Catholic Bishops Weigh in on Corporal Punishment

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.

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.”

While I am, personally, very suspicious of any government intrusion into family life as a potential trampling of subsidiarity, 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 grownups….How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grownups.”

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, if for no other reason than when bishops weigh in on such issues it provides additional guidance for Catholic laity on what it means to think with the mind of the Church.

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.”

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.

And for those of you who are interested, here is part of an interview Archbishop Aymond did on local news defending his comments in opposition to corporal punishment  YouTube Preview Image




About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • earlrichards
  • oregon catholic

    I certainly have mixed feelings about it. Younger people today suffer from a lack of respect for authority and often that respect begins as a little fear in childhood when we experience the wrath of our parents to our willful disobedience. I’m not talking about beating a child, but rather the swat on the bottom that let’s a child understand they are NOT in charge.

    • Michelle

      An authority who must use physical force against someone smaller and weaker than he in order to establish his authority is not much of an authority, I’m afraid. Even in times and places where parents were more likely to use corporal punishment, it was usually force of personality and personal gravitas that commanded the child’s respect—not the switch. For example, read the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Once in the entire series was Laura spanked, when she struck her sister Mary. Although Almanzo feared corporal punishment, he was never struck in the book—not even by a teacher, who did not whack his hand with a ruler for forgetting a lesson, but did take a whip to older teens who had killed a previous teacher and threatened his own life. In other words, even in the 19th-century, corporal punishment may have been accepted, but parents did not use it merely to communicate “I’m the boss.”

      • oregon catholic

        I’m not talking about physical “force” or punishment. Swats on the bottom of young children, which don’t hurt, are precisely to get their attention and communicate ‘I’m the boss’ and ‘Listen to me’ when nothing else is getting their attention. I think swats should be rare or they lose their effectiveness and I can’t see them being needed after age 4 or 5. But to say never is to take away an effective means of discipline and instilling respect that may have no equal in some situations.

        I see the same ignoring and lack of respect of authority in school and on the job that I so often see in bratty children whose parent’s have no control because all they have in their toolbox is talk. These teens and young adults grow up having no healthy ‘fear’ of authority even when they should. A healthy fear of being fired because your boss says show up at 8:00 or else has kept many a person employed. I’ve seen so-called adults who will quit or get fired because they are just too ‘precious’ – a concept usually instilled by a parent – to be forced to do anything. They have to WANT to do it or it’s just no good. Good luck with that unless you plan on being self-employed your whole life.

        • gpopcak

          I can show you 20 other ways–literally–to accomplish the same ends and more. It isn’t so much a matter of “don’t spank” as it is a matter of “it isn’t necessary to spank.” And it isn’t that some children need it and some don’t. The children that “need” it the most tend to benefit the least from it.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I just received “Parenting with Grace” as a birthday gift–my husband and I are very excited to read it.

  • nblock

    Thank you Dr. Popcak for endorsing non-violent discipline for children. I look forward to the day when the Catholic Church to which I belong joins the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church USA in calling for an end to hitting children in all settings, even homes. It is consistent with a loving, New Testament view of children.

  • gpopcak

    Not sure what you mean by the “bishops are voiding” but it sure sounds disgusting….
    As for the verse from Proverbs. The Archbishop addressed this if you could have bestirred yourself to watch the video before rushing to post. Catholics interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the new. We don’t keep kosher not because keeping kosher isn’t relevant but because keeping kosher was a physical sign of the spiritual purity that became our primary concern because of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
    In the same way, we understand that the verse on spanking is understood in the light of Christ as Good Shepherd. A shepherd doesn’t beat his sheep. he trains them. He gathers them. He nourishes them and teaches them the sound of his voice. He doesn’t beat them. As the Archbishop points out, we take from that verse the need to train our children, to discipline our children, and to raise our children to be good citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do not need to beat them to do that.
    You need to decide if you are going to view scripture as a Catholic views it or if you are going to cherry-pick pet proof texts like some Fundamentalist.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • gpopcak

    Ron, your comment shows a stunning lack of imagination regarding your approach to child-rearing. I can guarantee you I can show you at least 30 different ways to have higher expectations for your children and get better compliance out of your children than by spanking them.
    Check out Parenting with Grace if you’d like to learn.

  • Guggie L Daly

    This is absolutely wonderful and makes my heart sing. :) Thank you for putting all these references here, too. Anyone familiar with Catholic teaching on baptism, the age of reason and grace should think very deeply about what it means to harm young children. And that’s not even getting into other parts of the topic!

  • Jim Russell

    One of my favorite self-generated axioms of late is “Don’t let your facts get in the way of my narrative.” (this is the kind of axiom that people tend to abide by in comboxes, not one I recommend)…
    I would hope that both sides of the “spanking” question proceed carefully in dialogue and don’t end up tuning out the other view… there is still room for learning on both sides of this issue…

  • mcv

    Thank you for the link to the teachings of St. John Bosco!