Corporal punishment in Catholic schools

An interesting debate is unfolding around a Catholic school in New Orleans: St. Augustine’s, a historically African-American boys’ prep school, is apparently the last Catholic school in the country to use corporal punishment on students. In February, Archbishop Gregory Aymond called for an end to the practice, which he said “institutionalizes violence, runs counter to Catholic teaching and good educational practice, and violates local archdiocesan school policy.”

But parents, alumni, and even students of St. Augustine’s disagree, marching in protest of the archbishop’s decision:

The archbishop “is trying to fix something that’s not broken, and he’s going about it in the wrong way,” said Jacob Washington, the student body president at the 7th Ward institution. …

The Rev. John Raphael, the president of St. Augustine, has said the issue is not as much about the wooden paddle as the rights of African-American parents to educate and discipline their children in their own traditions.

“It’s about the right to self-govern,” said Warren Johnson, a 1981 St. Aug alumnus. …

Hunter, a 1974 alumnus, said he was raised by a single mother who knew that sending him to St. Augustine would “set me straight.” The school is renowned for producing graduates who have gone on to become civic and professional leaders.

“Young black men are dying in the streets, and we are trying to break that cycle of violence by teaching morals, values and excellence,” said Dwight McKenna, a physician and a 1958 alumnus. “Without St. Aug I don’t know what would have happened to me. St. Aug taught me to be a man.”

There are a number of different issues here, and any one of them is potentially incendiary: Is there room for corporal punishment in “Catholic educational practice”? We’ve all heard the stories of abusive nuns in the pre-Vatican II classroom, of course, but is paddling (the punishment in question at St. Aug’s) always and everywhere wrong? What about at home? And should the St. Aug community have the right to make this decision for themselves?

The alumni above mentioned coming from a poor background where the strict discipline helped set them on the right path; the school has also noticed an uptick in behavioral problems since the policy was suspended. Should these results have any bearing on whether paddling is allowed?

Lots to consider here; leave your thoughts in the comments. (And please be respectful. Violators will be paddled.)

Margaret Cabaniss


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

  • BPS

    One thing you forgot to mention is St. Aug’s is an all-boys school. I didn’t go there, but did go to college in New Orleans. I don’t know if any real studies have been done about the effects of corporal punishment on boys, but its seems to me that the ones I’ve read about corporal punishment in general are slanted toward proving what the researcher has already decided is the right outcome. I’m old enough to have received paddling in school (both catholic elementary and public high schools), and strictly from anecdotal evidence, there seemed to have been more order in schools then than there is now.

    But, I’m willing to be proved wrong.

  • bill bannon

    but whether non relatives should do it in a litigious society institutionally… is what the Archbishop is really concerned…more lawsuits by that one or two rogue parents who’d like some money.

  • Margaret

    One thing you forgot to mention is St. Aug’s is an all-boys school.

    Thanks, BPS — it’s an important point that may change the discussion for some people, so I added it to my post.

  • Aengus O’Shaughnessy

    Interesting discussion, lots to consider; personally, I think they ought to keep the older method of discipline, ie., paddling students who get out of line. Purely from personal experience, I think it works well and is in no way abuse—it certainly helped in keeping me and my childhood cronies on the straight and narrow.
    As to “Does it fit in with catholic educational practise?”, sure it does. Aside from the tradition of having scary old nuns in the classroom (no offence to nuns—they really were kind of scary, though not abusive), aside from that, and aside from the fact that it really does work, note what the young lad in the above photograph is holding. A poster with a Bible quote. Hm. Further, there are many more such quotes in the Good Book, which (last time I checked) is a fairly important book to catholics.

  • Beth Turner

    Sounds like a wonderful school and if I could get my 2 year old enrolled, I’d be down there in a heartbeat! I certainly stand by corporeal punishment at home and I’ve often dreamed of how our schools today might be with a little paddling here and there. I do think it should be the parents’ role to take it to that level, but unfortunately, the kids that need the discipline the most are probably not getting it at home.

  • Mrs. F

    I worked in a public middle school which allowed paddling (we called it swats, same thing). I think it worked to help keep the discipline, but a few other things and guidelines were in place that helped it be more effective. A set number of swats was the specific consequence of specific behaviors, parents could opt out of the swats for their child (at the beginning of the year), for opted out children there was an alternative consequence, and it was part of a very strict disciplinary program that was applied to all students regardless of race or socioeconomic level (unlike a second district I worked in later). A witness of the same sex as the student being swatted was required to be present and teachers could not administer swats, only the principal, VP, or a designated alternate could apply the swats. I once had my English students write their persuasive essays on the topic, arguing for or against corporeal punishment. Most students, especially boys, preferred taking swats to the alternative consequence. I was surprised, but they were very clear that they thought swats were better, quicker, less embarrassing than a few days in ISS (the usual alternative). Very few parents opted out, and usually, they were families whose children never needed swats.

  • Titus

    Codswallop. His Excellency certainly has the authority to set rules in his diocese, but this talk of corporal punishment being inconsistent with Catholicism is pure nonsense. His Excellency honestly believes that it is sinful for a parent or a teacher in loco parentis to paddle a child? There’s no authoritative support for that assertion (at least that I’ve ever seen; even if there be persuasive support, there certainly cannot be authoritative support).

