Category: Commentary

Should the Church apologize for past use of corporal punishment in Catholic schools?

Should the Church apologize for past use of corporal punishment in Catholic schools?

Michael 1951 | CC BY 2.0

Katrina Fernandez | Jan 11, 2018

Many Catholics carry old wounds from a time when the culture was very different.

Dear Katrina,

Has there been any attempt on Aleteia to address the pain expressed by Catholics who suffered abuse [in the form of corporal punishment] at Catholic schools? It would appear that some these stories are PTSD stories from decades ago. Are these people disposable Catholics?

Not necessary a fun or happy fact, but a reality of the past which seems to still be with us today.

Happy New Year,

Dave S.


Dear Dave,

Much has been discussed on the painful topic of sexual abuse, both here, at Aleteia, and in the general media, due largely to the pope’s outspoken advocacy for the victims. Perhaps it could seem like victims of other types of abuse have been largely ignored, since it’s the tragic cases of sexual abuse that get the most attention. But I assure you, no one is a disposable Catholic.  

Related: Sex Abuse Survivors on the Road to Recovery

We’ve all heard anecdotes about Catholic school children being smacked with rulers by a stern “Sister Mary Frowns A Lot.” I personally know a handful of self-professed ex-Catholics who cite the cruelty they endured as children at the hands of Catholic educators as the reason they no longer identify as Catholic, or with any religion at all, for that matter. We don’t like it, of course, and it is a denigrating insult to the hundreds of thousands of fine religious sisters and brothers who have taught generations of Catholics, but there is a reason the stereotype of the ruler-wielding nun is so common: there used to be some truth to it.  

Then again, the stereotype belongs to an era where corporal punishment was more common everywhere, including in public schools. Both Winston Churchill and the actor David Niven wrote about cruel headmasters who caned and humiliated them as students.

To have an honest conversation about physical abuse in Catholic educational institutions, we need to at least recognize that corporal punishment was, until very recently, considered a normal part of child-rearing. Research conducted in the past decades regarding the psychological damage that physical punishment can cause has hugely impacted our understanding and that has been reflected in all of our school systems, as well as in our homes. Teachers no longer have the authority to spank and physically reprimand students. Anti-bullying campaigns have taught us that humiliation is not an effective form of punishment.   

In his Letter to Children, Pope John Paul II wrote, “children suffer many forms of violence from grown-ups … How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown-ups.” His words reflected the better-understanding that grew through the later part of the 20th century.

If you look at the overall environment of all  types of educational systems prior to the 1980s, you’ll find that physical punishment was a common, and unfortunate, response to bad behavior. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 40 who couldn’t commiserate with their own shared experiences of heavy handed teachers. Even I, in my (public school) youth, endured abuses. I was spanked, smacked, yanked around by my hair, given hot sauce to drink. In one particularly humiliating experience, I was forced to balance encyclopedias on my head while I squatted in front of the whole class.   

My point here is not to minimize the physical abuse that others have endured, but simply to provide some context. Perhaps the pain of corporal punishment was more profoundly felt in the Catholic educational system because it was doled out from hands that we were supposed to trust, and people who — given their vows — were supposed to be holy. A friend of mine has recalled seeing a teaching sister take both fists to the back of a classmate in the early 1960s. “He was a troublemaker,” she recalled, “but Sister just lost it, and the whole class was cowed by her frustrated response to him. But when I look back on it, I realize she had 53 students in that class. Back then, there were no teacher’s aides, and I can’t even imagine trying to teach that many kids by oneself.”

That’s not an excuse, obviously, for Sister “losing it.” Her action must have terrified the class, and perhaps it impacted the faith of a lot of young souls.  I can understand why this could cause an aversion to the Church and organized religion in some adults.

But this  isn’t rational thinking. Teachers are humans but do not represent education as a whole or even the whole system itself. Nuns too are human, and a few abusive ones do not represent the whole of Catholic education or the Church.  

Those days of physical punishment are gone. The modern school is a very different place from when you are I were students. The culture is not what it was, and old generations more familiar with corporal punishment have passed. Accountability is real. Once upon a time, if a kid told parents of a teacher striking a student, many of the parents would assume it was deserved. They might even dole out a smack of their own to the disgraced child. Despite the anecdotes I’ve heard of “mean nuns,” I send my son to Catholic high school with confidence in the education he is receiving.

Should the Church apologize?  

It is a great shame that some have abandoned their faith due to the disillusionment caused by religious teachers of the past. Would an institutional apology help? We don’t expect public school systems and school board administrators to publicly apologize for the ways things were done decades ago, or beg forgiveness from former students. Should we expect it from the Church, which must always be held to a wiser, higher standard?

These are fair questions, but not without controversy. In 2011, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond spoke out against corporal punishment in schools. Remarking on the “paddling” policies of one isolated Catholic school in his diocese — the only one still continuing the practice — Aymond said paddling “institutionalizes violence, runs counter to Catholic teaching and good educational practice, and violates local archdiocesan school policy.”

