VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis says it's OK to spank your children to discipline them - as long as their dignity is maintained.
Francis made the remarks this week during his weekly general audience, which was devoted to the role of fathers in the family.
Francis outlined the traits of a good father: one who forgives but is able to "correct with firmness" while not discouraging the child.
"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,'" Francis said.
"How beautiful!" Francis remarked. "He knows the sense of dignity! He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on."
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, who collaborates with the Vatican press office, said the pope was obviously not speaking about committing violence or cruelty against a child but rather about "helping someone to grow and mature."
"Who has not disciplined their child or been disciplined by parents when we are growing up?" Rosica said in an email. "Simply watch Pope Francis when he is with children and let the images and gestures speak for themselves! To infer or distort anything else ... reveals a greater problem for those who don't seem to understand a pope who has ushered in a revolution of normalcy of simple speech and plain gesture."
The Catholic Church's position on corporal punishment came under sharp criticism last year during a grilling by members of a U.N. human rights committee monitoring implementation of the U.N. treaty on the rights of the child.
In its final report, the committee members reminded the Holy See that the treaty explicitly requires signatories to take all measures, including legislative and educational, to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence - including while in the care of parents.
It recommended that the Holy See amend its own laws to specifically prohibit corporal punishment of children, including within the family, and to create ways to enforce that ban in Catholic schools and institutions around the globe.
The recommendations were prompted by reports to the committee of widespread physical abuse and use of corporal punishment in Catholic-run schools and institutions, particularly in Ireland, that committee members said had reached "endemic levels."
The Vatican had argued that it in no way promoted corporal punishment, but that it also had no way to enforce any kind of ban on its use in Catholic schools, over which it has no jurisdiction. It noted that it was only responsible for implementing the child rights treaty inside the Vatican City State.
That said, it stressed that the term "punishment" isn't even used in the section of church teaching that refers to parents' duties to "educate, guide, correct, instruct and discipline" their children.
In its written response to the committee, the Vatican said that according to church teaching, parents "should be able to rectify their child's inappropriate action by imposing certain reasonable consequences for such behavior, taking into consideration the child's ability to understand the same as corrective."
The head of the Vatican delegation told the committee that he would take the U.N. proposal to ban corporal punishment in all settings back to Rome for consideration.
The Holy See isn't the only signatory to the convention that has been singled out on the issue. Britain received a similar recommendation to repeal its law allowing parents to spank their kids when it came before the U.N. committee in 2002.
Some 39 countries prohibit corporal punishment in all settings, including at home, where most abuse occurs. Those nations range from Sweden and Germany to South Sudan and Turkmenistan.
In the United States, parents can legally hit their child as long as the force is "reasonable." In 19 U.S. states, it's still legal for personnel in schools to practice "paddling."