Let’s face it, not all parents are perfect and some fall very short of that mark. In our dysfunctional world, many people today have come from homes of abuse and extreme neglect. In striving to be good Christians, many struggle with this commandment.
So, let’s take a closer look. Can we honor parents who constantly hurt or abuse us? The answer is yes- but with qualifications. Since we are called to love our neighbor “as ourselves” it is clear that God expects us to love ourselves. In fact, the catechism teaches that if faced with an assailant who is trying to kill us, we are required to do whatever we need to do to thwart the attack. We have a moral obligation to preserve our own lives, even if it means killing the assailant. Now that’s pretty powerful! With that understanding of our obligation to preserve and protect ourselves, let’s see how we can honor our father and mother in difficult circumstances.
To honor someone is to treat them with respect and dignity. As young children we’re also called to obedience. That changes as we mature and become adults. For adults struggling with this commandment, first let’s consider the circumstances. Are there objective issues in the family that may indicate a need for distance or even separation from a parent? Past or current sexual abuse would be one situation that would necessitate some space or even complete separation. Active addictions on the part of parents may be another one. We have an obligation to protect ourselves, and our children, from any kind of abuse from anyone. Period. That’s non-negotiable.
But what about parents who are not abusers in that sense, but that may drive you crazy at times? Is it okay to distance from them? Well, that depends on what you mean by distance. There’s a difference between healthy boundaries and general avoidance and neglect. In dysfunctional families it’s hard to know what that difference is. So, here are a few general principles to follow:
First, what is your current state in life? If you’re married, your first obligation is to your spouse. If you are a parent, the kids fall in next. If you’re a single adult, it may not be clear what your obligations are to your parents as quite often the married siblings expect a lot of you in that regard. Remember, you do have an obligation to yourself too and it’s okay to set boundaries, especially with a demanding parent.
Next, what is your parent’s state in life? Are they married, divorced, or widowed? Are they in good health or bad? Do they truly need help or do they tend to manipulate you with guilt until they get their way? This is often the case with alcoholic parents and sometimes with widowed and divorced parents. In those cases, roles and boundaries are often blurred and it’s hard to recognize what’s expected of us. The “norm” for you, may be far from normal. Talking out your situation with a therapist familiar with family dynamics can be very helpful. Choosing a Catholic therapist who shares your values is an essential consideration in such a case. Always remember, the essence of any healthy relationship is that each party respects the freedom of the other.
Unlike the “Shall not” commandments, Honor Your father and Mother is a positive one…and comes with a promise of blessing for those who do. In our busy and fast paced culture, are you putting that commandment on the back burner, or taking it to heart? After all that your parents may have sacrificed for you, are you sharing your self and your time with them in a fair way or like “The Cat’s in the Cradle” are you putting it off for someday when you think you’ll have more time? Even if living at a distance or in cases where you’ve needed to distance from your parents, are they regularly in your prayers? Do you thank God for the good they’ve given you and call down blessings upon them?
Like all the other commandments, honoring our father and mother is meant to be liberating. If you’re constantly feeling guilty, resentful or uneasy, something is wrong. Sorting that out with a therapist and/or a spiritual director can be an essential step toward maintaining or restoring family harmony…and gaining those blessings that God promises.
Art: Malabon Church, Ramon FVelasquez, 28 December 2013, own work, CC, Wikimedia Commons.