The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas

THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.”[1]

Perfection for man consists in the love of God and of neighbor. Now, the three Commandments which were written on the first tablet pertain to the love of God; for the love of neighbor there were the seven Commandments on the second tablet. But we must “love, not in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”[2] For a man to love thus, he must do two things, namely, avoid evil and do good. Certain of the Commandments prescribe good acts, while others forbid evil deeds. And we must also know that to avoid evil is in our power; but we are incapable of doing good to everyone. Thus, St. Augustine says that we should love all, but we are not bound to do good to all. But among those to whom we are bound to do good are those in some way united to us. Thus, “if any man have not care of his own and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith.”[3] Now, amongst all our relatives there are none closer than our father and mother. “We ought to love God first,” says St. Ambrose, “then our father and mother.” Hence, God has given us the Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.”[4]

The Philosopher also gives another reason for this honor to parents, in that we cannot make an equal return to our parents for the great benefits they have granted to us; and, therefore, an offended parent has the right to send his son away, but the son has no such right.[5] Parents, indeed, give their children three things. The first is that they brought them into being: “Honor thy father, and forget not the groanings of thy mother; remember that thou hadst not been born but through them.”[6] Secondly, they furnished nourishment and the support necessary for life. For a child comes naked into the world, as Job relates (i. 24), but he is provided for by his parents. The third is instruction: “We have had fathers of our flesh for instructors.”[

7] “Hast thou children? Instruct them.”[8]

Parents, therefore, should give instruction without delay to their children, because “a young man according to his way, even when he is old will not depart from it.”[9] And again: “It is good for a man when he hath borne the yoke from his youth.”[10] Now, the instruction which Tobias gave his son (Tob., iv) was this: to fear the Lord and to abstain from sin. This is indeed contrary to those parents who approve of the misdeeds of their children. Children, therefore, receive from their parents birth, nourishment, and instruction.


Now, because we owe our birth to our parents, we ought to honor them more than any other superiors, because from such we receive only temporal things: “He that feareth the Lord honoreth his parents, and will serve them as his masters that brought him into the world. Honor thy father in work and word and all patience, that a blessing may come upon thee from him.”[11] And in doing this you shall also honor thyself, because “the glory of a man is from honor of his father, and a father without honor is the disgrace of his son.”[12]

Again, since we receive nourishment from our parents in our childhood, we must support them in their old age: “Son, support the old age of thy father, and grieve him not in his life. And if his understanding fail, have patience with him; and despise him not when thou art in thy strength. . . . Of what an evil fame is he that forsaketh his father! And he is cursed of God that angereth his mother.”[13] For the humiliation of those who act contrary to this, Cassiodorus relates how young storks, when the parents have lost their feathers by approaching old age and are unable to find suitable food, make the parent storks comfortable with their own feathers, and bring back food for their worn-out bodies. Thus, by this affectionate exchange the young ones repay the parents for what they received when they were young.”[14]

We must obey our parents, for they have instructed us. “Children, obey your parents in all things.”[15] This excepts, of course, those things which are contrary to God. St. Jerome says that the only loyalty in such cases is to be cruel:[16] “If any man hate not his father and mother . . . he cannot be My disciple.”[17] This is to say that God is in the truest sense our Father: “Is not He thy Father who hath possessed thee, and hath made thee, and created thee?”[18]


“Honor thy father and thy mother.” Among all the Commandments, this one only has the additional words: “that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land.” The reason for this is lest it be thought that there is no reward for those who honor their parents, seeing that it is a natural obligation. Hence it must be known that five most desirable rewards are promised those who honor their parents.

Grace and Glory.–The first reward is grace for the present life, and glory in the life to come, which surely are greatly to be desired: “Honor thy father . . . that a blessing may come upon thee from God, and His blessing may remain in the latter end.”[19] The very opposite comes upon those who dishonor their

parents; indeed, they are cursed in the law by God.[20] It is also written: “He that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater.”[21] But this our natural life is as nothing compared with the life of grace. And so, therefore, if you do not acknowledge the blessing of the natural life which you owe to your parents, then you are unworthy of the life of grace, which is greater, and all the more so for the life of glory, which is the greatest of all blessings.

A Long Life.–The second reward is a long life: “That thou mayest be longlived upon the land.” For “he that honoreth his father shall enjoy a long life.”[22] Now, that is a long life which is a full life, and it is not observed in time but in activity, as the Philosopher observes. Life, however, is full inasmuch as it is a life of virtue; so a man who is virtuous and holy enjoys a long life even if in body he dies young: “Being perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time; for his soul pleased God.”[23] Thus, for example, he is a good merchant who does as much business in one day as another would do in a year. And note well that it sometimes happens that a long life may lead up to a spiritual as well as a bodily death, as was the case with Judas. Therefore, the reward for keeping this Commandment is a long life for the body. But the very opposite, namely, death is the fate of those who dishonor their parents. We receive our life from them; and just as the soldiers owe fealty to the king, and lose their rights in case of any treachery, so also they who dishonor their parents deserve to forfeit their lives: “The eye that mocketh at his father and that despiseth the labor of his mother in bearing him, let the ravens pick it out, and the young eagles eat it.”[24] Here “the ravens” signify officials of kings and princes, who in turn are the “young eagles.” But if it happens that such are not bodily punished, they nevertheless cannot escape death of the soul. It is not well, therefore, for a father to give too much power to his children: “Give not to son or wife, brother or friend, power over thee while thou livest; and give not thy estate to another, lest thou repent.”[25]

