Former President Mary McAleese has criticised Pope Francis’ comments on smacking children, warning it could signal a turning back of the clock in the church’s attitude to corporal punishment and children’s rights.
In a letter to the Irish Independent, the former professor of law at Trinity, who is currently completing a doctorate in canon law, highlights the Vatican is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Convention advocates the abolition of corporal punishment of children in all circumstances.
The mother-of-three refers to an exchange last year between the Holy See and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which claimed corporal punishment “remains widespread in some Catholic institutions” and “reached endemic levels” in Ireland as revealed by the Ryan Report.
“Is the Holy See now doing what it claimed not to be doing a year ago, namely actively and internationally promoting the corporal punishment of children,” the former President writes. “If it is, then Pope Francis has surely turned the clock back considerably.”
The UN Committee highlighted that the Vatican has not enacted guidelines banning corporal punishment of children in Catholic schools, as well as in the home.
This week, the Pope controversially reaclled a conversation he had with a father who told him he sometimes hit his children.
“One time, I heard a father say, ‘At times I have to hit my children a bit, but never in the face so as not to humiliate them’.
“That’s great. He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on,” Pope Francis told an audience of thousands in St Peter’s Square.
In response, Dr McAleese asks: “What faith are we to have now in the Holy See’s Commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child?” She asks whether the Vatican has decided to “oppose the stated view of the Committee that the corporal punishment of children should be banned”.
According to Dr McAleese, the Vatican said it would submit a thorough study in respect of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In her letter, she questions whether the Pontiff’s “recent advocacy of parental corporal punishment of children (provided it does not involve face-slapping apparently)” is an indication that the Vatican has “conducted the thorough study and investigation it promised the Committee on the Rights of the Child”.
This is the second time in recent weeks that Pope Francis has caused controversy with comments about violent acts.
In the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ killings in France he suggested that those who insult another person’s religion should expect a violent reaction.
“One cannot react violently, but if [someone] says something bad about my mother, he can expect a punch,” the Pontiff said.
Dr McAleese, who served as President from 1997 to 2011, is known for her Catholic faith but is also not afraid to challenge the Vatican.
Last September in Sydney, she argued for an increased role for women in the church, saying: “The old boys’ club are going to have to go.”
She said it is “bonkers” for a celibate male clergy to be making decisions on the family.