Catholic Bishops & Corporal Punishment

By: Gregory Popcak


Is it possible to articulate a consistent, coherent Catholic position on the use or corporal punishment?   As a family therapist and Catholic parenting author it’s a question I spend a lot of time prayerfully considering.   Many good parents on both sides of the debate have very strong feelings on the subject and it can be confusing for parents to have to sort out the pros and cons on this issue.    My own thoughts on the subject have been widely circulated. (See an article I wrote on this subject here.)  In light of this, I was honored to  discover that my work on the subject was recently (this past June)  cited in 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.

The report articulates the Catholic position on recent controversial legislation in South Africa protecting the “physical integrity” of children and prohibiting the use of corporal punishment. It  clarifies the difference between the Catholic view of child discipline in contrast with  many of Protestant sects that are protesting  the Children’s’ Amendment Bill.    The SABC-CPLO articulates a position that promotes positive discipline in lieu of corporal punishment.   Specifically, the document is notable for its assertion that,  “There is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which supports the right of parents to use corporal punishment.”  I applaud the SABC’s efforts to promote the Catholic view of the dignity of the  child and children’s rights to be treated as persons.   As Pope John Paul II wrote in his  Letter to Children,  “children 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.”


I realize that  spanking is a controversial issue, but the South African Bishop’s document makes for excellent reading for any Catholic parent who has an interest in the corporal punishment debate.  I don’t wish to overstate things. It is true that, at this writing, corporal punishment remains a matter of prudential judgment for Catholics, but as the Church continues to reflect on this issue, she appears to be moving consistently—and internationally—toward opposing it.      For instance, last year, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans was on the receiving end of a great deal of parental anger when he spoke publicly and forcefully against the use of corporal punishment.  At that time, he said,  I do not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church as we interpret them in 2011 condone corporal punishment. It’s hard for me to imagine in any way, shape or form, Jesus using a paddle.”  Read the article here.  

All of this, of course,  is completely consistent with the writings of Catholic educators such as St John Bosco who, all the way back in the mid 1800′s, wrote,  To strike a child in any way…and other similar punishments must be absolutely avoided.”  At any rate, it was an honor to have my work cited by the South African Bishops’ Conference in their efforts to promote the Catholic vision of family life.    I hope you’ll  take some time to reflect on the document and allow it to speak to your heart about your  parenting choices.      If you’d like to  learn more about effective,  Catholic approaches to  child rearing and positive discipline,  check out  Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.  

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