The third reward is to have in turn grateful and pleasing children. For a father naturally treasures his children, but the contrary is not always the case: “He that honoreth his father shall have joy in his own children.”[26] Again: “With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.”[27] The fourth reward is a praiseworthy reputation: “For the glory of a man is from the honor of his father.”[28] And again: “Of what an evil fame is he that forsaketh his father?”[29] A fifth reward is riches: “The father’s blessing establisheth the houses of his children, but the mother’s curse rooteth up the foundation.”[30]


“Honor thy father and thy mother.” A man is called father not only by reason of generation, but also for other reasons, and to each of these there is due a certain reverence. Thus, the Apostles and the Saints are called fathers because of their doctrine and their exemplification of faith: “For if you have ten thousands instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you.”[31] And again: “Let us now praise men of renown and our fathers in their

generation.”[32] However, let us praise them not in word only, but by imitating them; and we do this if nothing is found in us contrary to what we praise in them.

Our superiors in the Church are also called fathers; and they too are to be respected as the ministers of God: “Remember your prelates, . . . whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”[33] And again: “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me.”[34] We honor them by showing them obedience: “Obey your prelates, and be subject to them.”[35] And also by paying them tithes: “Honor the Lord with thy substance, and give Him of the first of thy fruits.”[36]

Rulers and kings are called fathers: “Father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, surely thou shouldst have done it.”[37] We call them fathers because their whole care is the good of their people. And we honor them by being subject to them: “Let every soul be subject to higher powers.”[38] We should be subject to them not merely through fear, but through love; and not merely because it is reasonable, but because of the dictates of our conscience. Because “there is no power but from God.”[39] And so to all such we must render what we owe them: “Tribute, to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honor, to whom honor.”[40] And again: “My son, fear the Lord and the king.”[41]

Our benefactors also are called fathers: “Be merciful to the fatherless as a father.”[42] He, too, is like a father [who gives his bond] of whom it is said: “Forget not the kindness of thy surety.”[43] On the other hand, the thankless shall receive a punishment such as is written: “The hope of the unthankful shall melt away as the winter’s ice.”[44] Old men also are called fathers: “Ask thy father, and he will declare to thee; thy elders and they will tell thee.”[45] And again: “Rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man.”[46] “In the company of great men take not upon thee to speak; and when the ancients are present, speak not much.”[47] “Hear in silence, and for thy reverence good grace shall come to thee.”[48] Now, all these fathers must be honored, because they all resemble to some degree our Father who is in heaven; and of all of them it is said: “He that despiseth you, despiseth Me.”[49]

(For “Questions for Discussion” see Chapter 6.)


1. Exod., xx. 12; Deut., v. 16.

2. I John, iii. 18.

3. I Tim., v. 8.

4. St. Thomas also treats of the Fourth Commandment in “Summa Theol.,” IIII, QQ. cxxii, ci.

5. Aristotle, “Ethics.”

6. Ecclus., vii. 29-30.

7. Heb., xii. 9.

8. Ecclus., vii. 25.

9. Prov. xxii. 6.

10. Lam., iii. 27.

11. Ecclus. iii. 10.

12. “Ibid.,” 13.

13. “Ibid.,” 14, 15, 18.

14. Epist., lib. II.

15. Col., iii. 20.

16. “Ad Heliod.”

17. Luke, xiv. 26.

18. Deut., xxxii. 6.

19. Ecclus., iii. 9-10.

20. Deut., xxvii. 16.

21. Luke, xvi. 10.

22. Ecclus., iii. 7.

23. Wis., iv. 13.

24. Prov., xxx. 17.

25. Ecclus., xxxiii. 20.

26. “Ibid.,” iii. 6.

27. Matt., vii. 2.

28. Ecclus., iii. 13.

29. “Ibid.,” 18.

30. “Ibid.,” 11.

31. I Cor., iv. 15.

32. Ecclus., xliv. 1.

33. Heb., xiii. 7.

34. Luke, x. 16.

35. Heb., xiii. 17.

36. Prov., iii. 9.

37. IV Kings, v. 13.

38. Rom., xiii. 1.

39. “Ibid.,” 7

40. “Ibid.”

41. Prov., xxiv. 21.

42. Ecclus., iv. 10.

43. “Ibid.,” xxix. 19.

44. Wis., xvi. 29.

45. Deut., xxxii. 7.

46. Lev., xix. 32.

47. Ecclus., xxxii. 13.

48. “Ibid.,” 9.

49. Luke, x. 16.

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