Pope Francis received mixed reactions this week to his comments on the place of corporal punishment in the home. In his weekly general address in Rome, he commented that he believes it is OK for parents to spank their children as long as they “don’t demean them.”
“One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say, ‘I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them,’” the pope said during the address. “How beautiful!”
The Vatican sex abuse commission, comprised of 17 members and installed to oversee issues of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, was quick to criticize Pope Francis for his remarks. Commission member Peter Saunders recommended that the pope reconsider his statement, considering “millions of children around the world are physically beaten every day.”
"It might start off as a light tap, but actually the whole idea about hitting children is about inflicting pain," Saunders said at a press conference Saturday. "That's what it's about and there is no place in this day and age for having physical punishment, for inflicting pain, in terms of how you discipline your children."
Francis has often brought the Catholic Church into the headlines for his “revolutionary” style of leading and progressive stance on many issues, including abortion and gay marriage. But with his latest comments on spanking, the severity and speed of criticism leaves people wondering if perhaps the pope is not as progressive when it comes to how parents discipline their children.
This is not the only time popes and other high Catholic officials have addressed corporal punishment. The South African Bishops’ Conference–Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (SABC-CPLO) report to South African Parliament on “The Use of Corporal Discipline in the Home” asserts “[t]here is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which supports the right of parents to use corporal punishment.”
Pope John Paul II, who served as pope from 1978 to 2005, voiced his opinion on the responsibility of adults to ensure that children are treated appropriately in his "Letter to Children."
“[C]hildren suffer many forms of violence from grown‐ups . . . How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown‐ups,” he wrote.
In Christianity, a verse that is often quoted in defense of corporal punishment is found in Proverbs: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (Prov. 13:24). However, while this may seem like a green light for spanking, critics have pointed out that it does not explicitly give permission to physically discipline children.
Megan Clarke wrote on USCatholic.org: “[T]rue discipline does not need to be constructed on a foundation of forced compliance inspired by violence and fear. Rather, it mandates, as the Latin root of discipuli or 'student' implies, that the relationship of parent to child be like that of a teacher to student. It is focused on education, learning, respect, and love.”
Many studies have shown that there are little or no benefits from spanking children. One study – published in 2010 by Tulane University – showed that while spanking may stop undesirable behavior in the short run, it is linked to worse behavior over time. Of almost 2,500 children in the study, those spanked more frequently at the age of three were significantly more likely to be aggressive by age five, reported Time Magazine.
While there are many reasons why the Vatican sex abuse commission is questioning the pope’s remarks about corporal punishment, there are still reasons why the remarks may reflection public opinion. According to Time Magazine, more than 75 percent of men and 65 percent of women in the US support giving children the occasional “good, hard spanking.”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica said it is clear that the pope was not endorsing violence or cruelty against children. If anything, he feels that people should consider the pope’s own interactions with children for insight into his take on physical discipline.
“Who has not disciplined their child or been disciplined by parents when we are growing up?” Rosica said in an email to The Guardian. “Simply watch Pope Francis when he is with children and let the images and gestures speak for themselves. To infer or distort anything else . . . reveals a greater problem for those who don’t seem to understand a pope who has ushered in a revolution of normalcy of simple speech and plain gesture.”