    Nor can it be the case that St. Augustine is the last Catholic school in the country to use “corporeal punishment.” It might be the last high school to employ a paddle, but physical punishments—laps, push ups, wall sits—are alive and well in any number of boys’ schools.

  • Kathryn

    Titus–the “punishments” you speak of “laps, push ups, wall sits” and something my son calls “suicide runs” etc are used extensively in one of his (co-ed) athletic program as well. If the game isn’t played well that day, the kids don’t pay attention, the coaches make ’em pay for it.

    My son came home with rug burns on his arms from having to do “the plank” as part of the fitness portion in a carpeted lobby area when they couldn’t use the regular courts for exercising (oh, and there’s no exercise mats either…you use your jacket or a towel brought from home.)

    The parents shell over plenty for this too. I haven’t heard of anyone dropping out due to the physical intensity and “punishments.” (One parent actually complained it wasn’t enough fitness…but that was a couple years back.)

    I suspect that many of our public schools are a mess is due to the lack of “physicalness” in the curriculum and disciplinary action.

  • Rob H

    The main argument I’ve heard here in N.O. is that St. Aug’s students, alumni, and parents are all in favor of corporal punishment so it should stay. If parents don’t want their child paddled they are free to send them to another school. My counter-argument is that if students and, especially, parents are in favor of corporal punishment what is stopping the parents from administering the paddling at home? Seems that would remove any liability from the school and would return primary responsibility for discipline to where it rightfully belongs- with the parents!

  • Tony Esolen

    I am entirely in favor of corporal punishment, especially in a boys’ school. Reasons:

    1. It’s easy to see when corporal punishment slides into cruelty. We aren’t recommending cruelty. There is no reason for a kid to be caned, like the boy Huw in How Green Was My Valley. But my impression of how corporal punishment is meted out these days is that it is hedged round with rules that keep cruelty far at bay. What is NOT so easy to see is when non-corporal punishment slides into cruelty. We assume, far too easily, that as long as a child is not touched, cruelty is not an issue. That is an absurd assumption.

    2. When a child is punished corporally, he knows that he is confronting someone whose task puts him in the role of someone righteously angry. It is not at all the same when a child is punished in other ways, ways that often open the door to cold, cunning malice, with the malicious punisher always able to say, “I never laid a hand on him.”

    3. Corporal punishment is swift and well-defined. It sets both parties to rights again. The debt is paid. Other forms of punishment, especially those that mask cruelty in the guise of therapy, are drawn-out, open-ended, and vague.

    4. How did boys used to settle their differences most effectively? If it came to fists, it came to fists. Grownups used to teach them that a fair fight was a good thing, if nothing else served, and a fair fight was one in which there were no weapons, there was no kicking or biting or hitting below the belt, there was no hitting someone who was down, there was no continuing the fight once one kid was clearly beaten, and there was no fight at all if the boys were too far apart in size. The Army used to have the men settle conflicts in the boxing ring. This was not only a swift way of dealing with things, but

    5. it could end up being the basis for many a friendship. Saint Ambrose said so — though I cannot now find the quote. He said we were not to take the fights of boys too seriously, because they often were the beginning of friendship. This fact is attested to by almost every man you will meet. When I teach the Gilgamesh epic — in which the hero Gilgamesh is civilized by means of a wrestling match with Enkidu, who becomes his dear friend — I ask the boys, “How many of you have close friendships that began with a fight?” Lots of hands go up …

  • JMC

    The issue of effectiveness is illustrated by a recent news article about a school in North Carolina. (It was a few months ago; I no longer remember the name of the school or where in the state it was located.) It was a public school with a reputation for being the worst in the state in terms of behavior problems among the students. When a new principal came on board, in cleaning out the closet in his office, he discovered an old wooden paddle in the back of said closet. (It should be noted that, although conventionally not practiced, corporal punishment is still legal in North Carolina.) He decided to reinstate corporal punishment, and miracle of miracles (note the sarcasm, please), within a month he had a model student body.

    Another point in favor of keeping corporal punishment in those places where it is still allowed: ‘Way back in the 1970s, Sweden was the first nation to outlaw spanking altogether; parents who spanked their children could be imprisoned. About a year after the law was enacted, it was reported that depression and suicide attempts among students was on the rise, with most of them stating that they felt like no one cared about them. I see this echoed in schoolyards all around my county. When you pass by during recess, you don’t often see laughter and playing; most of them are standing around in groups, often not even talking, but all of them looking like they’ve lost their best friend.

    It’s gotten to the point where there are tongue-in-cheek e-mails making the rounds (I’m sure at least some of you have seen them by now) congratulating the Boomer generation for having survived things that are forbidden today’s children, such as riding bicycles and rollerskating without helmets and padding out the yazoo, playing on (gasp!) monkey bars without rubber padding underneath, and being paddled in school.

    Congratulations to the students and their parents of St. Aug’s for taking a stand for sanity!

  • KathyC

    JMC, where did you get the info on Sweden? We’re always told it is a model country, happy and green and all.

    I also wanted to note that although Don Bosco didn’t believe in corporal punishment in his schools, he substituted for that with a strong emphasis on confession, and he taught them about mortal sin and hellfire and damnation. Teaching about that would probably get you accused of child abuse nowadays.