(I would like to dedicate this post to my Dad, who took the time to teach me the faith and who helped me to understand and accept the love of the One from Whom his own fatherhood took its name.)
The commandment to “honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Ex 20:12)” opens the “second table” of the Decalogue, since it appears right after the first three commandments concerning our relation to God. Beginning with this one, the last seven precepts of the Decalogue deal with our relations to one another. For this reason many people, when they learn the commandments, associate this one primarily with the transition between our “vertical” obligations to God and the “horizontal” prohibitions that govern our dealings with our neighbor. It thus stands out for mnemonic reasons—as the preface to all the “shalt-nots”—but it also stands out for two other reasons.
First of all, in the case of the young catechumen learning the Decalogue, this commandment perhaps “hits home” more than any other. The others that also seem immediately applicable (and here I am thinking of the eighth and ninth commandments) are obscured with strange, lofty words such as “covet” and “false witness.” Deference to parents, on the other hand, is an obligation which children navigate on a daily, almost constant basis. The parent-child relation is not only a universal feature of human existence, but it is also usually the first locus of moral engagement and formation. Yet the familiarity and given-ness of the obligation to honor parents can often tempt us to give the commandment short shrift with regard to its place in the larger progression of the Decalogue.
Almost as if to anticipate this temptation, St. Paul reminds us that the fourth commandment also stands out because it is “the first commandment with a promise,” namely that “our days might be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” This difference has the effect of incentive, certainly, but it also indicates something about the profound importance of the family in God’s plan for humanity. Remember that the “land which the Lord your God gives you” reflects not only God’s gratuity to Israel, but his covenantal relationship with her. Thus the promise attached to this commandment is the full realization of the promise which God made to Abraham. The honoring of parents, and the right order of familial relationships which follow it, draw humanity into the covenantal bonds established by God’s free election of His people. In other words, the commandment seems to assert a direct correspondence between the earthly kinship of human families and the kinship that God intends between Him and His people.
Indeed, as St. Paul plainly states in his Letter to the Ephesians (Ch 5), the saving bond which Christ establishes between God and humanity is best likened to the bond between spouses, a bond which we who have been “adopted” into this Body rely upon in much the same way a child relies upon the bond between her parents. St. Paul describes the analogy quite beautifully, but it hardly seems innovative if we recall Jesus’ central and unmistakable instruction to his disciples that they address God as a parent. In other words, one of the most fundamental ways in which Christians worship God is by addressing Him as our Father. In doing so, we honor the One “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Eph 3:15).
For Christians then especially, there is an important sense in which the fulfillment of the first three commandments (the “first table” of the Decalogue) depends upon our fulfillment of the fourth commandment, insofar as Christians understand the “fatherhood of God” to be more than a mere metaphor or mental image. To call God “Father” says something meaningful and real about God. It was not merely poetic or cultural convention that inspired our Lord to render His relationship with the God of Israel as one between a father and a son, just as it is not merely a matter of superstition or psychological consolation that so many Christian disciples through the ages have conceived of their own relationship with Jesus as inseparably bound up with the love of his earthly mother. Amongst the many profundities of the incarnation, surely one of the most theologically important is that the Lord and Creator of all things was born into a family and entrusted himself to the care of human parents (for thirty years, no less!).
To express my point in a more philosophical key, one could make the argument, I think, that while the current arrangement of the two tables of the Decalogue reflects the proper hierarchy in the order of being, the sequence of the tables would in fact be flipped if they were arranged according to the order of knowledge. After all, we Christians come to know God by calling Him “Father.” If we succeed in taking the time to use our language to worship God above all else (and in doing so fulfill the first table of the Decalogue), we only do so through an analogy anchored in the fourth commandment. In fact, if we take Jesus (and the prophets) seriously, then our righteousness with God depends on the entire second table of the Decalogue. We begin to understand what it means to worship, reverence and dwell with God only after, or better yet in the midst of the cultivation of justice with our neighbor.
Even in the arena of neighbor love and earthly justice, however, the family remains the preeminent reference point. As the Catechism plainly states, “the family is the original cell of social life” (2207). It is human society in its purest and most authentic form, and so any authentic development or restoration of society on a broader scope will retain some link to the character of the family. The Catechism makes this point beautifully in paragraph 2212:
The fourth commandment illuminates other relationships in society. In our brothers and sisters we see the children of our parents; in our cousins, the descendants of our ancestors; in our fellow citizens, the children of our country; in the baptized, the children of our mother the Church; in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called ‘our Father.’ In this way our relationships with our neighbors are recognized as personal in character. The neighbor is not a ‘unit’ in the human collective; he is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect.
In the words of philosopher Eva Feder Kittay, everyone—no matter what other factors color their identity or relation to me—is “some mother’s child.” Everyone comes to be who they are through and in a filial (and, normally, familial) relationship. The universal experience of belonging to another as an irreplaceable “someone” of indefinite worth anchors our humanity amidst our interactions with others and the world as a whole. It also “diffuses itself” in the presumption that others, too, are “someones” cherished and irreplaceable to those from whom their identity has emerged. In other words, families are the schools in which we learn that “human communities are made up of persons” (2213).
Of course, the very concept of “person” is something Christians developed only in contemplating the eternal relationality of the God who is love. Thus the conception of the family as a reflection of the Trinitarian “communion of persons” also necessarily undergirds how Christians conceive of love itself, and love’s penetration into the fabric of social life. The fourth commandment therefore not only regulates a necessary sphere of creation; it also holds in place the created manifestation of a relational economy without which we would not be able to know or name the Triune God.
So a lot hangs on the family, and by extension, upon the parent-child relation. I have to admit that I am daunted by the momentous weight which salvation history has placed on parents and our relationships to them. What do my children think, I wonder, when they conceive of God as their “Heavenly Father”? Do they think of God as someone who might ignore them (as they imploringly tug on his arms) in order to write a blog post commenting on the Catechism? Daunting indeed.
I’ll conclude with something the Catechism mentions to console this anxiety, which is that while “family ties are important [they] are not absolute… the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus” (2232). “Becoming a disciple of Jesus means accepting the invitation to belong to God’s family, to live in conformity with His way of life….” And so “parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry” (2233). The call to forego biological family is not to opt out of family life, however. On the contrary, consecrated life finds its fulfillment in the expansive scope of familial love that an individual can extend in their daily life and work. In the freedom which the celibate life affords them, consecrated individuals are meant to reflect the eschatological reality in which the bond of “family” (an authentic communion of persons) remains without the constraints attached to the human analogue. In other words, parenthood and family life are about as important as any earthly reality to the economy of salvation, but in the end they remain “signs” which point to a reality beyond them. And even in this case, to mistake the sign for the reality is idolatry, which is why Jesus said that “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (2232).