Pope Francis on Spanking

Pope Francis recently commented on corporal punishment for children. Here is what he had to say . . .
Pope Francis recently commented on corporal punishment for children. Here is what he had to say . . . (photo: Register Files)

Spanking is quite controversial in some quarters. Some people speak of it as if it is tantamount to child abuse.

Other say, that they were spanked as children, that it didn’t do any long-term harm, and that it actually did them good.

So I was interested to see Pope Francis’s remarks on spanking in a recent audience.


Cards on the Table

Before I get to them, let me put my cards on the table.

As I’ve written before, my own conviction is that the issue of corporal punishment is one for parents to decide.

I have known some parents who have successfully raised children using it seldom or never. I also know there are parents who feel it has played an important and needed role in raising their children.

The fact is that children are different, and some respond to different things. To one child a time out may be far more agonizing (and motivating) than a paddling. To others, just the reverse will be the case.

Whether corporal punishment is to be used in the case of their own children—and how much and when—is something that I view as within the natural law rights of parents to determine.

So what did Pope Francis say?


The Pope Speaks

As you may know, he’s currently giving a series of catecheses on the family in his Wednesday audiences, and earlier this month he was talking about fathers when he said:

A good father knows how to wait and knows how to forgive from the depths of his heart.

Certainly, he also knows how to correct with firmness: he is not a weak father, submissive and sentimental.

The father who knows how to correct without humiliating is the one who knows how to protect without sparing himself.

Once I heard a father at a meeting on marriage say:

“Sometimes I have to strike the children lightly... but never in the face so as not to humiliate them”.

How beautiful! He has a sense of dignity. He must punish, but he does it in a just way, and moves on [General Audience, Feb. 4, 2015, emphasis in original].

It thus seems that Pope Francis sees a positive role for corporal punishment, in at least some cases.


“How Beautiful”?

I know that he’s talking about the father’s attitude—not the corporal punishment itself—when he says, “How beautiful!” (see the statements that immediately follow this remark; they clarify what he is saying is beautiful), though I’ll confess I was a bit taken aback by the phrase.

Juxtaposed with “Sometimes I have to strike the children lightly . . . but never in the face so as not to humiliate them,” it came across to me as rather arresting.

I don’t know what culture this father was from (or how close Pope Francis’s memory of his precise words is to what he said), but I’m not sure why a light strike on the face would be more humiliating than one elsewhere.

A hard strike could leave a bruise (or worse), which could lead to further humiliation—as well as a visit from child protective services in the developed world.

But Pope Francis remembers the man saying that he only used light strikes, and then not on the face, so perhaps he meant that he never even gave a light slap on the cheek.

In that case, the man would have been emphasizing that he only used light strikes and then only where they wouldn’t lead to ongoing harm/humiliation.

In any event, what Pope Francis is praising is the administration of discipline with “a sense of dignity. He must punish, but he does it in a just way, and moves on.”


What Would Jesus Do?

When discussing a subject like this in a Christian context, a question that is bound to come up is whether this is something Jesus would do.

I’ve written before about the difficulties of solving moral dilemmas by asking “What would Jesus do?”, but for now let me point to an event that we’re going to be hearing about this year on the Third Sunday of Lent.

According to St. John’s account of the clearing of the temple (quoted from the NAB):

He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. 

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me” [John 2:14-17].

These merchants weren’t children, but they were behaving badly, and our Lord saw fit not only to spill their coins and overturn their tables (leading to a hopeless confusion and probable loss of income for the money-changers in question), he also saw fit to make a whip and start swinging it at people.

Note that he is swinging the whip at people. The text says that he “made a whip out of cords and drove them [i.e., those who sold ... as well as the money-changers], with the sheep and oxen.” So he didn’t just use the whip on the animals. He swung it in the direction of people, too.

It’s easy to say that we find it difficult to imagine Jesus spanking someone, just as it’s easy to suppose that he wouldn’t splatter people’s money, overturn their property, and physically attack a group of businessmen. Surely the meek and mild Jesus would never do those things! Our God is a God of order, not chaos, after all. And violence never solves anything.

Yet here we have the Savior of mankind brandishing a whip.


The Bible on Child Discipline

Jesus’ actions took place in a broader biblical context.

Sacred Scripture takes a positive attitude toward childhood discipline. As the author of Hebrews writes:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it [Heb. 12:11].

The author of Hebrews doesn’t specify that he’s talking about physical discipline, though he surely wasn’t excluding it. There simply was no anti-spanking ethic in ancient Hebrew culture. Indeed, Proverbs counsels:

He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him [Prov. 13:24].

That’s not to say that we must use these methods today, but it does show that they are not foreign to the Judeo-Christian tradition, including in the New Testament period in which the author of Hebrews was writing.

And even if the author of Hebrews (very implausibly) didn’t have corporal punishment in mind, he clearly acknowledged the use of painful discipline to train towards proper conduct.

What do you think?

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Miniature from a 13th-century Passio Sancti Georgii (Verona).

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