Pope Francis has officially lost his revolutionary cred. Known for his willingness to challenge church doctrine, to bring religion into the 21st century and to speak truth to power, he clearly hasn’t gotten an updated parenting manual. He appears to still be reading from a 17th-century edition that advised Europeans that children could be possessed by a devil that should be driven out with a rod of correction.
During a recent general weekly audience, the pope decided to offer some advice to the world’s parents. “One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say, ‘I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face, so as to not humiliate them,’” he told the audience. “How beautiful!”
He then praised the father’s actions, saying, “He knows the sense of dignity. He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on.”
Did somebody slip a mickey in the pontiff’s communal chalice?
There is nothing beautiful or dignified about physically assaulting a child. At its core, corporal punishment — legalized brutality — is about intentionally causing pain. It is a form of humiliation that denies children the right to bodily integrity and puts them at risk for a slew of negative behaviors. If Francis had stopped — or sent one of his many researchers to the Vatican Library — to look at more than 60 years of medical literature, he would realize the numerous harms that come from smacking a kid.
The pediatrics, child development and psychological communities around the globe are in agreement that corporal punishment does not work to get children to comply. Parents will often repeat and escalate the intensity of hitting, placing children in danger. Scientists have repeatedly found that lightly spanking a child, even occasionally, is tied to mental disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, aggressive behavior and hyperactivity and juvenile delinquency. The trajectory of brain development can be altered when a caretaker spanks the gray matter (literally) out of their skulls, which leads to lowered verbal intelligence and decision-making skills as well as imbalances of the hormones cortisol and oxytocin, which can lead to an impaired ability to regulate emotions and risky sexual behavior.
And if science isn’t his cup of tea, the pope should simply talk to survivors like me. I guarantee they wouldn’t utter the words “dignity” and “beautiful,” unless the architecture of their brains have been damaged sufficiently that they’ve convinced themselves that being hit was an act of love that made them better people.
The pope’s endorsement of hitting as long as it is done with “dignity” suggests that he, like so many, see violence as both necessary and empowering as long as it is imagined as transformative. Such efforts to reconstitute abuse and violence as love and empowerment share an ethos with those who seek to influence behavior through violence. And they are particularly disturbing in a world in which kids are routinely beaten and brutalized in their homes, in juvenile facilities, on the streets, at checkpoints, in schools and in war zones.
Of course, when it comes to the welfare of children, the Catholic Church’s track record is troubling. It’s no wonder the Vatican’s recently formed Sex Abuse Committee swiftly condemned the remarks, calling on Francis to revise his statements. One committee member, Peter Saunders, who was abused by a priest as a teenager, criticized the pope’s remarks at a press conference. “It might start off as a light tap, but actually the whole idea about hitting children is about inflicting pain,” he noted. “That’s what it’s about, and there is no place in this day and age for having physical punishment, for inflicting pain, in terms of how you discipline your children.”
The church casts itself as a champion for the downtrodden, the voiceless and the disenfranchised. The pontiff could have used his platform to join a growing international movement led by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child by calling for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and homes. Instead, in providing a moral and religious justification for abuse and brutality, his comments are yet another reminder of the false promises of a church that speaks for power.
It is heartbreaking to me that we continue to debate the appropriate way to assault children and the degree to which a child is appropriately scarred, physically or mentally. When children are assaulted, the lesson we leave them with is disrespect and disregard, not another D-word: dignity.