Thirty-Fifth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
We have finished with the three commandments that refer directly to God. The second Table of the Law contains seven precepts that concern themselves with our relations to God, indirectly, through the creature; they treat of our duties and obligations toward the neighbor. As God may be honored, so He may be dishonored, through the works of His hand; one may offend as effectively by disregard for the law that binds us to God's creatures as for that which binds us to the Creator Himself.
Since parents are those of God's creatures that stand nearest to us, the Fourth Commandment immediately orders us to honor them as the authors of our being and the representatives of divine authority, and it prescribes the homage we owe them in their capacity of parents. But that which applies to fathers and mothers, applies in a certain degree to all who have any right or authority to command; consequently, this law also regulates the duties of superiors and inferiors in general to one another.
The honor we owe to our parents consists in four things: respect for their dignity, love for their beneficence, obedience to their authority and assistance in their needs. Whoever fails in one of these requirements, breaks the law, offends God and sins. His sin may be mortal, if the quality of the offense and the malice of the offender be such as to constitute a serious breach of the law.
It is the great fault of our age to underrate parental dignity. In the easy-going world, preference is given to profligate celibacy over honorable wedlock; marriage itself is degraded to the level of a purely natural contract, its bond has lost its character of indissolubility and its obligations are shirked to meet the demands of fashion and convenience. When parents, unworthy ones, do not appreciate their own dignity, how will others, their children, appreciate it? And parenthood will never be esteemed while its true nature and sanctity are ignored and contemned; there is no dignity where the idea of God is excluded.
After God had created man, He left him to work out his destiny in a natural way; and immediately man assumed towards his offspring the relation that God first held towards himself - he assumed the prerogatives of paternity and of authority. All paternity belongs to God, and to Him alone; yet man is delegated to that lofty, quasi-divine function. God alone can create; yet so near does the parental office approach to the power of creation that we call it pro-creation.
It is true that man holds this privilege in common with the rest of animated nature, but with this difference: that the fruit of his loins is a child of God, with an immortal soul, an heir to heaven where its destiny is to glorify the Eternal during all eternity. And thus, man, in his function of parent, is as far differentiated from the rest of animal nature as the act by which God created man is superior to all His other creative acts.
If the tempter, when working out his plan for the fall of our first parents, had simply and unconditionally said: "Ye shall be as gods," his utterance would have in it more truth than he intended, for the mantle of parenthood that was soon to fall upon them made them like unto God. The children that romped around them, looked up to them even, almost, as they were accustomed to look up to the Creator. And little the wonder, since to their parents they owed their very existence.
As depositaries of authority, there is no human station, however exalted, comparable to theirs. Children are not merely subjects; they belong to their parents. Church and State, under God, may see to it that that authority is not abused; but within the bounds of right, they are held to respect it; and their acts that go contrary to the exercise of parental authority are, by the fact of such opposition, null and void. Before the State or Church, the family was; its natural rights transcend theirs, and this bowing, as it were, of all constituted human authority before the dominion of parents is evidence enough of their dignity.
"God could not be everywhere, therefore he made parents - fathers and mothers" - that is how the pagans used to put it. However theologically unsound this proposition may appear, it is a beautiful attempt at a great truth, viz., that parents towards us stand in God's stead. In consequence of this eminent dignity that is theirs, they deserve our respect. They not only deserve it, but God so ordains it.
Worthy of honor are they whom the Lord sees fit to honor. In the exalted station to which they have been called and in the express command made by the Lord to honor them, we see evidence of the dignity of parents; and the honor we owe them for this dignity is the honor of respect. By respect we mean the recognition of their superiority, the reverence, veneration and awe all well-born men instinctively feel for natural worth that transcends their own, the deference in tone, manner and deportment that naturally belongs to such worth.
It is much easier to say in what respect does not consist than to define the term itself. If it really exists in the heart - and there it must exist, to be at all - it will find expression in a thousand different ways, and will never be at a loss to express itself. Books will give you the laws of etiquette and will tell you how to be polite; but the laws that govern respect are graven on the heart, and he whose heart is in the right place never fails to read and interpret them correctly. Towards all, at all times and in all places, he will conform the details of his life with the suggestions of his inner consciousness. This is respect.
Respect has no substitute; neither assistance nor obedience nor love can supply it or take its place. It may happen that children are no longer obliged to help their parents; they may be justified in not obeying them; the circumstances may be such that they no longer have love or affection for them; but respect can never be wanting without serious guilt. The reason is simple: because it is due in justice, because it is founded on natural rights that can never be forfeited, even when parents themselves lose the sense of their own dignity.
Sinful, wicked and scandalous parents there have been, are, and will be. But just as they do not owe the excellence to any deed of their own, but to the free choice of the Almighty, so it depends not on themselves to forfeit it. God made them parents without respect for their personal worth. He is the custodian of their dignity. Good or bad, they are parents and remain parents. Woe unto those who despise the authors of their days!
Respect overlooks an innocent joke at the expense of a parent, when absolutely no malice is intended, when on both sides it is looked upon as a matter of good-natured pleasantry. It brooks humor. Not all familiarity breeds contempt.
But contempt, which is directly opposed to respect, is a sin that is never anything but mortal. It refuses honor, belittles dignity and considers parents beneath esteem. It is contempt to laugh at, to mock, to gibe and insult parents; it is contempt to call them vile, opprobrious names, to tell of their faults; it is contempt, and the height of contempt, to defy them, to curse them or to strike them. It is bad enough when this sort of thing is directed against an equal; but when parents are made the objects of contempt, it acquires a dignity that is infernal.
The malediction of Heaven, the almighty wrath of God follows him or her who despises a parent. We are repeatedly told in Holy Writ that such offenders "shall die the death." Scorn of parents is looked upon as a crime almost on a par with hatred of God. Pagans frequently punished it with death. Among Christians, it is left to the avenging wrath of God, who is pledged to defend the dignity of His delegated paternity.
It is not a rare occurrence to see just retribution visited upon parents who in their day were undutiful, unworthy and unnatural children. The justice of Heaven often permits it to be done unto us as we do unto others. Our children will treat us as we shall have treated our parents; their hands will be raised against us and will smite us on the cheek to avenge the grandsire's dishonor and tears, and to make us atone in shame for our sins against our parents. If we respect others, they will respect us; if we respect our parents, our children will respect us.
He who has a heart, and has it properly located, will not fail to love that which is good. He will have no difficulty in so doing; it will require neither command nor persuasion to make him do so. If he proves refractory to this law of nature, it is because he is not like the rest of mortals, because he is inhuman; and his abnormal condition is due, not to nature's mistakes, but to his own. And no consideration under heaven will be equal to the task of instilling affection into a stone or a chunk of putty.
That is good which is desirable, or which is the source of what is desirable. God alone is absolutely good, that is to say, good in Himself and the cause of all good. Created things are good in the proportion of their furnishing us with things desirable, and are for that reason called relatively good. They confer benefits on one and not perhaps on another. When I say: this or that is good, I mean that it is useful to me, and is productive of comfort, happiness and other desirable things. Because we are naturally selfish, our appreciation of what is good depends on what we get out of it.
Therefore, a child's first, best and strongest love should be for its parents, for the greatest good it enjoys, the thing of all others to be desired, the essential condition of all else - namely its existence - it owes to its parents. Life is the boon we receive from them; not only the giving, but the saving in more than one instance, the fostering and preserving and sustaining during long years of helplessness, and the adorning of it with all the advantages we possess. Nor does this take into account the intimate cost, the sufferings and labors, the cares and anxieties, the trouble and worriment that are the lot of devoted parenthood. It is life spent and given for life. Flesh and blood, substance, health and comfort, strength of body and peace of soul, lavished with unstinted generosity out of the fullness of parental affection - these are things that can never be repaid in kind, they are repaid with the coin of filial piety and love, or they remain dead debts.
Failure to meet these obligations brands one a reprobate. There is not, in all creation, bird or beast, but feels and shows instinctive affection towards those to whom it owes its being. He, therefore, who closes his heart to the promptings of filial love, has the consolation of knowing that, not only he does not belong to the order of human beings, but he places himself outside the pale of animal nature itself, and exists in a world of his own creation, which no human language is able to properly qualify.
The love we owe to our parents is next in quality to that which we owe to God and to ourselves. Love has a way of identifying its object and its subject; the lover and the beloved become one, their interests are common, their purpose alike. The dutiful child, therefore, looks upon its parent as another self, and remains indifferent to nothing that for weal or for woe affects that parent. Love consists in this community of feeling, concern and interest. When the demon of selfishness drives gratitude out of the heart and the ties of natural sympathy become strained, and love begins to wane; when they are snapped asunder, love is dead.
The love of God, of course, primes all other love. "He who loves father or mother more than me," says the Savior, "is not worthy of me." Filial love, therefore, must not conflict with that which we owe to God; it must yield, for it draws its force from the latter and has no meaning without it. In normal conditions, this conflict never occurs; it can occur only in the event of parents overriding the law that governs their station in life. To make divine love wait on the human is criminal.
It may, and no doubt does, happen that parents become unlovable beings through disregard for the moral law. And because love is not a commodity that is made to order, children may be found who justify on these grounds their absence of affection or even their positive hatred for such parents. A drunken parent, one who attacks the life, virtue or reputation of his offspring, a low brute who has neither honor nor affection, and whose office it is to make home a living hell, such a one can hardly be loved.
But pity is a form of love; and just as we may never despise a fallen parent, just so do we owe him or her, even in the depths of his or her degradation, a meed of pity and commiseration. There is no erring soul but may be reclaimed; every soul is worth the price of its redemption, and there is no unfortunate, be he ever so low, but deserves, for the sake of his soul, a tribute of sympathy and a prayer for his betterment. And the child that refuses this, however just the cause of his aversion, offends against the law of nature, of charity and of God.