By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
"Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long
life in the land which the Lord your God is giving you."
-Exodus 20: 12
The fourth commandment is primarily addressed to children in their relationship to their parents because this relationship is the most fundamental and universal. It is to our parents that we owe our life and, if the circumstances allow, they are the ones who first hand on to us our knowledge of God. Filial respect and gratitude are the virtues called for. This is the ideal picture of family life.
However, what if one or even both parents are psychologically incapable of fully fulfilling their parental roles as is sometimes the case in modern society?
No parent is perfect. I recall seeing the movie, "David and Lisa," when I was in my mid-twenties and dealing with some of the fallout from my relationship with my father. The film is about two troubled teenagers who come from unhealthy home environments. One line came right off the screen and gave me a new sense of tolerance for human weakness: "parents have a right to be fallible." Whereas my mother and I had a very close relationship when I was growing up, my father and I had a ‘rocky' one. My father seemed at times to have two personalities, one friendly and fun to be with, the other sarcastic and demeaning; he could ‘slip' into either without warning. It took me a long time and some counseling before I was able to live this commandment in relation to him. I believe the first time I was able to ‘honor' him was in my late-twenties when I confronted him about his unhealthy behavior towards me. That was the turning point in our ability to mutually respect one another.
The fourth commandment also reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as possible, they must give them material and moral support in their senior years and in times of illness, loneliness or other kinds of distress (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2218). Jesus confronted the Pharisees on this very subject as he stressed the primacy of love over the law in caring for their aged parents (Mark 7:10-12). This teaching holds special challenges, as well as benefits, in North America and Europe where more and more parents and grandparents are living well into their eighties and nineties.
This commandment refers too to the ties of kinship between members of one's extended family. It even extends to the duties of students to their teachers, employees to their employers, and citizens to their country and to those who govern it – within reasonable demands of each. And, it is reciprocal. "Human communities are made up of persons…Right relations between employers and employees, between those who govern and citizens, presuppose a natural good will in keeping with the dignity of human persons concerned for justice and fraternity" (Catechism, #2213). To the citizen is required a concern for the common good, which includes paying taxes, voting, and defending one's country; to those exercising authority – dedicated service and respect for the fundamental rights of their constituencies.
(January 2010 Newsletter)