Pope Francis on spanking

My parents were ahead of their times in not believing in corporal punishment when I grew up after the Second World War. The only time I remember being slapped by my father was when my brother was fooling around in the backseat of the car. My father's normal reservoir of patience had finally been exhausted and he swung at my brother, who quickly ducked, leaving me the recipient of the slap.

If looks could kill, my father would have been dead and my mother prosecuted for murder. I was too shocked to cry and blamed my brother not my father. I still blame my brother.

Corporal punishment is still a hotly debated topic in our country. Most states do not allow it in schools (19 do). Many parents think it is still useful for disciplining a child, but when NFL player Adrian Peterson beat his son so badly with a switch that wounds appeared, people were rightly appalled. Brutal punishment by a parent is child abuse and a crime.

However, outside of Western Europe and the United States, spanking children is not a controversial issue. In most nations and cultures is an acceptable and even encouraged practice.

Pope Francis stepped into the middle of this controversy with some comments that seemed to endorse corporal punishment at his weekly general audience on Wednesday.

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Let's first be clear on what the pope did not say. He did not tell parents to spank their kids. He did not endorse corporal punishment.

In fact, he did just the opposite. He asked parents to limit or moderate any punishment they inflict on their children.

In most parts of the world, this would be great progress in the protection of children. It is not an endorsement of the zero tolerance of spanking supported by many American and European psychologists, but it is better than what is practiced in most places in the world. The pope speaks to the whole world, not just highly educated First World parents who consume child rearing books.

What did the pope actually say?

He referred to a father who had said, "I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them." He then praised the father not for smacking his kids but for respecting their "dignity" by not hitting them in the face or humiliating them. "He knows the sense of dignity!" said the pope. "He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on."

In fact, the whole thrust of his audience was on the importance of a father's love for his children. He stressed the "closeness, gentleness and firmness" that a father should have with his children.

A father is "to be close to the children as they grow: when they play and when they make efforts, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they dare and when they are afraid, when they make missteps and when they return to the right path," he said. "A father must always be present."

But "being present is not the same as controlling," warned the pope. "Fathers who seek to control end up stifling their children; they do not let them grow."

Using the example of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, Pope Francis says, "Fathers need to be patient. Sometimes you can do nothing other than wait; pray and wait with patience, gentleness, magnanimity, and mercy. A good father knows how to wait and how to forgive, from the bottom of his heart."

Taken in its total context, this is far from encouraging fathers to smack their kids around. Rather it sounds like the counsel of a benevolent grandfather who grew up in a culture where spanking was taken for granted. 

But the bottom line is that the pope did not condemn corporal punishment by parents. Should he have done that? Not being a parent, I will leave that debate to others.

My parents did a decent job raising my sister, my brother, and me. Long ago I forgave my father for hitting me. Maybe someday I will forgive my brother for ducking.  

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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