Surprisingly, some parents, alumni, and even some students disagreedwith him.

Some may say yes, that the church should formally apologize to traumatized students, and I suspect that response is rooted in pain and deep hurt. Perhaps this is a dialogue that should be taken up by the bishops. But my first advice for these wounded Catholics would be to seek professional counseling, as I would suggest for anyone who feels they are suffering from PTSD, instead of waiting for the Church to make formal remarks.    

Counseling and talking about the issues — as you have prompted me to do — is a good road to healing. I encourage anyone who is suffering to seek the help they need to get closure. Carrying around past pain and hurt is physically and spiritually corrosive.  

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Getting Beyond “Almost There”

Getting Beyond “Almost There” · by Nikolay Syrov 

As Catholics, we come with simple instructions. Meaning that, with the Gospel and all the Church teachings that we have and rely upon, we are supposed to be able to tell right from wrong, good from evil relatively easily. Of course, it always depends on the issue. But the very fact that we’ve been granted with that much of a privilege, should fill us with joy and confidence. It also should make us equipped and well-prepared when it comes to a daily process of combing through the hazardous ocean of modern secular realities (I do believe, we are now living in a world that is divided into multiple realities). I am sure that we all experience this to some extent.

So, what does it imply? Let us ask ourselves, are we even aware of what it has to do with the responsibilities that we ought to take on? It turns out that sometimes faith proves to be quite a heavy weight to carry if you miss out one very specific understanding. I know, it may sound far-fetched. But I speak from my personal experience. For example, as Catholics we believe there is one truth when it comes to our belief system and questioning moral grounds. When it comes to the big moral questions, we cannot be pretty much sure about something. We cannot ‘kinda agree’ or ‘sorta disagree’ with something. We cannot be on the edge; we can never be ‘almost there’. Because, if we are, if we employ such half-truths and wishy-washy tactics, this type of framework will lead us to uncertainty, ambiguity and to an eventual failure to discern.

A secular worm will start gnawing our belief system. It’s hard to notice and the wounds are hard to heal. And there’s also another side to this matter. For whatever reason, we often think that being a Catholic in 2018 is like taking a stand. We confuse ourselves and think that we are almost heroes when it comes to showing our worship and faithfulness to God to other people, Christians or non-Christians or atheists.

For any reason, we start to think that ministry, volunteer work and engagement in our parishes lives makes it OK for us to feel holy and proud. In reality, it looks very weird. A bus driver doesn’t feel that way only because he drives a bus. That is his job. That is a minimum. That is a prerequisite to a purposeful life. Yes, it is important. But all in all, that is what he is supposed to do.

Same approach applies to our Christian views and values when it comes to ministry, evangelization and what not. This is what we as Catholics are supposed to do. We are supposed to engage in our parish life, we are supposed to evangelize, we are supposed to volunteer and serve others. This is our job. And it’s not just a day job. It’s not a 5/2 type a thing that we need to maintain in order to support ourselves and our families and put food on the table to feed our kids. It’s a 24/7 job that we need to do in order to be able to feed ourselves and our families with Christ and to support our future lives with Jesus. We must do it. And we must do it well. And that is just a minimum! That is just something that cannot be avoided or ignored, something that we as Catholics cannot pass on, because that’ll be passivity. And, as Father Mike Schmitz recently said in one of his beautiful homilies, passivity has a price and that price is going to hell. You cannot be fired from this job, but you may quit.

There is this popular quote by Pope Benedict XVI – “You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” And we have exploited it so badly. It’s one of those quotes now that you print on T-shirts, make tattoos with, and put in your twitter bio. Do we even understand what that “greatness” means? Doing your job well has nothing to do with the greatness Pope Benedict XVI was talking about. I am 100% positive on that.

Here is how I see this. What can make us holier is something we do on top of all that. What can make it OK for us to feel proud is saved souls. And it has to do with the amount of effort that we put into our mission. It has to do with dedication and sacrifice. It has to do with giving away what we think we need for ourselves, rather than just stopping at the point when we can give away what we are OK with losing. There is a direct correlation. Because all Catholics are missionaries, which brings us back to the issue that I started with.

We come with simple instructions. Supposedly, we can tell good from bad. But that’s not what matters eventually, because it is just a tool. What matters is our mission. So, we need use tools to succeed in our mission. What matters, is those who are waiting for us to reach them and give them what they really need and not just what we would allow ourselves to get rid of.

Let’s not bamboozle ourselves into feeling false comfort by claiming our responsibility something that levels us up to greatness. Let’s not mix up the presence of the Holy Spirit with the pleasure of being satisfied with okay-ness. If we are to boil this down to its very essence, let’s stop being ‘almost there’.