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Pope Francis Gets Schooled on Spanking: Pop-Psych Meets Magisterium

Pope Francis did it again.

Did what? Gave another Wednesday papal audience, of course!

And the media and the pop psychologists—both secular and Catholic—have done it again, too. They’ve responded vigorously and rather alarmingly to the Holy Father’s recent Wednesday audience (Feb. 4, 2015: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150204_udienza-generale.html) in which he continued his catechesis on the family by teaching about fathers.

Pope Francis now-famously 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.” [boldface emphasis added]

With that, the headlines proliferated. The Pope has said spanking is okay! Omigosh! Those who have embraced an absolutist “anti-spanking” ideology were the most offended, it seems. The Holy Father has misspoken, right?  Did he really say that? His words are of course not authoritative, right? He was just speaking off the cuff! A miscalculation that failed miserably to make his real point about mercy and forgiveness! It’s up to parenting experts to decide this, not him! Doesn’t he know there’s absolutely no theological or Scriptural support for spanking?!

It’s time for a reality check—particularly for the cadre of Catholic anti-spanking pundits who are placing ideology ahead of truth on this one.

  1. What Pope Francis said IS—most assuredly—part of his ordinary teaching office. It’s part of the “ordinary papal magisterium.” It’s not something Catholics simply ignore because they disagree and think there is no “just” form of spanking as corporal punishment. I find it most amazing that I’m witnessing some Catholics imbued, for example, in the authoritative teaching of Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” while simultaneously and intentionally downplaying Pope Francis’ authentic magisterium as expressed in his ongoing catechesis on the family! Folks, the “Theology of the Body” was delivered to the faithful in precisely the same manner—via Wednesday papal audiences.
  2. The Holy Father is definitely speaking as Pope here (and thus with magisterial authority), but his words are merely re-stating what faithful Catholic parents have always known—measured corporal punishment is indeed among the “just” options for parents in disciplining their children. This comes as a culture shock mostly (maybe only) to those who are deeply invested in contradicting this truth because it contrasts with their deeply-held absolutist stance against spanking, but is it really a shock to anyone else?
  3. Pope Francis is not instructing parents that they “ought” to spank. His words about fathers merely reflect, explicitly, that spanking can be a just form of discipline. Despite what pop psychologists might claim in this arena about it actually being always wrong to spank, Holy Mother Church has never made such a claim—and never will. It’s among the many potential tools in the parenting toolkit. But that doesn’t mean that every parent is somehow obligated to use every tool. Rather it mainly means that every parent ought to conscientiously make a choice as to which tools are most “just” for their unique situation and their unique children. And, it means that we parents also ought to avoid criticizing or second-guessing those parents whose choice might differ from ours in this regard.

Okay—with this reality check in mind, dear parents, please do your personal best to form your conscience on this question in full accord with the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person (including all those little human persons who are our children) and with a conscious understanding of what is and is not part of the parenting toolkit. Spanking can be a form of “correcting without humiliating” as Pope Francis says. It’s by no means the only or the best option both for lots of parents and lots of kids in lots of situations. It may be the “just” option at certain times. Yet, we parents can be weak human beings, so let’s be sure we are deeply careful of the choice we make when disciplining children.

At the same time, parents, let’s also avoid the irony of beating each other over the head with our own personally held views on spanking. We can do better than that!