The Pope, Children and Furry Companions

During his first audience of the year, the Pope called couples who do not procreate or do not procreate enough “selfish”: “One of the forms of selfishness today is that some people do not want to have children, or only one,” Francis said: “However, they do have dogs and cats that take the place of children. Yes, I know it’s funny, but these people feel that it is more comfortable to have dogs or cats. The denial of fatherhood and motherhood undermines us and humanity is lost.”

Presumably the Pope was aware of the controversy to which his words would give rise. Because what does society think about this issue? According to surveys conducted among Western European citizens between 18 and 40 years of age, the majority prefer pets, and the prevailing reasons for not having children are, above all, of an economic and ecological nature. These people argue that our overpopulated planet does not need more inhabitants: population growth is one of the causes of both global warming and the loss of biodiversity. Moreover, the vast majority of salaries do not allow for decent housing, either to buy or to rent. Having two or three children is a huge expense that not everyone can afford. Likewise, raising children well requires dedication and time, neither of which is in abundance thanks to today’s busy work schedules.

It is surprising that the Pope, a strong advocate of preserving the environment and making adoption measures more flexible, who never misses an opportunity to condemn inequality and consumerism, does not take into account the opinions of these potential fathers and mothers, who, like him, are aware of their responsibility towards the environment. He should also pay more attention to women around the world who are demanding the right to contraception and abortion.

The Pope is aware that the billions of people who live in poverty need more food and water, land and energy, as well as infrastructure. He also knows that the Christian community is shrinking in the Western world while Christianity is gaining influence in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, i.e. in densely populated areas. He knows this and yet he asks for more children.

Instead of calling for population growth, the Pope and the Church should reconsider their very closed attitude towards abortion and start funding contraceptive methods to alleviate the lack of contraception in many parts of the world. According to CNN’s op-ed writer Alistair Currie, “270 million women have an unmet need for modern methods of contraception”. By encouraging or even sponsoring contraception rather than opposing it, the Pope and the Church would do a great favor to women, humanity and the planet as a whole.

Since the Catholic Church has a long history of dictating to women what to do with their bodies, criticism has been quick to follow these statements by the Pope. Both men and women consider the Pope’s statements to be not only insensitive but offensive to women. The Washington Post quoted Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, who referenced her experience in this way on Twitter: “Having done a great deal of work with the foster care system, I can tell you nothing is more “selfish” than having kids you don’t want just because the Pope thinks you should. Your children will know they weren’t wanted, and it leads to terrible outcomes for both the kids and parents.” Lydia Spencer-Elliott argues in the British Grazia Magazine that “the individual choice (and it always should be a choice) of whether or not to bring a child into the world can’t be taken lightly. It’s a monumental life-changing responsibility that calls for consideration of your mental health, finances, living-situation, career goals and environmental ethics.”

Dictatorial regimes often extort and blackmail people with children more easily than those without. In totalitarian countries, many parents would like to take an active part in dissent; if they stay in the background, it is because they fear the reprisals their children might face. Something similar happens at work: those who do not have children can stand up to injustice without so much fear because they lack the responsibility of being a mother or father. This freedom to oppose what is considered unjust is another reason some people give for not having children.

For all these reasons, more and more people are opting for furry companions. Eighty-three percent of Spaniards boast about motherhood or fatherhood with respect to their pets. In this context, it is excellent news that, since the beginning of this year, pets in Spain, where I live, have been considered by law as “living beings endowed with sensitivity” and have become members of these multi-species families not only de facto but also in the eyes of the law.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)