Will pope correct his slip of tongue?

GUESTXCOLUMNGiving credit where due, one must remove one’s hat and bow one’s head with utmost respect, or give a salute in homage to His Holiness Pope Francis for his relentless efforts to bring about world peace, and better all mankind.

In February this year, however, at his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, before a live audience of thousands and media coverage of millions; His Holiness spoke in favour of corporal punishment to children –– or at least that’s how many people interpreted his comments.

His remarks stunned many listeners; sent shockwaves throughout anti-corporal punishment campaign groups and child protection agencies worldwide; reduced the effectiveness of their campaigns alarmingly, and placed before them a huge obstacle to surmount.

“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’,” His Holiness told the massive adoring attentive audience.

“How beautiful! He knows the sense of dignity!” he added. “He has to punish them, but does it justly and moves on.”

It’s an irrefutable fact that discipline is beneficial to all –– vitamins for the brain and the muscle of strong character. On the other hand, corporal punishment is evil, cruel, archaic, damaging, has no rehabilitative value, and makes no sense whatsoever.

The hand of a parent, guardian, or a teacher should be extended to guide in love and never cause a child to flinch in fear of a blow. Jesus taught the children with love and affection. He never wielded a cane or a threatening hand.

The Bible speaks of discipline. It says “spare the rod and spoil the child” and “he who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”.

The guidelines are indelibly etched in marble, so to speak, for the benefit of all. But there’s a problem. The word “rod” has been woefully and erroneously misinterpreted
with disastrous consequences to mean “stick” or “cane”.

In Hebrew the word “rod” is the same used in Psalm 23:4: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

The shepherd’s rod/staff was/is used to encourage, guide, and discipline the sheep towards taking a desired direction, not to beat, hurt or damage them. No shepherd, unless he’s a fool, would damage his stock intentionally and lower his profits.

Interpreted correctly, the interpretations should be: “spare good guidance and spoil the child”, and “he who spares good guidance hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) put it in a nutshell, when he said: “To discipline means to teach, not to punish.”

In Bangladesh, High Court justices Md. Imman Ali and Sheikh Hassan Arif outlawed the barbaric practice of corporal punishment in schools declaring it “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and a clear violation of a child’s fundamental right to life, liberty and freedom”.

Where in The Bible does it say that Mary and Joseph beat Jesus, or that Jesus beat the children he was teaching?

The duty of parents and teachers is to educate, guide, correct, instruct and discipline the children, not to mash their brains or damage their young developing bodies.

Sadly, millions of children throughout the world, in schools, madrasas and homes, have suffered severely over the years because of the biblical misinterpretation –– and are suffering still.

His Holiness said it wa fine for parents to smack their children as punishment for bad behaviour, but I believe it is never right to hit a child. Many problems experienced by adults today relate back to when they were children and beaten in their home or at school.

A damaged child today is a broken adult tomorrow and a potential threat to all of society. Jails throughout the world are full of broken adults who were damaged as children that Superglue was unable to fix.

I can fully understand His Holiness being caught up in the moment and wanting to endear himself more to the audience by miming the action of slapping a child on the bottom for greater effect, just as any great raconteur might. The pope’s failing to add “I’m only joking” (if he was) has already had serious implications for children worldwide, however, especially within the Catholic Church school system, where corporal punishment problems are deep-rooted, rife and mostly hidden.

I suspect (and hope) endorsing the punishment of children was not the pontiff’s intent, but the fact there has been no retraction of his remarks, leaves the matter dangling precariously in mid-air for wild misinterpretation and people to do with it as they please; and this needs to be remedied.

To many Roman Catholics worldwide, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church and spiritual leader to about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, is the voice of God on Earth and what he says is regarded as gospel.

Children need teaching and guidance to learn what is “bad behaviour” and what is not. This can be done by positive encouragement, rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing perceived bad behaviour. After all, since children need to learn what is good and bad behaviour, punishing them for making a mistake is never justified.

Surely, we should forgive them their mistakes and by doing so, set a strong positive example we hope they will adopt as adult. As they say, to err is human, to forgive is divine. And there is no better place than the school, home or madrasah to put that into practice.   

If parents/teachers spent less time focused on the perceived misbehaviour of children, and more time encouraging and praising them at every given opportunity, the actual misbehaviour would be far, far less. I’m sure His Holiness will agree that love, kindness, and forgiveness are energy-charged from Heaven and more powerful beyond human imagination.

Encouraging a child to be the good person we would like him or her to become could be as simple as a hug, a smile, a wink, a thumbs up, a high five, or a kind word.

Withholding these is all the “punishment” a child could need to address bad behaviour. A frown, a shake of the head, a look of disappointment (“the look”) or even the child’s name said in a tone of disapproval by a loving parent or a respected teacher sends a powerful message without physical contact, abusive language, or the use of any form of corporal punishment.

I call upon the pope, therefore, to admit that he has s made a “slip of the tongue” and tell the world that it’s wrong to hit and punish children. Discipline them, yes; punish them, no!

With the utmost respect and humility, in the better interests of children worldwide, I beseech His Holiness Pope Francis to address this important topic in his 2015 Christmas Day Message to the multimillions of Roman Catholics (and other religions that join in the celebration) and clarify that said by him in February.

Let this be his eternal-lasting Christmas gift to all children of the world, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

(Sir Frank Peters is a former newspaper and magazine publisher and editor, an award-winning writer, royal goodwill ambassador, humanitarian, human rights activist, and a respected foreign friend of Bangladesh.)

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