The Family in God’s Plan

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The commandment to honor one’s father and mother reflects the family’s role in church and society

by Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

The 31th installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 455-465 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Fourth Commandment reads, "Honor your father and mother." How many times as youngsters did we confess that we had disobeyed our parents in ways great and small? Yet, we can understand this commandment more fully by considering how it encompasses God's entire plan for marriage and family life.

Growing up, I took it for granted that a child's parents consisted of a mother and a father. Today, proponents of same-sex marriage tell us that the Fourth Commandment's reference to one's mother and father is outdated, the product of a bygone culture. However, this perspective hinders us from learning the saving truth of Scripture and from listening to what the voice of reason tells us about marriage and family.


The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the family is not merely something invented by human beings. Rather, it is a gift instituted by God and "ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children" (456). Indeed, the Church teaches that a couple’s capacities to express love and to beget new life are intrinsically linked (Humanae Vitae, 12).

The mutual love of husband and wife, rooted in and strengthened by Christ's love, provides the right environment for begetting and raising children. In the family, children learn life's most basic lessons, including how to respect and love one another, how to tell the truth, and how to grow in virtue. In the family, the faith is taught and imparted, and the family is where children learn to pray. For these reasons, the family is called "the domestic church" (Compendium, 456).

In an age when civil authorities and cultural forces are trying to redefine the family, we must insist that the family, understood as the union of a man and a woman together with their children, is the "original cell" of human society. Existing prior to all human governments and to its recognition in law, the family plays a unique and irreplaceable role in transmitting virtues and values to young people and in helping them become good and productive citizens (457). For that reason, all governments have a duty to respect, protect and foster authentic marriage and family life. Except for serious reasons such as protecting spouses and children from harm, public authorities should not intervene in family life. At the same time, governments should defend "public morality, the rights of parents, and domestic prosperity" (458).

It would be a mistake for us to think of marriage and family as an easy, idyllic vocation. Mothers and fathers everywhere know better. It takes enormous dedication and energy to form children so that they can accept and fulfill their proper responsibilities. They must be taught by word and example how to relate to God, their families and society at large.

Likewise, children should learn how to bring harmony to the family circle and to help themselves and the whole family grow in holiness. For example, I know young people whose strong faith persuaded their parents to resume regular attendance at Sunday Mass. Indeed, the duties of children toward their parents extend into adulthood. Adult children should continue to love and revere their parents and provide for them in their advancing years, not just materially, but also spiritually, such as by ensuring that they are receiving the sacraments (459).


Parents share in God's creative capacity to give life, and from this flows their responsibility to love and respect their children as persons created in God's image and likeness. Accordingly, parents should educate their children and form them in the faith. They do so through prayer, religious instruction within the family and participation in the Church's life, especially by taking part in the Eucharist each Sunday (461).

As the Rite of Baptism explains, "Parents are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith." They are to provide for their children's material, physical and spiritual needs, especially their education. It is also important for parents to be open to the vocation God has in mind for their children — be it marriage, religious life or the priesthood — and help guide them toward it, as well as toward an appropriate profession (460, 462).

An old saying tells us that "blood is thicker than water." Family bonds run deep, and there is widespread recognition of the need to strengthen them today. Families need to spend time together, share meals, talk with one another and pray together. At the same time, family ties are not absolute. The first obligation of every family member is to follow and love Jesus Christ. Our love for Christ must exceed even our love for our parents and children (see Mt 10:37).

Within healthy and happy families an appropriate understanding of authority is more likely to develop, including that of teachers and civil authorities. We are to understand authority as a service to moral truth and the common good, a service that respects human dignity and rights, and seeks to create environments conducive to the authentic good of all (Compendium, 463-465). In a self-centered culture, this is often hard for people to understand.

Furthermore, parents are to foster in their children habits of good citizenship, including the virtue of patriotism, the right and duty to vote, payment of taxes and the right to free speech (464). And most importantly, parents are to instill in their children a spirit of service for others and a readiness to volunteer and assist those in need.