What do we say to the Pope?

Progressive Pope? Really? Well…what passes for “progressive” in the Vatican – a global Power not renowned for its savvy on children.

You’ve heard the Pope’s oxymoronic gaffe about hitting your children with dignity. The permanent self-defeat that afflicts those lumbered with Old Testament blues. I doubt Houdini could get out of this one.

I hear this kind of flight of fancy every day. Smack your kids – but without anger. Hit them with Love. What else? Shoot gently? Kick sweetly? Belt serenely? Head-butt mindfully? The dignity-slap I could not dismiss as just one more vestige of a dying patriarchy. Over a billion people still listen to the Papal smacker. And quite a few of the faithful swallow without filtering. What then happens to children on the receiving end of the obedient?

So, what do we say to the Pope? What can we say to those in his thrall? My good friend Mitch Hall – long-time international peace activist and high-level academic from San Francisco – put together this brief letter, which he will send to the Vatican in Spanish and English. He has summarized the newest and most powerful pieces of research on the subject. Mitch’s letter is so authoritative and simple, I thought it might be of help to any of you tangling with an advocate of punishment. Please know that the research is so abundant and conclusive, and has been for years! Arguing for hitting a child is right up there with climate change denial. Or exorcising epileptics.

Here is Mitch’s letter, complete with academic references in case someone asks. Mitch would be happy for his letter to be used freely in the interest of protecting children.

An Evidence-Based Critique of Pope Francis’s Position on Smacking Children

by Mitch Hall, Ph.D.

With an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, the presiding Pope Francis has a potentially huge audience and significant influence through his public pronouncements. His recently reported approval of the punitive smacking of children, provided “one does not violate their dignity,” (BBC, 2015) gives evidence of his ignorance of the harm done by hitting children, as social science research has found. Informed by this research, to date, 44 nations have outlawed all physical punishment of children (The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Newsletter 29, December 2014). Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are sadly behind the times. Let’s consider a small sampling of the scientific findings about how smacking affects human development.

A literature review and meta-analysis of hundreds of published studies, spanning a century, shows physical punishment is correlated with a greater likelihood that children will be defiant, aggressive, delinquent, and antisocial in the future, and more at risk for mental health problems, serious injury, and physical abuse (Gershoff, 2008).

A study conducted in China, India, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, and Thailand found that children subjected to maternal physical punishment showed more anxiety and aggression than kids not physically punished (Lansford, et al., 2005).

Children spanked frequently, at least once a month for three years, have less gray matter in areas of the prefrontal cortex, and this reduction is associated with increased risk of depression, addiction, and other disorders (Tomoda et al., 2009).

In a worldwide sample of 48 societies, frequent physical punishment of boys in late childhood is the formative experience most highly correlated with social violence. Low physical punishment rates are correlated with low rates of social violence (Barry, 2007).

Physically punished kids are more likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence with siblings and peers than those raised nonviolently (Smith, 2012) and are at higher risk for delinquency and criminal behavior (Gershoff, 2013).

Much more research could be cited. The Pope’s presumption that children can be punitively smacked without violating their dignity is a vague, unsupportable, deplorable, shallow rationalization. What “dignity” may mean in his vocabulary is uncertain. I believe that the word needs to be defined in the context of respecting the right of all human beings to be treated ethically and not to be harmed. When adults smack children, they intentionally inflict pain, fear, and humiliation with the presumed goal of “correcting” wrong behavior and gaining obedience to their will. Adults inevitably rationalize that their hitting is for the children’s own good. However, the evidence points robustly in the other direction and shows that the consequences are neither for the children’s own good nor the greater good. Smacking children is an abuse of the adult’s power advantage and a violation of human dignity in any ethically meaningful sense of the term.


  • Barry III, H. (2007). Corporal Punishment and Other Formative Experiences Associated with Violent Crimes. The Journal of Psychohistory, 35(1), 71-82.
  • BBC World News. (2015). Pope backs smacking of children ‘if dignity maintained’. February 6, 2015.<http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31163219>
  • Gershoff, E.T. (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline.
  • Gershoff, E.T. (2013). Spanking & Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133–137, September 2013.
  • Lansford, J.E. et al (2005). Physical Discipline and Children’s Adjustment: Cultural Normativeness as a Moderator. Child Development, 2005 Nov–Dec, 76(6), 1234– 1246.
  • Smith, B.L. (2012). The Case against Spanking. Monitor on Psychology, 43(4), 60, April 2012.
  • Tomoda, A. et al (2009). Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment. NeuroImage, 47(2), August 2009, T66–T71.



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2 Responses to What do we say to the Pope?

  1. Kate says:

    There are studies which show that children who grow up in homes where physical punishment is practiced are more likely to be sexually abused. This is not always because the same person is doing both. Rather – it is thought that children of (frequently) patriarchal homes which practice physical punishment are more afraid and less skilled in saying no and standing up to a manipulative adult. Sadly, they may be just easier to groom. It’s something to think about for parents who hit.
    Given the long investigation of our Royal Commission (And Ireland’s RC) into the Catholic Church it is possible that these two things (the church advocating physical punishment) and the sad findings of high levels of sexual abuse within the church are not unrelated.

  2. Robin Grille says:

    One of the areas in which anthropology and social psychology overlap well and confirm one another is the consistent finding that authoritarian or patriarchal (those two are usually synonymous) groups (family, community, nation) are associated with higher rates of violence and abuse, sexual and otherwise. Brain science (developmental psycho-neuro-endocrinology) reveals that this is more than association, it is causation. The answer? No power-over. Democracy at home, democracy in school, democracy in religion, democracy in all walks. Not the vertical line or pyramid, but the CIRCLE.

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