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The Pets Versus Children Controversy

In his Wednesday general audience a few weeks ago, Pope Francis talked about declining fertility rates, especially in developing countries, and the growing tendency for couples to choose to remain childless. He asked that couples be open to the gift of life and to the future of the human family. I'm on Team Francis. I applaud these remarks, but I wish he had left it at that.

In off-the-cuff comments, the Pope then lamented that some couples prefer pets to children, calling them “selfish.” He said many, “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.” He also said that couples should not substitute pets for adopting human children.

Many were insulted by these comments, including couples with one child, couples who are infertile and struggling with the expense and the hoops they have to jump through to adopt, as well as animal lovers in general. Social media was awash in memes.

While the Pope's comments beautifully confirm the church’s teachings on the high value of human children, they fail to acknowledge the inconsistencies in those teachings, or an awareness of the complexities of our evolving world.

For example, the church empathizes with couples coping with infertility, yet it continues to hold restrictive views on fertility treatments. In 2014 Pope Francis said that IVF is “making children instead of accepting them as a gift.”

This, despite the fact that IVF often offers couples their only chance for bearing a child after other treatments have failed and has led to thousands of successful pregnancies.

Likewise, the Pope endorsed more adoptions. But many Catholic social service agencies refuse to include gay couples as foster or adoptive parents.

In judging gay unions as not “even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family,” the church overlooks the potential of gay Catholics as good parents. Among other consequences, wrote Brian Cahill, a former head of Catholic Charities of San Francisco, such discrimination can reduce the pool of adoptive parents most willing to take on “the most challenging and vulnerable children in the foster care system.”

Finally, to the Pope’s comments about pets. I will admit upfront that I am not an animal person. But from what I see in the people around me who are, I wouldn’t call having pets an act of selfishness.

On the contrary, people with pets are constantly caring for them, worrying about them, walking them in all kinds of weather, and spending their hard earned money on them. Nevertheless, they love their pets, see them as family members, and find them a source of great joy and affection. I think the Pope's namesake, St. Francis, might have similar thoughts on the matter.

Last week my brother-in-law, Peter, succumbed to early onset dementia. As Peter began to lose awareness of his own wife and three daughters, his family brought in Marvin, their new family dog. Although Peter could no longer verbally communicate with the human world, he connected to Marvin, and Marvin to him. In the end, Marvin laid next to Peter as he passed into eternal life.

According to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, love is the most universal, formidable and mysterious of cosmic energies, the very blood stream of spiritual evolution. In my life, being a parent has been such a profound teacher of love I can’t help but feel regret for couples who, for whatever reason, make the choice not to experience the love relationship of parent to child.

But love itself does not allow me to judge another’s life experiences, or the choices that others make. We sometimes forget that many of the choices made today are relatively new to the human experience, and that many are very difficult to make. No one chooses not to have children lightly.

The institutional church has not yet learned how to accompany people as they parse through the options and decisions they face today. The church is accustomed to setting the boundaries…but the boundaries have moved.

John O’Donohue’s poem For the Time of Necessary Decisions, though meant, I think, for an individual, also expresses well the institutional church’s struggle to accompany people where they are now. The first stanza reads:

The mind of time is hard to read.

We can never predict what it will bring.

Nor even from all that is already gone

Can we say what form it finally takes;

For time gathers its moments secretly.

Often we only know it’s time to change

When a force has built inside the heart That leaves us uneasy as we are.

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