Pope Francis on Spanking

by Jimmy Akin

in +PopeFrancis, Apologetics, Bible, Bible History, Moral Theology

corporalpunishmentSpanking 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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JohnE February 22, 2015 at 9:50 pm

I think Jesus “spanked” the moneychangers for the same reason some parents spank their children. Not every behavior can be morally reasoned with, such as willful defiance or disobedience. Jesus could have said, “Hey guys, this is a house of prayer and I know you’ve been selling these animals for the sacrifices for many years now, but don’t you think it might be a little inappropriate? I bet if we were to move this outside we’d all feel more respectful toward God don’t you think? Would you like to give that a try for me?” I don’t think that would have gotten anywhere. Jesus didn’t seem to think so either.

I was spanked. I don’t remember how much as a toddler and only a handful of times that I remember. We did the same with our sons — more in the toddler years and less as they got into grade school years. I think people who know us would say we are psychologically sound. I really think verbal abuse is actually far more damaging.

John Ata February 23, 2015 at 5:30 am

I’m surprised – trying to tie the moneychangers with spanking children is a stretch. The whole purpose of Jesus driving the money changers was not to punish individuals but to evict the profaners from His Father’s house. Spanking children, on the other hand, is totally different… at best it is meant as individual correction. There is no real evidence whatsoever that Jesus would ever spank a child for this purpose. In addition, whether or not Jesus would spank a child does not really address the issue of whether spanking is morally allowed. Jesus would not marry anyone or serve in any armed resistance to the occupation of his country either – that does not mean that such acts are not morally allowed.

bearing February 23, 2015 at 6:12 am

I dislike corporal punishment, but generally agree with Jimmy that parents may exercise a great deal of discernment in deciding how to discipline their children. I have one thing to say about the Church and spanking.

When my daughter was baptized (in a separate ceremony outside Mass), the then-pastor of my church preached a homily that I could sum up as “Spanking is good because of original sin. If you don’t spank your children, you’re probably neglecting their discipline.” He chuckled as he extolled the virtues of physical punishment. He implied that spanking is a required part of Catholic parenting.

At the baptism, where several children were being baptized, were numerous friends and relatives of the parents, not all of whom were familiar with Church teaching on baptism. The pastor lost the opportunity to talk about original sin. He lost the opportunity to talk about baptism of infants as an example of salvation not by faith alone but by grace alone. He lost the opportunity to put baptism in its historical context, to explain Jesus’s teachings about water and the spirit, to explain the renewal of baptismal vows.

Instead he chose to expound about something that was controversial and not part of Catholic doctrine at all.

One of my friends, a Christian non-Catholic who had been physically abused as a child, was so horrified by his remarks that she left and would not come to the small party we held afterward. What she heard with her wounded ears was: This baby must eventually be beaten. That was her first experience with the Catholic Church, and as far as I know, it remains her only one.

A lost opportunity.

patty baquilala February 23, 2015 at 7:59 am

There is no elder or older individual that does not correct a child even a teacher correct their pupils,I have this experienced to when I was a child.It helps also to give such an attitude to be not so rebellious but not all.If a child learns to accept corrections it helps them to be obedient or humble in their adult life.Many times they are not yet capable of right thinking so spanking is needed if it is necessary but not abusive.I did once hit my children ( long time ago ).Spanking does not mean humiliating but not and it should not be in the face or in front of many people.It still respect the dignity of a child being corrected in private and the right way.But also often times parents did also the wrong thing to their children don’t make a mistake.If communication fails to warn them of their danger then spanking is ok as a reminder.

brian kundinger February 23, 2015 at 9:39 am


Bill912 February 23, 2015 at 2:41 pm

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to grace us with your hatred, bigotry, and ignorance.

Mark February 23, 2015 at 10:56 pm

I’m a Catholic but Brain is right.

Bill912 February 24, 2015 at 5:10 am

We didn’t have a problem with pedophiles; we had a problem with a few homosexual predators preying on teenage boys and young men. Most of this problem occurred between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s. In other words, it pretty much ended 30 years ago.

Mark February 28, 2015 at 11:43 pm

You wouldn’t know it from websites like Catholics4Change.

Christian February 23, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Nothing less than the credible threat of a spanking made any impression on me as a kid; and I was even pretty philosophical about getting spanked. My other 4 siblings put together got less of it than I did. What can I say? They were a bunch of goodie-goodies.

Felix servidad February 24, 2015 at 5:57 am

I think the best way of raising the children, is that the parents should not treat the children in such a way as to make them angry, instead, they should raise them with Christian discipline instruction and love. In this way the parents no longer need to spank them. The parents should understand, what the bible saying, what you sow is what exactly you will reap.

Bill912 February 24, 2015 at 6:23 am

I’m sure glad my parents didn’t agree with you; I thank God for giving me parents who loved me enough to, as Archbishop Sheen put it, depress one end in order to impress the other.

Mark February 28, 2015 at 11:56 pm

Not sure I agree with everything you say, but the first sentence is consistent with Hebrew 6:4

Irksome1 February 28, 2015 at 10:05 am

Growing up, I was spanked, I was slapped in the face, often this occurred in public, in order to humiliate as part of the punishment. It ought to be remarked that, in this, my father was far more lenient than the measures advocated in Scripture; my father never came after me with the bullwhip or broomstick handle. I emerged from this “okay” even though I was punished in a way that the pope advises against and Scripture seems to deem far too lenient.

How do we define “okay” in an objective fashion? Given the infinite variations of temperaments and personalities in people, how are we able to say that this degree or sort of punishment is responsible for producing any result? How, for instance, are we able to prove that a child who experienced a severe level of discipline and turned out poorly would not have turned out worse but for the punishment? Since even lasting trauma can be effective at permanently modifying behavior, how are we even able to morally assess the degree of severity we allow parents to utilize?

It seems to me that a results-oriented approach to moral analysis on the question of child discipline is the wrong way to do it. It’s consequentialist.

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