In a society waiting to be offended, Pope Francis comments this week certainly made the
headlines. Many newspapers had titles like, ‘Insensitive’: pet owners react to the pope’s remarks on animals and Children’, (Guardian), ‘Pope scolds couples who choose Pets over Kids’ (The New York Times). He rattled a lot of cages when he said people who adopt pets instead of people are selfish in some cases. The last part of that sentence was left out of many stories, and the rest of the articles were informed by some explosive reactions from pet lovers, as well as some childless-by-choice couples.
It firstly seemed strange that a Pope that is labelled progressive and has taken the name of the animal loving St Francis of Assisi should be against pets. The truth is that the comments of Pope Francis were more about priorities than loving our pets. Mainly, he was saying that economies are in trouble because of declining birth rates that are leaving not-enough productive people to support aging populations. On Boxing Day, he talked about ‘the demographic winter’ in Italy where the birth rate is at an all-time low. He was also expressed concerns about what the effect will be on our humanity as people increasingly turn from human families to pet households. He said, ‘We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats … Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children…. And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children’.
Pope Francis is definitely not urging people to get rid of their pets. Not at all. Rather he has simply suggested that people think carefully about the fundamental differences between animals and human beings. The current elevation of pets to equality with humans as ‘fur babies’ results in a turning away from people towards animals. Many childless couples longing for a baby have resorted to having a pet to fill that void, but they know in their hearts that this is never the same as welcoming their own child into the world. Pope Francis said that couples who cannot biologically have children should consider adoption.
‘How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them. Having a child is always a risk, either naturally or by adoption. But it is riskier not to have them. It is riskier to deny fatherhood, or to deny motherhood, be it real or spiritual’.
For those of us who have been blessed to be parents we know that love for one’s child is unexpectedly unselfish and that brings us joy and pain at times. Good parents surrender themselves to the care and nurturing of these tiny people and suddenly cannot imagine what they did with their lives before. Nothing that mattered, many will say. It is hard to convey that to someone who isn’t a parent. As a parent, it would be impossible to explain the overwhelming, all-consuming, unconditional love you feel for your new baby. The love of a dog or a cat just does not compare, nor should it.
What Pope Francis said may not have been easy for many of us to hear but it was refreshing to hear the truth not measured by the how the audience might react!