The Biblical Foundation for Punishment

I'm sure most everyone is at least vaguely familiar with the passages from scripture used as the basis for the defense of corporal punishment, as well as with those declaring that God punishes sinners.

I'm pretty sure it would be safe to say that we could debate all day long as to whether or not these passages are to be taken literally (to mean that a man who does not beat his child with a rod hates his son) or are metaphors for the natural consequences of one's sins, manifested in the natural order which God has created, to include the spiritual rupture sin creates between man and God--which is the greatest punishment of all. We know that the relationship between God and man is reflected in the relationship between parent and child. Our task is to discern exactly what that relationship ought to be.

For Catholics we have the teachings of the Church to give us an infallible interpretation of the scriptures. Nowhere in the precepts of the Church, any examination of conscience I have ever read, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, beatitudes, or encyclicals, to the best of my knowledge, does the Church teach that a parent is under a moral obligation to deliberately inflict pain on his child, physically or emotionally. (Here I distinguish between punishment that is rooted in pain, and discipline that has as its byproduct, the emotional pain of having offended/hurt the beloved. Here, too is an interesting correlation: in the attachment relationship, to hurt the beloved is, in itself, experienced as pain for the one doing the action. The realization that the beloved has been hurt by one's actions, whether deliberately or accidentally, gradually sinks in, causing feelings of healthy guilt and the subsequent development of conscience. In the "other" paradigm, to be "hurt" by the beloved is answered by hurting him back, inadvertently creating a viscious circle of vengeance.)

On the other hand, I am aware of numerous references within the body of Church teaching that warn parents, under pain of sin, to "raise up a child in the way he should go." For a parent to neglect the moral upbringing of his child is a grave offense against the child and God, the neglect of which is worse than having a millstone tied around one's neck and being thrown into the depths of the sea. EXACTLY HOW a parent accomplishes this task is not explicitly laid out by the Church. (There are, in fact, bible scholars who interpret "the rod," not as a stick with which to beat the child, but as a shepherd's staff with which to guide the child back to the safety of the fold.)

When I pray the Act of Contrition I say, "O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell (punishment, natural consequences, fear of pain), BUT MOST OF ALL, because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love (love, divine "attachment," fear of separating oneself from God, the beloved)...

The Church also teaches that one must have PERFECT CONTRITION for one's sins in order to be absolved at the time of death without the sacraments. So perfect contrition (love of God--selflessness) is "better" than imperfect contrition (fear of pain--selfishness).

Loving another person, in a nutshell, means wanting and bringing out the best in that person so that they can enjoy one day the happiness of heaven. We must not be a stumbling block, or give scandal. Christ, in His perfect love, set the perfect example of how man should love one another. Recall His chastisement of those who would stone the prostitute, Mary Magdalene, who in turn became one of the greatest women saints in history. Or how He "chastised" Judas, or Peter. There are countless examples: the blind man, the leper, the lame--all suffering, presumably, from the natural consequences of their sins. Nowhere in Christ's example do I find the sort of punishment for which parents argue a biblical foundation for inflicting on their children. I DO NOT believe He meant to exclude our children from this paradigm of loving correction. And He would not call us to something of which we were not capable.

Some will argue that it is an act of love to chastise a child for his wrongdoing so that he will not persist in such dangerous habits, thereby jeopardizing his immortal soul. I agree that our children are also NOT excluded from being objects of the spiritual works of mercy: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful. There are three more however, that are part of the whole package, for these works (as well as the virtues, for that matter) are not independent from one another, but must coexist simultaneously in every good action. These three, as you all well know, are: bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. (I believe that the corporal works of mercy can be translated into the parent/child relationship with equal relevance, but that can wait 'til later.) We must admonish and instruct our children thoughtfully, compassionately, patiently, with forgiveness, keeping in mind that they are God's first and will return to Him one day.

