A collage of pictures in frames on a green wall with dogs in them.


What the Pope Doesn’t Get About Pet Parents

Pope Francis’s comments questioning the humanity of those who choose having pets over children ignores a fundamental issue: Caring for animals is one of the most humane things we can do.

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Last Wednesday, January 6th, Pope Francis offered comments on the declining global birthrate during a general audience, chastising couples who choose to have pets rather than children. In his words:

“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, it takes away our humanity.”

This statement is problematic on many levels, especially coming from a man without children of his own. As someone whose chief role prohibits him from becoming a parent, he sure has a lot to say about others who make the decision not to become one. On the surface, there’s the rather obvious fact that many people decide not to have children due to the financial burden of both having and raising them. A 2021 Pew Research study found that 17% of nonparents cite cost as the reason for not expecting to have children, and more than 25% of parents under 40 cite it as their reason for not having more children.

According to the USDA’s most recent Expenditures on Children study done in 2015, “annual child-rearing expense estimates ranged between $12,350 and $13,900 for a child in a two-child, married-couple family in the middle-income group.” Given that 40% of Americans said in 2018 that they wouldn’t be able to handle a $400 emergency expense, the increase of intentionally childless adults shouldn’t come as a surprise. Blame the high cost of maternal healthcare and lack of publicly funded childcare amid a global pandemic that has upended most parents’ support networks––not pets.

Even for couples who do want to become parents or welcome additional children, there are plenty of obstacles to contend with. Infertility is increasing 5 to 10% per year, and many couples lack the tens of thousands of dollars fertility treatments can cost, not to mention that many Catholics object to such treatments on moral grounds. Adoption can carry an even higher price tag and can be a long and arduous process for everyone involved, not to mention how complicated it is for both children and families. For the Pope to insinuate that a couple unable to conceive naturally inherently lacks humanity because they’re not parents overlooks their struggles and completely ignores our capacity for humanity outside of parenthood.

As a childless 32-year-old woman unsure of whether traditional motherhood is in my future, many of the Pope’s comments feel unsurprisingly de rigueur. Of course, the head of the Catholic Church wants his parishioners to be fruitful and multiply, this directive is right there in the bible. But I wasn’t expecting the Pope to toss aside my role as a pet parent as if my dog was a Tamagotchi.

Like millions of Americans who suddenly found themselves working from home in the spring of 2020, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic made owning a dog possible for the first time in my adult life. In the spring of 2021, I began fostering dogs through Hearts & Bones Animal Rescue here in New York City, providing a soft place for these four-legged friends to land until they got adopted. The fifth time around I couldn’t bear to say goodbye, and now I’m the proud owner of a two-year-old Basset Hound mix named Simon who makes my heart hurt with how much I love him. He keeps me company on long workdays alone at home and helps me to connect to the community outside of my apartment through our daily walks and dog park time.

Caring for Simon and my foster dogs pulled me out of the numb state I’d settled into during the pandemic. It connected me back to my humanity. I am not arguing that raising a pet is the same thing as raising a child. I’ve never been a mother to a baby, and would never claim to know the millions of ways in which it is immensely more challenging. But why is Pope Francis and, let’s face it, so many others so quick to write off the significance that pets play both in our lives and for the greater good of humanity?

The Pope says that those with pets instead of children lack humanity, but in reality, there’s a direct correlation between pet ownership and compassion, both individually and societally.

According to a 2012 study out of Texas State University, “pet-owners both past and present exhibited significantly higher empathy levels than non-pet-owners,” and “the level of attachment between an individual and their pets was found to be a significant indicator of their level of emotional empathy.” Pets also integrate us within the larger community. A 2017 study done in the U.S. and Australia found that “pet ownership is significantly associated with a higher level of social capital” (our network of relationships within society) and that “pets are an under-recognized conduit for building social capital” at a time when our sense of community is at an all-time low.

Zooming out further, pets give us shared humanity on the internet, a place that often feels void of it altogether. Jessica Maddox, Assistant Professor of Digital Media at the University of Alabama and author of the forthcoming book The Internet is for Cats: Attention, Affect, and Animals in Digital Sociality (Rutgers University Press, 2022) says that the intention of sharing pet content that makes us happy in order to make others happy gives her hope. “The fact that we’re willing to take care of each other online through these pets is something that makes me hopeful about the internet and about humanity. And you know, sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot to be hopeful about,” she says.

I suspect that, as with most matters concerning biological reproduction, there’s a reason why not having children and devoting oneself to a pet is not seen as enough in the eyes of the Pope. Motherhood has long been viewed as the ultimate sacrifice, a transference of identity from person to parent that’s not often required of pet owners. Denying the compassion and connections that pets bring us sends the message that without that sacrifice, we can’t be selfless and compassionate people. But it’s not true. Humanity comes from a million moments over the span of a life, ebbing and flowing throughout. As a man famously without children of his own, I’d hope that the Pope would honor the many experiences that bring us humanity other than having as many children as possible.

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