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Abuse & the Fourth Commandment

Lynne asked questions about the fourth commandment, honoring your father and mother.  I offered a brief response.

1.  Father, can you kindly explain the fourth commandment in regards to parents who are abusive, not necessarily physically, but mentally or spiritually? 

2. How does one actually honor such parents?

If parents are honored then they must be honorable. No one can be obliged to suffer abuse or to be party to sin. While the commandment urges obedience to parents, it also demands that parents should be moral and nurturing in their relations with offspring.

Originally the commandment was addressed more to adults than to parents. God let his people know that we have obligations to parents as they grow older. Just as they cared for us, we should look to their needs when time and sickness should reduce their resources and abilities.

Mental and spiritual abuse should be regarded seriously, just as we would visible physical abuse. However, parents are within their rights to demand upright moral behavior and proper religious formation of the young. As long as offspring live under the roof of their parents, there is a certain level of subservience to them. That is why adults move out and start their own lives. Similarly, elderly parents who live with their children may have to tolerate how things are done differently in their homes.


4 Responses

  1. For Joe
    A situation where an adult is aware of parental and communal blasphemy. The adult is in deep Catholic spiritual formation. How to respond to the fourth commandment when blasphemy is committed against this adult? How does this sin relate to past, present and future prayer?

    FATHER JOE: Not sure what you are talking about. No parent can oblige a sin or immoral act under the commandment to parental obedience and honor.

  2. So, Fr, what if the parent deems himself as needing to be under the care of the child (wants to move in with the child) but continues his abusive behaviour? Does the 4th ask that we take in such a parent because of the obligation to care for them? Thanks, Father.


    Such decisions must be mutual. The offspring may not be able to give the time demanded. It may also require resources that he or she does not have. There are cases where long-term medical care can only be properly rendered in an assisted living home or a nursing home.

    It is unclear to me what you mean by abusive behavior. No one can be obliged to bring another into a home where there will be serious violent, sexual and/or verbal abuse. However, personality clashes, differences over religious obligations, etc. would not eradicate the moral obligation to care for a parent or offspring.

    The commandment does not say honor your parents only if you like them or if they are nice.

  3. I should add that under this commandment parents can extend something of their authority to others. Thus, when children are placed in the charge of their school teachers, the students are obliged to behave and to take guidance from them just as they would from their parents. Insolence toward teachers, failure to pay attention in class and the failure to complete homework are violations of the fourth commandment.

  4. From everything I have been told, a lack of good parenting does not give a free pass from the 4th commandment. One honors their parent(s) by praying for them.


    We are called to pray for everyone, even our enemies.

    The fourth commandment has to do with a practical relationship… respect, cooperation, obedience, mutual support, etc. That respect can be compromised by abuse and neglect. Parents forfeit their moral authority if they demand sinful acts. This truth is realized in Christ’s hyperbole about calling no man your father. No true fatherhood can be in conflict with divine fatherhood.

    Similarly, the commandment has lasting implications beyond childhood. The Jews did not have pension plans, social security or welfare. The family was everything.

    However, under the Jewish law a father might be freed from his obligation if his offspring brought shame upon the family. He would tear his cloak and proclaim that he had no son. Jesus called this attitude into question with the parable of the prodigal son. The upset elder son stresses the letter of the law. The younger son is rightly disowned. The father acknowledges that all that he has belongs to the elder son, but that they had to rejoice because the prodigal was lost and now has been found. It is almost like a resurrection. This speaks to the mercy and healing so much a part of Christ’s proclamation and ministry.

    Yes, if a parent is abusive, the child needs to understand that and if separation is needed – so be it. But ALWAYS continue to pray for conversion of bad parents.

    FATHER JOE: While I certainly agree about such prayer, it is still a separate matter from the full meaning of the commandment. It literally means that children MUST obey parents who walk in righteous relationship with God. It also literally means that children must take care of their parents. Failure to do so is a violation of divine positive law.

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