THERE IS A section in Pope John Paul II's Letter to Families devoted specifically to the Fourth Command-ment—“Honor your father and your mother"—that is both profound and novel in its interpretation. Akey passage reads: “The family is a community of particularly intense interpersonal relationships: between spouses, between parents and children, between generations. It is a community which must be safeguarded in a special way, and God cannot find a better safeguard than this: honor."
The Pope remarks that it is significant that the commandment comes directly after the first three commandments which ordain love and worship of God. This is because parents are in a certain way “representatives of the Lord." They both give life and introduce the child into a specific family heritage and national culture. Their gift participates in God's own goodness so that the honor owed to parents is in a way analogous to worship owed God.
This might seem to place parents on a level beyond human accountability, but as John Paul II writes, “You parents, the divine precepts seems to say, should act in such a way that your life will merit the honor [and the love] of your children!" He links honor to love both of God and neighbor. Who, he asks, is more of a neighbor than members of one's own family? In the Pope's writings, the concept of “neighbor" has a particular meaning. It refers to the fundamental acceptance of another person as a gift. Relations between persons are characterized not by mutual exploitation but by freely giving oneself in love. The mutual self-giving is especially required in the intimate circle of the family and it applies to parents as much as to children. Parents must honor their children from the first moment of conception. This commandment, says the Pope, highlights the basis of the family's inner unity.
Parents as “representatives of the Lord" have great power as well as responsibility. From the human mother and father a child receives its earliest understanding of God as Father.
John Paul II, as the playwright Karol Wojtyla, has given a masterly analysis of the struggle a man has to be a good father in the play, Radiation of Fatherhood. The most striking fact about the main character, Adam, is his loneliness, yet he prefers to remain in his loneliness because fatherhood is too demanding. He complains to God that He could have left him with mere physical fertility instead of placing him “in the depths of a fatherhood to which I am unequal!" Yet Adam is aware that his own fatherhood is associated with the idea of the Father.
It is the child that opens Adam up to love; “You aim at me through a child, through a tiny daughter or son—and my resistance weakens,” he cries out. “The father always revives in the soil of a child's soul." The play is a profound reflection on the struggle to enter father-hood psychologically, the relation between human and divine fatherhood and the role of the mother and the child in breaking through the man's loneliness to form a communion of persons.
Some feminists, to counteract the “oppressive" father, would get rid of fatherhood altogether or so emasculate it as to render it ineffectual in both a religious and a human sense. Yet John Miller in Biblical Faith and Fathering (New York: Paulist Press, 1989) shows how the Judeo-Christian understanding of God as Father has helped human fathers to be more involved in their families. This differs from pagan views of fatherhood, especially in the ancient world. In the New Testament Jesus presented us with a generously merciful and loving Father and stressed the importance of children. When the human father fails, the divine Father remains. In the healing ministry the importance of going beyond the inadequate human father to the Father of all goodness is continually stressed.
It is essential to honor the human father and mother, even if they fail, because parents are the foundation of the family and the family is the foundation of society. Honor, says John Paul II, is linked to justice. The Fourth Commandment is a critical component of the modern emphasis on human rights. If such rights do not command honor and respect, they are ultimately ineffective. Again, as he says in Letter to Families: “It is not an exaggeration to reaffirm that the life of nations, of states and of international organizations ‘passes’ through the family and ‘is based’ on the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue."
Professor Arthur Dyck, who teaches ethics at Harvard Divinity School, argues philosophically that no society can survive unless it values procreation and nurturing and honors those who provide it, namely parents. Without procreation and nurturing, no other rights can exist. Not only does the right to life precede the enjoyment of all other human rights, but without proper nurturing a child can scarcely grow up to be a physically and emotionally mature adult capable of exercising those rights.
Procreation is dishonored in our society both by widespread abortion and a contraceptive (against-life) mentality. Contraception particularly attacks the rights and dignity of the woman as mother. It is sufficient to study the documents of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to see that the word “motherhood" scarcely finds a place. It is a profound dishonoring of motherhood by women themselves. Those who suffer most from this dishonoring are the children and the family itself, which, in John Paul II's words, is in God's plan “the first school of how to be human."
rocreation is dishonored in our society both by widespread abortion and a contraceptive (against-life) mentality.
It is to humanize the family and to honor every member that the Church proclaims its teaching on responsible parenthood and the inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse. The great blessing this teaching brings can be seen in the lives of couples and families who truly form a communion of persons.
The spouses, through their union in one flesh, form the first communion of persons. One couple, asked what one thing they appreciate about Natural Family Planning (NFP)—which conforms to the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood—respond, “the unitive aspect, the love-building potential." A wife comments, “I know that I am deeply loved because of Doug's willingness to endure the challenges and sacrifices required by NFP."
This covenant of love between the couple, that forms the basis of the communion of persons, opens them to love others. The family is its natural fruit. NFP, says one couple, “opened our hearts to children." A husband remarks that it might sound strange but “I rejoice in my fertility." Yet a third couple states that “NFP fulfills the goals we have in marriage: communication, faith, shared commitment and family." (All these comments come from Stepping Stones, the quarterly newsletter of Northwest Family Services, Portland Ore.)
Such an attitude of openness to parenthood, of rejoicing in children, naturally leads to the honoring referred to by John Paul II in the Fourth Commandment. And this, in turn, leads to the “civilization of love,” which to many, the Pope says, seems to be a mere utopia. But Jesus commanded us to love as He loved. Building such a civilization is given to mankind as a “task,” and can only be carried out with the help of divine grace. The family, since the time of St. John Chrysostom, has been called the “domestic Church,” but it is only in our own day that the full significance of that title is fully appreciated. Reflecting on his favorite passage on marriage in Eph 5, 21-33, John Paul II describes the family itself as the great mystery of God. As the domestic Church it is the bride of Christ.
It is only by sharing in Christ's love that the spouses can know what love truly is and that, says the Letter to Families, is both radical and “dangerous for them." The high rate of divorce in our society, one in every two marriages, shows us that even Catholics are not prepared for this teaching. Without an understanding and acceptance of the Cross and the redemptive power of suffering, family life will continue to deteriorate and the weakest members of the family and society, the old and the young, will be at risk.
There's a need not just for preaching on these truths but of witnesses, “living testimonies." This reminds me of something the mother of six children, the youngest under two years old, said to me recently: “I don't have to say anything. When I am with my six children that says it all." This mother does not live in a privileged, secluded environment. She and her family face all the challenges of our secular society, with all the anxieties it presents to the safety and well-being of her children. But she also knows the joys of a loving husband and a warm family circle whose center is Christ. Such parents will truly be honored by their children as they themselves fulfill the Fourth Commandment.
Mary Shivanandan, MA, STD, is a professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage&Family in Washington, D.C.