehem was occasioned by a decree of the emperor, ordering a census
of all the people in the Roman Empire. Christs death in Jerusalem was ordered
by the Roman procurator, who unjustly condemned Jesus to be crucified.
On one historic occasion, He carefully distinguished between
the rights of the State and the rights of God. The chief priests and scribes
sent agents to Jesus to find some grounds to hand Him over to the jurisdiction
of the governor. They hoped to trap Him into denying the authority of the
They put to Him this question,
Master, we know that you say and teach what is right; you favor no one, but
teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissible for us to pay taxes to
Caesar or not? but He was aware of their cunning and said, Show me a
denarius. Whose head and name are on it? Caesars, they said. Well then,
He said to them, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what
belongs to God (Luke 20:21-25).
Christs reply has become the foundation of the Catholic
Churchs teaching on State authority. The State has authority from God to
govern its citizens in what concerns the temporal affairs of this life.
Citizens, therefore, have the duty to obey civil authority. But their obedience
is conditional. The rights of God are not only primary: They are normative.
Laws of the State and decrees of civil authority are binding in conscience only
where and in so far as they conform to the laws of God.
God wants you to be good citizens, St. Peter told the
early Christians (I Peter 2:15). And St. Paul declared, You must all obey the
governing authorities (Romans 13:1). Yet Peter and Paul finally laid down
their lives for Christ because their teaching was in conflict with the paganism
of the State.
Civil authority is to be obeyed. But one of the gravest
trials of Christs followers in the modern world is the widespread denial of
their religious rights by the secular State. There are forms of government,
the Second Vatican Council declared, under which the public authorities strive
to deter the citizens from professing their religion and make life particularly
difficult and dangerous for religious bodies (Declaration
on Religious Liberty, 15).
The norm to be followed has not changed over the centuries.
What Peter and the apostles told the Sanhedrin is just as true today:
Obedience to God comes before obedience to men (Acts 5:29). The price for
this statement has been martyrdom.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism