Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
Since children have to remain with their parents for such a long time between being born and making a home for themselves, the mutual duties should be clearly defined. And the Church has defined them. Speaking generally, the parents owe their children love and education, whilst the children owe their parents love, reverence, and obedience.
The love which ought to exist between parents and children is founded on the fact of generation. That act is the earthly analogy of the divine act of creation. The relationship between Creator and creature - together with all its beautiful implications of redemption, preservation, providence, and so forth - is visualized for us in the invocation of the prayer of Christ: "Our Father who art in heaven." This is the archetype of the relationship which should exist between earthly parents and their children.
Parents are certainly superiors over their children. But this superiority does not, as many of them seem to suppose, give them a right to treat their children harshly and inconsiderately. If the first attribute of the heavenly Father towards His earthly children is that of love, then the first duty of earthly parents to their offspring is that of love. Their children are flesh from their flesh, and, as such, nothing under God should be dearer to them. In so far as the children are made to feel this, so much more will they be able to appreciate the tenderness of the Fatherhood of God.
The habit of mind by which parents love their children constitutes the special virtue of pietas or dutifulness. Consequently, offences against it are sins. Parents, then, out of consideration for their own souls as well as the souls of their children, will be ever on their guard against anger and loss of temper. This is difficult for mothers with large families. All the more reason why they should recognize the fact, and prepare for it by prayer and the Sacraments.
Again they will avoid the habit of always finding fault. "Go and see what Willie is doing and tell him he mustn't." The habit tends only to lessen the authority of, and respect and love due to parents. On the other hand, they will be careful not to spoil the children by giving them all they ask for. Such indulgence is a sin against the virtue of dutifulness.
Above all things, they will not show favoritism. It would be too much to expect absolute equality in all cases. A mother who has had seven girls and then one boy would naturally give the boy little preferences. But preferences ought to be only such as the other children would willingly approve of. So long as one in the family is made to feel that he or she is not in the same favor as the others, he or she will ever be the cause of disturbance, and the blame will lie chiefly with the parents.
Having first paid regard to their own family virtues, the parents will next attend to the corresponding virtues in the children.
Duties toward parents are, of course, of less importance than duties toward God, but, on the other hand, they are of more importance than duties toward one's neighbor. It is the title under which rights are held that gives the relative importance to the corresponding duties. God's rights come before a parent's rights, because we owe to Him more than to a parent. Nay, we owe to Him the very fact that we have parents, for God was under no obligation to create our ancestors in the first instance.
A parent's rights come before a neighbor's rights, because our parents gave us our very life, the dearest of all our possessions. Under this title, then, our parents have a right to our love, reverence, and obedience. Just as God is our Creator and demands our love, so our parents are our progenitors and demand our love. Just as God is infinitely higher than men in dignity and so requires a supreme reverence, so parents are relatively higher than their children in dignity and require a relative reverence. Just as God is supreme ruler of the world and has a right to enact an absolute obedience, so the parents are the rulers of the family, and thus, within the sphere of things pertaining to the family, have a right to exact obedience from the children.
The love due to parents is one of the primary instincts of our nature. The sensible affection of the parent for the offspring, and of the offspring for the parent, is evident through the whole of animal creation. Some animals will suffer death rather than give up or neglect their young. If, therefore, this is so in the lower creation, how much more ought it to be true in man, who is raised so much higher and is endowed with a free and intelligent will, by which to enjoy a more perfect love and affection. By this reason he is able to reflect on the infinite difference between being nothing and being something. He is able to know, and in some imperfect way to realize, what cares and responsibilities his parents have undertaken in bringing him into the world and tending him, until he should come to an age when he can look after himself.
Reflecting on these things the grave obligation, moreover an honorable and beautiful obligation, is at once apparent of making a willing offering to his parents of a great love. Ecclesiasticus, therefore, preaches both the natural and the divine law when he says:
Honor thy father and forget not the groanings of thy mother: Remember that thou hadst not been born but through them: and make a return to them as they have done for thee.
Likewise the holy Tobias when, being about to die, he spoke thus to his son:
When God shall take my soul, thou shalt bury my body: and thou shalt honor thy mother all the days of her life: For thou must be mindful what and how great perils she suffered for thee in her womb. And when she shall have ended the time of her life, bury her by me.
Indeed, God Himself sanctioned this commandment with a special promise of material prosperity, and caused it to be known ever afterward as the commandment of promise.
Honor thy father and thy mother that thou mayst be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.
Nay, more. If once the real motive of filial love be grasped and the consequent heartfelt affection be excited, there will be no need of forced outward deference, which even in times of annoyance and dissatisfaction must be observed. All will flow naturally, or rather supernaturally; for with a person whose heart is right, all his actions, however natural, easy, and pleasant they are, are spiritualized and clothed with divine charity.
The superiority of parents involves reverence on the part of children. It is not the reverence due from an equal to an equal, nor yet is it that of a slave to a master. But it is that special kind of affectionate regard which is known as filial reverence. It is begotten only by a certain attitude of mind. It cannot exist merely as an external show. It cannot exist from any purely philosophical motive. Unless there is an inward acknowledgment to one's self of the parent's superiority under God, there cannot be true filial reverence. This duty, therefore, must have its foundation laid in the heart and mind. The habit of mind must be cultivated of regarding parents as representative in some way of the superiority of God. The reverential fear of God is the root motive of filial reverence of parents.
He that feareth the Lord honoreth his parents and will serve them as his masters, that brought him into the world.
From the inward habit of mind and affection there will flow forth the external reverence of words and deeds.
It may happen, it often does happen, that a parent does things which tend to disturb that inward reverence. Here, however, we are concemed with the duties of children, and particularly with the duty of reverence on occasions when the parent has failed in his or her duty. The child is never justified in offering to a parent irreverence. To attempt to justify such conduct on the grounds that the parent has forfeited the reverence due to him is to have missed the chief meaning of reverence to parents. We do not owe them this reverence simply because they are good and kind and affectionate. Doubtless those qualities do impose an extra claim on us. But the foundation reason of our reverence is the bare fact that they are our parents and that under God they are our superiors.
And no amount of subsequent neglect of duty on their part can undo this fact. Of course, our inward feelings are not always under our control. Still, in such circumstances we can and ought to maintain at least an outward reverence of word and deed. Then this outward behavior will react on the inward soul and will tend to fasten the due inward reverence. The exercise of control over our outward actions will strengthen our inward patience, and the effect of this inward patience will make itself felt in the parent and thus be the means, perhaps, of making him reflect on his duty.
Honor thy father in work and word and all patience, that, a blessing may come upon thee from him, and his blessing may remain in the latter end.
We come next to the question of obedience. The obedience of children toward parents has its reason in the idea of family government. The family is the foundation of the community and of the State. If, therefore, men are bound to obey the laws of the country in which they live, and if they are bound to observe the by-laws of their community, much more are they bound to attend to the commands of parents in all matters pertaining to the well-being of the household. The very existence of a State is dependent on the due observance of its laws. So also is the very existence of family life dependent on the due respect for parental authority. Anarchy in the family tends to anarchy in the community, and anarchy in the State. Filial obedience, therefore, is an exigency of the law of nature.
It is an exigency also of the divine law. "Children," says St. Paul, "obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just." Nay, the parents have a sanction given them to enforce obedience if need be. They must avoid arbitrary and harsh treatment, yet at the same time they must be firm in maintaining their rights and insisting on parental authority. "And you, fathers, provoke not your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and correction of the Lord." Therefore it is that St. Paul says again: "Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord."
Perhaps, however, the children may ask: "Is there no limit to this parental authority? Surely the time must come when I must think and act for myself!" Yes, there are limits which it is well to know. But first let us be clear as to the extent before we speak about the limits. First, it is manifest that parents have supreme authority in the management of the household. The children have not the right to choose the kind of house, the quality of the food, the hours of the meals. Secondly, the parents have charge of the children's manners and education, and therefore they have the right and duty of demanding obedience in behavior about the house. Thirdly, they have the right and the duty of looking after the spiritual welfare of the children. Consequently, they are entitled to say who are fitting companions, what are permissible amusements, whether it is good to go to this dance or to that theatre. Further, on account of this spiritual oversight, they have a right to warn the children when the time draws near for the Sacraments, or when there is any other religious duty to be performed. Again, it is the right and duty of the parents to see to the proper education of their children in fitting them for the battle of life in temporal matters. Consequently, there is a corresponding duty on the part of the children of corresponding with the means provided, of careful attendance at the school chosen, of availing themselves of all the opportunities for the improvement of mind and body which a thoughtful parent has afforded.
Now we may consider the limits of parental authority. First let us recall the root principle of this authority: the parents, in the exercise of it, are only supposed to be carrying out the work of God. If, therefore, any of their commandments are manifestly contrary to the law of God, then the parents have gone beyond the limits of their jurisdiction. In such cases it is not only lawful but of obligation to lay aside the command of the parent. Such a course of action is not disobedience, but rather obedience to a higher law. But notice that this is only allowable when the thing commanded is manifestly against the law of God. If there is any doubt the presumption is always in favor of the parent; for a wayward child might easily persuade itself that it was following out God's will, while it was in reality only following out its own perverse will. Conscience certainly is supreme, but there is need to guard against a false conscience, and the only practical rule is to obey the parent in case of doubt.
Among the several kinds of cases in which the rights of God, the rights of parents, and the rights of children seem to clash, there are two which are constantly arising, and concerning which the Church has made definite arrangements. The question concerns the choice of a state of life. Is the child bound to obey its parents in choosing whether to get married, or to become a priest or a religious?
We are here dealing with what is called a vocation. Now a vocation is a call from God. It is known by certain signs which are recognized by the Church, and with which spiritual directors are well acquainted. If, therefore, those signs are present, if the vocation is sufficiently manifest, then clearly the child is perfectly justified in obeying the call of God, and in setting aside the command of the parent who interferes with the call of God. And the principle works both ways. If the child is called to any given state of life, then it is wrong for the parent to interfere with that call.
If, on the other hand, the child is not called to a given state, then it is wrong for the parent to urge the child, either directly or indirectly, to enter that state. Whether the case be one of entering upon matrimony, or the priesthood, or religion, God's call goes before the wishes of a parent. To ignore the wishes of parents in such a matter is no dishonor to them. Our Lord indeed rebuked the Pharisees, because under the pretense of honoring religion they taught men to withdraw the honor due to parents. The virtues by which God is honored and by which parents are honored are quite distinct from each other, but they are not at variance. Each virtue is limited by circumstances. Virtue carried beyond this limit is no longer a virtue but a vice. Thus, the virtue of dutifulness to parents is limited by the virtue of religion, or the worship of God. It can be no honor, therefore, to a parent to render him obedience when obedience to God demands some contrary action.
Thus, whenever it comes to a choice between the service of man and the service of God, the service of God must prevail. Hence those plain words of Christ:
He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
These words apply more particularly to the priestly and religious states, though there is an equally strong sanction as regards the matrimonial state. Christ Himself said:
Have ye not read that he who made man from the beginning made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
On the other hand, there are circumstances when the claims of the parents would seem to prevail. It is not so in reality, for in these circumstances the call of God is not manifest. It is when the parents are so very poor that they cannot live without the support of their children. God does not wish children to leave their parents in such plight under the pretense of leading a higher life. The highest life in such circumstances is to stay at home and take care of the parent who may be poor, sick, or aged.
There are four chief signs of a religious vocation, namely: constant desire; fitness for the order as to health, ability, and character; acceptance by the order; the absence of any obligation of supporting parents in need. If, therefore, the candidate for religious life found that, in order to enter religion, he must leave his parent in destitution, that would be a clear sign that he had no vocation. That one fact would mark the limits of the virtue of religion. God could not possibly be honored by the entrance of one into religion under such circumstances. To act thus would be to turn the virtue of religion into a vice. Hence the duty to parents and the duty to God cannot clash, for the limits of the one are outside the limits of the other. If in any given case they seem to clash, if a child wishes to marry, or to become a nun, or a priest, or a monk, contrary to the wishes of its parents, then the practical thing to do is to consult one's spiritual director. He is trained in the theology of the subject, he knows something of human nature, he knows the disasters that are in store, either for forcing a vocation where there is none, or for destroying a vocation where there is one. He knows also the blessings that are in store for the true vocation faithfully followed.
By virtue of this division of labor it comes about that in addition to the love, reverence, and obedience which children owe to their parents, there is also a love, reverence, and obedience due to spiritual superiors. The priest is God's servant through whose ministry God's graces are conveyed to the soul. He is our spiritual father, and therefore in all matters spiritual is entitled to the obedience of the spiritual children committed to his care. And by the same title of spiritual fatherhood he has also a claim on their reverence and their love.
Sometimes it is necessary for both parents and pastors to get others to help them in their work of temporal and spiritual education. This help is represented in modern times by a vast system of scholastic and collegiate institutions. The schoolmaster, the schoolmistress, the professor, the master of the apprentice - all these, too, have in their own measure a claim on the love, reverence, and obedience of the children committed to their care. The teacher stands in place of the parent or pastor. It is his duty to recognize in himself an instrument in the hand of God, for the education and improvement of those committed to his care. On this account, therefore, he is entitled to his share of love, reverence, and obedience. True, the love cannot equal the love of a parent. Still, in proportion as the schoolmaster takes upon himself the responsibility of training a child, he may lawfully expect from the child corresponding duties. The principle involved is the same. The teacher is doing the work of God. The child, therefore, in honoring the teacher thereby acknowledges its submission to God; and in doing so it does honor to itself, for It makes profession of its right place in the order of the world.
In these days there is a strong tendency among men to exaggerate their rights and to undervalue the rights of their superiors. In the family, and in the State and in religion, there is a strong force of opposition to law. It is well, then, for children to realize early the dignity of dutifulness to parents, spiritual pastors, and temporal masters. From a merely natural point of view, such dutifulness can only lead to the good of the children. But from a supernatural point of view, the thought is noble in the highest degree. We see that in serving our parents and those in authority for the sake of God, we are serving our own best interests; for we are thereby doing our best to place ourselves in that adjustment of the universe which God has ordained as the most perfect.
The saints have ever been eminent in this virtue. Let us take the Blessed Thomas More as a glorious example. Dutifulness toward his parents was one of the most beautiful traits of his life. From his earliest years, he showed the tenderest affection for them. Then, when in later life he came to occupy the high post of Lord Chancellor, the fondness and reverence for his parents increased rather than diminished. And the story is told of him how, when his father held a position in one of the lower courts, he used to be seen every morning to go and kneel and ask for the old man's blessing.
The law is clear, then, and so it remains for children to fulfill the commandment and to look forward confidently to the reward which will surely come to them in this life and in the next. For God has promised and He is faithful.