Pope Francis is arguably the most radical world leader of our time. Refugees, the climate crisis, neoliberal economics, technocracy, individualism—he has all these in his sights and he has fired off many eloquent and passionate appeals for humanity to wake up before it is too late. But sometimes he says something just a little—err— ill-considered?—and that sends the media on a feeding frenzy.
At a recent General Audience, he criticized couples who choose to have pets rather than children. This was a brief aside during a catechesis on Saint Joseph, but the media pounced on the story and it attracted many comments on social media as well. The Pope’s remarks were primarily directed to newlyweds, urging them to take the risk of becoming biological or adoptive parents, and warning about the threat of a “demographic winter” caused by declining birth rates across Europe, particularly in Italy. This might all seem like standard fare for an aging Pope who retains a romantic attitude towards marriage and family life, especially with regard to motherhood. It would probably have passed without comment if he hadn’t made that reference to having cats and dogs instead of children, referring to “selfishness” in a slightly different context—a subtlety that was lost amidst the headlines.
This is, however, not a new concern. Even before he was Pope, he has in the past complained about the amount of money spent on pets and cosmetics in a world in which children die of hunger. His comments can be interpreted as a criticism of consumerist societies that value possessions over people. As Sam Rocha (@SamRochadotcom) commented on Twitter, referring to the Pope’s Latin American background, “When you come from a place where people live like dogs, it is scandalous to see dogs live like people.” It would be consistent with the Pope’s concerns about the climate crisis if he had drawn attention to the high environmental cost of pet ownership and the decimation of wildlife by pets, including the vast number of birds killed by domestic cats. Nevertheless, it’s a pity he touched so briefly on such a complex and neuralgic issue.
For a start, there is no “demographic winter” in Africa, where a rapid expansion in population challenges the capacity of communities and states to meet the needs of young people. The problems caused by Europe’s aging population could be solved by more open borders, which would allow the free movement of people. This would, of course, depend on other factors, including the need to avoid a brain drain from poor communities and ensuring just working and living conditions for migrant workers, but these are not insurmountable challenges. Children born in affluent nations have a vastly greater environmental impact than those born in less consumerist societies. There are good environmental reasons for limiting the number of children we have, which is why the Church’s teaching on birth control is a dangerous anachronism that most Catholic couples sensibly ignore. Also, while I agree with those who see the decline in adoption and the rise in abortion as a regrettable fact of modern life, adoption is by no means a simple solution. It usually leaves the birth mother with a lifetime of anguish, yearning and regret, no matter how loved and cared for her child might be by its adoptive parents. Moreover, parenthood is a vocation that doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with marriage, and not every sexually active woman wants to become a mother. There are many ways of bringing the values of familial love to our relationships, and actual parent/child relationships can sometimes become fraught with soul-destroying conflict and misery. The domestic idyll that conservative Catholics see through rose-tinted spectacles does not exist, and it never has. I don’t think a celibate male hierarchy is the best environment in which to generate informed discussions about the intimate details of domestic life. Pope Francis has shown a willingness to face up to some of the messy realities of marriage and the family in Amoris Laetitia, but there is little evidence that his views have been influenced by dialogue with women.
However, it’s important to set the record straight. The Pope is not condemning pet ownership tout court. Some of the comments swirling around social media pointed to the irony of a celibate man criticizing those who are voluntarily childless, but he was addressing couples, and he also spoke of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. Some commentators observed that it was bizarre for somebody who took the name of Saint Francis to criticize having pets, but in his Life of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure records that the saint refused to keep animals given to him as gifts and insisted on returning them to the wild, even when they kept coming back to him. The Rule of Saint Francis forbids his own friars from having anything to do with owning or using “any kind of beast of burden” (No. 15). This was partly because his rule of poverty did not allow for ownership of any property, but it was also because Saint Francis saw animals as sacramental. They are created by God just as we are, and therefore they are our brothers and sisters. His attitudes were a far cry from the sentimentality of much modern pet ownership.
These are conversations worth having, but please Pope Francis, remember the world is watching, and the media are always hungry for a few columns of papal trivia.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.