Honor your Father and Mother

So many of the family life articles in Catholic and other Christian publications and websites are focused on parenting, quality time with kids, etc. That's all well and good, but it seems the Fourth Commandment is often overlooked in comparison. Indeed, while the first three commandments deal with our obligations to God, the first of the subsequent commandments that deal with our relations with others is "Honor your Father and your Mother."

Friends from other countries tell me that they are shocked at how poorly many Americans treat their parents, and elders in general. Not only do we treat them disrespectfully, mooch off them as long as possible, and then shuffle them off to nursing homes, we commit the more subtle sin of ignoring the great wisdom they have to offer us.

The modern media culture is a great offender here, depicting parents and the aged as objects of ridicule, clueless buffoons who are hopelessly out of touch with What's Happening Now. The roots of this attitude go back further to Freudian psychology, which places the blame for our personal ills at the feet of our parents. We can follow the decline of filial piety through the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation all the way back to the dawn of man.

The obligation to honor, respect and care for parents was identified by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics as part of the natural law, something that all people are aware of simply because of our human nature. Yes because we are corrupted by sin, God had to remind us of this commandment through His revelation. St. Thomas Aquinas gives a powerful overview of the fourth commandment here , and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also offers an enlightening exposition of this important but oft-forgotten virtue.


Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    There’s also the glaring fact that for many children honoring father and mother at once is difficult, as the parents are no longer living as husband and wife and may be openly hateful to each other. How can a kid respect Daddy when he hears Mommy calling him ‘ a lazy jerk, who’s late on the child support payments again ‘ ? How can she respect Mommy when she hears Daddy calling her ‘a nagging shrew, who doesn’t even want me to see my own kids ‘ ?

  • Guest

    Good point, Narwen. When I was researching this blog post, I saw an article titled "Caring for Parents who didn't care for you".  Often parents seem unworthy of respect or even love, when they are bad examples, or even hurtful to their children

    Nevertheless, we're still obligated to respect, love, and care for our parents. Charity is the first law of Christians, and charity begins at home

  • Guest

    True, but what about when one parent resents it when you offer love, care, and respect to the other ? I’ve seen cases where the grown-up kids reach out to a parent who left- only to have the parent who cared for them blow up. “So you want your father at your wedding ? Where was he when you were sick ? When I had bills to pay ? ” “Your mother wants a relationship with you now. How come she didn’t want one back when you were a rebellious teenager who nearly flunked out of high school ?”

  • Guest

    When my daughter, Helena, was a kindergartener, she had a little boy class mate – a sweet, gentle kid, too – whose parents were reputedly notorious drug users. And, the school kids – Catholic school, no less, so think of how that has held place in my now-lapsed-Catholic daughter’s sensibilities – picked on him unmercifully. My daughter confronted three eight-grade bullies (remember, she was but a kindergarten kid) who at first were laughing until she told them ‘my father is Warren Jewell, and he’ll talk to your fathers!’ They knew that she meant every word she said. Billy suffered less after that day – Helena Jewell knew her Dad would see to THAT, let me tell you. (God bless her, I wish she still saw me that way . . .)

    How could poor Billy honor parents who brought bullying scorn on him?

    I honored my parents, inept fools who they were, because there is a Fourth Commandment that says to do so – giving no prerequisite conditions, mind you. But, the Decalogue did have a potent adherent in my late wife, who insisted that I drop even our around-the-house functions if they needed my help. And, they so seemed to to resent me that they even resented (both of us) that I did all this from care Sharon inspired in me. Not that such was spoken; they were intuitive enough to know that I really should have told them where to stuff their needs, after how they attended to mine in my youth. Only Sharon could inspire such attentive and honoring care. (Did I mention they were fools?)

    My Fourth-Commandment honor carried over after Sharon died. It shouldn’t have, frankly; they were never honorable toward me, in any respect. I was even cut out of their will. I knew that was coming, and still was the one offspring they could count on, even if they offered no appreciation. Who was second to me? My daughter, in giving unappreciated service as they needed it. And, she as the only grandchild not in their will! I guess that we learned that we could just not be as greedily cloddish as they were.

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    I was just talking about this with my daughter last night.

    She’s a daycare provider of a 10 year old girl, whose parents are divorced. My daughter was listening to the girl lament how her absentee father who lives out of state never visits or calls her. He told her she needs to call him because he’s busy and will forget. My daughter told the young girl to tell her Dad it’s HIS responsibility – He’s the adult.

    Then my daughter went on to explain how my divorce and especially the badmouthing of both parents has affected her. On one hand it gave her a false sense of self importance because I would ‘discuss’ adult issues with her as though she were my counselor/friend and in doing so I was robbing her of the parent/child relationship. Add to that the badmouthing of me by her father and she grew up to disrespect me.

    It has hurt her so much. She wouldn’t listen to me, listen to my advice or concerns and ended up getting herself into so many unnecessary hardships. It really contrasts the blessing in the 4th Commandment *the only commandment that carries a blessing*

    “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

    I agree that much of the problem lies in the brokeness of homes and hearts. I have always shown respect to my parents, but then again my parents were never divorced and they showed respect for one another even when they argued.

    How can children learn to respect when they’ve never seen it modeled by their parents?

    Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
    G.K. Chesterton