Hold On To Your Kids makes a compelling case, using evidence we can all easily relate to, in favor of the idea that a relationship between parent and child based on fear of pain (emotional or physical), does not, in the long run, bring out the best in our children. I for one will testify that it did nothing to bring out the best in myself as a parent, either. [Though the author is not openly Catholic (or privately, for all I know) the book is absolutely filled with Catholic wisdom and could well have been entitled, "How To Protect Your Children From Worldliness And Pass On To Them Your Own Traditions and Values."]

On the other hand, a relationship between parent and child based on mutual love, acceptance and respect DOES bring out the best in our children and in ourselves. It's difficult. It's painful. It's tedious--until we are reborn, in a manner of speaking, into a new relationship with our children. It's joyful. It's exhilarating. It's mutually sanctifying once we are.

All this simply goes to say that the exclusion of punishment from the parent/child relationship does not necessarily exclude discipline, and may, in fact, foster it. The converse is also true: the inclusion of punishment in the parent/child relationship does not necessarily include discipline, and may, in fact, inhibit it.

If one could argue that fear of the parents instills fear of the Lord, then one could argue that love of one's parents instills love of the Lord. Which is the higher road? Which is the nobler motivation? Which yields the greater virtue, in parent and child? A parent can yield no more favorable results by punishing her child, than a wife can yield better results punishing her husband. But to love another, and to enable the other to truly feel that love, FOR LOVE OF GOD, is perhaps the highest calling man can answer to.

This is not a utopian fantasy. If it were then Christ truly was a madman. This IS the way of love. It is the way to perfection. We have Christ's word and example to prove it. I, like Thomas, had to see it with my own eyes, but I have, in my friend, Gracie's family, as well as others, and now, finally, in my own. And it is truly wonderful!

One should not confuse this paradigm with one of permissiveness and tolerance of evil. It is an approach to child rearing that is keenly aware of our fallen human nature, of the narcissism and irrationality of the child. It is an approach that works with man's nature to elevate it with the almighty power of love. Not to exacerbate man's nature by inflaming pride, anger, jealousy, etc. It simply does not make sense that, in order to make a child be good we must make him feel bad; in order to make a child love we must make him feel fear, anger, lonliness. Quite the contrary. In order to teach a child to love God unconditionally, we must show him what unconditional love is. In order to teach a child generosity, we must show him, in a way he can experience, unbounded generosity, as only his own loving parents can. In order to teach him gentleness, charity, respect, compassion, justice seasoned by mercy, etc. we have to enable him to experience these virtues and in so doing, model for him the spirit in which they are to be performed. In this way we become better people ourselves, and surround our children in virtue, not just fill their ears with talk of it.

This is not to say that chidlren who are brought up in the way of fear and wrath cannot become good people. Certainly we all know many good people who were disciplined with punishment, perhaps ourselves included. But I am of the mind, myself, to think that it is in spite of these methods that we are who we are, and not because of them. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Perhaps our impatience with our husbands and children, our criticism, selfishness and resentfulness are because of our upbringing, rather than in spite of it. We may never know. I only know now what motivates me, for good or for bad. And in my own experience, it is as I have explained here.

Is it more saintly to respond with love to those who hate us? Yes, of course it is! Do we want to teach our children to do this? Of course we do! Do we do that by demanding that they love us despite the pain we inflict on them when they have erred? I think not. Besides, that kind of love truly requires heroic virtue. Without a superabundance of God's grace it is extremely difficult for me to do that. Why should I expect so much more of my children? Why not try to ease the acquisition of these virtuous habits by motivating them with love. Is love all that burdensome?

I do not presume to know the answers to these question for all and sundry. I can only answer to God for how I respond to His call as best I understand it. I would never presume to judge someone who answers His call to them in a way different than I have answered. I only hope to share my experience so that others may glean from it what may be helpful, which, I am well aware, may be nothing, and then I urge you to simply to dismiss it outright. If my experience and insights help in anyway at all, then, to my mind, they have been worth sharing.

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Catholic Attachment Parenting

A philosophy of parenting modeled after the self-donative love exemplified in the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

1 Jn 4:18

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Luke 1:17

" turn the hearts of the parents toward their children..."