(CNN) Pope Francis has stirred up a hornet's nest with remarks in which he said it's OK for parents to spank children, so long as they do it with dignity.
The comments came in his general audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square, when Francis was talking about the importance of a good father within a family.
"I once heard at a wedding a father say, 'I sometimes have to hit my children a little but never in the face, so as to not demean them.' How nice, I thought, he has a sense of dignity," the Pope said.
"When he punishes, he does it right and moves on."
The principle of not humiliating the child while doling out the punishment appears to be central to the Pope's justification of spanking, as is that of forgiveness.
"A good father knows how to wait and knows how to forgive from the bottom of his heart. Of course he can also discipline with a firm hand: he's not weak, submissive, sentimental," he said.
"This father knows how to discipline without demeaning; he knows how to protect without restraint."
The issue of corporal punishment for children is divisive in many countries, and the Pope's remarks prompted an outpouring of both support and criticism on social media.
Father Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, told CNN that it was important not to take the Pope's words out of context -- and that there was an important distinction to be made between discipline and punishment.
"It's about time that we stop and allow the Pope to speak the language of most ordinary people, especially parents, who understand the Pope far better than those who parse every single word and statement that comes out of his mouth!" he said.
"Let us not read into the Pope's words anything other than what is there. He speaks constantly of mercy and tenderness. He speaks as a pastor and loving father figure who loves children and wants the best for them."
Francis showed this affection in a Google Hangout with disabled children
from around the world Thursday, Rosica added, and "speaks about disciplining children and never punishing them."
The pontiff also met with street children on a visit to a shelter in the Philippines last month.
According to the website of the Global Alliance to End Corporal Punishment of Children, children in at least 43 states are protected by law from all corporal punishment.
They include more than 20 European nations, as well as countries in Africa and Latin America.
The United States is not one of the nations where corporal punishment is banned, but an anti-spanking movement has gained momentum there.
The case of NFL star Adrian Peterson, given probation, a fine and community service in November after he admitted whipping his 4-year-old son
, stirred up the debate. The NFL also suspended the Minnesota Vikings star running back for the rest of the season.