Devil's Advocate: Could the Pope Be Right About the Babies Vs. Pets Debate?
After Pope Francis’ pronouncement last week that the trend of people who choose to take care of pets instead of human children is a form of selfishness, the kneejerk reaction from most of the self-professed pundits on social media was instantaneous and expected: they disagreed with him, and strongly.
"Today…we see a form of selfishness,” the Pontiff said during his weekly address at the Vatican. “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.
“This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us,” he added. “It takes away our humanity.”
How could the childless leader of a billion-and-some Catholics excoriate those of us who choose not to have little versions of ourselves? And for that matter, why judge people who instead find joy and fulfillment in taking care of pets instead of having children?
The vast majority of comments, at least in my social media feed, was squarely against Pope Francis on this one, which is a bit strange because he’s been known as probably the most progressive Pope we’ve had in ages. Remember when he said, “Who am I to judge?” regarding gay priests in the Church back in 2013? Later that same year he said, “Women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests,” in response to questions about the role of women in the Church. And then of course, there’s his 2015 quote about birth control (which has always been a sore topic for Catholics), and is somewhat related to what he’s saying now: “Some think—excuse me if I use the word—that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. But no.”
And that’s just a sampling. Throughout his term as leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has proven time and again that he’s a bit more “with the times” compared to some of his predecessors.
But what do we make of this latest statement? Do people display selfishness when they decide on caring for a dog or cat over a baby? Are we less human when we abandon our bodies’ natural instincts for procreation?
The answer, of course, in both instances, is no. At this point, you’ve likely heard a million different variations of why not from your friends, your colleagues, your family members, and other people whose opinion you either value or just happened to scroll through on social media. You might even carry some of these thoughts yourself.
But let’s put all that aside for a second and play devil’s advocate (the irony isn’t lost on me, of course). What could the Pope have meant when he said that? And is there any discernible way that he could be right?
No doubt Pope Francis has been exposed to recent data suggesting that people, in general, just aren’t having babies anymore. All over the world—but in Western countries especially—birth and fertility rates are declining. A BBC report said that the global fertility rate, or the average number of children that a woman gives birth to, was at 2.4 in 2017, and projected to fall even further to 1.7 by the year 2100. Compare that to 4.7 children in 1950.
“If the number falls below approximately 2.1, then the size of the population starts to fall,” the report said.
Because of this, as many as 23 nations, including Spain and Japan, could see their populations cut by half by the end of the century.
We might not exactly feel it here in the Philippines, where it sometimes seems like there’s just too many people everywhere (we’re at about 110 million as of the end of 2021), but data say that, even here, population growth has slowed. Only 324,000 people were added in 2021, for a growth rate of 0.3 percent, which is the lowest in 70 years. And that’s a worrying trend for any country. With more people getting older and less babies being born, we run the risk of a serious imbalance between the geriatric and more productive members of society. He might have phrased it better, but in this regard the Pope does have a point.
I reached out to Father Jerome Secillano, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, who said that the country’s foremost Catholic policymaking body does not yet have an official statement about what the Pope said. However, he did share his thoughts about the issue in his personal capacity. Expectedly, Father Secillano is squarely behind Pope Francis.
“We have to put more premium on human beings than animals,” he said. “Even in the hierarchy of created things, man is up there at the top. It shows how deeply we should invest in taking care of human beings and that animals are not equal alternatives for them.”
Clearly the issue isn’t just about whether pets deserve to be held up as a worthy stand-in for actual human babies, but whether those who do chuck parenthood in favor of being pet parents are actually selfish for doing so. As a pet parent myself, I naturally bristled at the admonition, and I know people—pet owners devoted to their furry canine and feline companions—who will have something to say about it. Anyone who thinks having a pet equates to selfishness clearly hasn’t gotten frayed nerves worrying about the questionable things dogs put in their mouth; or had to take on extra work or overtime just so they could have extra money to pay for all the dog food, vet visits, toys and treats to keep the pet happy; or simply scooped up dog shit when they’re out for a walk.
But perhaps that’s not what the Pope meant. More likely, as a writer for the Washington Post said, he wants people to experience the absolute, incomparable thrill of bringing another human being into this world. Yes, there are considerations: what do you feed it? How do you keep it safe? How do you ensure that it has the best life it could possibly live? And those are things many of us understandably can’t or don’t want to deal with. But to be able to feel that infinite, life-changing joy of being a mother or father—maybe that’s what Pope Francis was getting at. While us pet owners can insist it’s not that much different, deep down, we know it’s just not the same.