Pope Francis has expressed many wise and compassionate thoughts in his brief reign as pontiff:

"We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor."

"If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. We shouldn't marginalize people for this."

"The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."

"Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the Church."

"Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person's life."

However, Pope Francis stumbled badly in his recent unscripted comments on the physical punishment of children. The pope said, "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.'" The pope then added: "That's great. He had a sense of dignity. He should punish, do the right thing, and then move on."

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Every attempt to hurt a child has baleful consequences. The many dozens of independent scientific studies now conducted on physical punishment demonstrate that it has multiple harmful effects on children, parents and society and virtually no positive effects of any kind.

Studies further show that there are many forms of nonviolent discipline that are less harmful and more effective than striking children. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that "corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. ... Parents [should] be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behaviors." Examples include time-outs, the withholding of reward, verbal rebukes and explanation, grounding children and holding family meetings.

It is also impossible to draw a bright, nonsubjective, line between proper "dignified" corporal punishment and child abuse, no matter what the intention of the punisher. Football star Adrian Peterson, for example, admitted beating his 4-year-old son with a "switch" (a stick with leaves removed) to the point of inflicting bruises and lacerations on the child's legs, arms, hands, back and scrotum.

Yet Peterson initially claimed that this punishment was proper and appropriate saying, "I am without a doubt, not a child abuser." He wasn't, however, willing to defend this position in a Texas court, even with the state's relatively lenient laws on corporal punishment. Instead, he pled "no contest" to a charge of "reckless assault" reduced downward from the initial felony charge of injury to a child.

The pope's comments come a time of worldwide revulsion against striking children. Peter Newell, coordinator of the Global Alliance to End Corporal Punishment of Children, said, "Now, 44 countries worldwide have prohibited all physical punishment, including in the family, and another 45 are clearly committed to doing so."

His comments are also disconcerting at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is still reeling from the consequences of priests who sexually abused young children.

The pope has commendably sought to deal with this scandal, but his remarks on hitting children are a setback. Peter Saunders, whom the pope appointed to a Vatican Commission on protecting children from abusive priests, said, "It is a most unhelpful remark to have made and I will tell him that." He added, "It might start off as a light tap, but actually the whole idea about hitting children is about inflicting pain. There is no place in this day and age for having physical punishment, for inflicting pain, in terms of how you discipline your children."

Pope Francis is an inspirational spiritual leader, not only to Catholics but also to people of good will across the world. Everything he says matters a great deal. As part of a convoluted explanation of the pope's comments, a Vatican spokesman said, "The pope, for his part, was not encouraging parents to hit their children."

But the statement did not say that the pope discourages parents from hitting their children. To rectify his damaging remarks, the pope needs to do no less than personally endorse the recommendation of the U.N. Commission on the Rights of the Child, that all children should be protected "from corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment."

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.