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Is It Selfish for a Childless Family to Have a Pet Dog?

Pope Francis has received a stormy response to comments about pet ownership.

Key points

  • The Pope has lashed out against people who choose to remain childless but still keep pets.
  • The Catholic Church has a long history of denying consciousness, feelings, intelligence, and a soul in animals.
  • A vigorous pushback has erupted in social media to the Pope's comments: Childless families who keep pets are acting selfishly.
Catholic Church (England and Wales), licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Source: Catholic Church (England and Wales), licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Pope Francis has recently incited a storm of negative comments in the press and social media because of some statements that he recently made. What triggered his declarations: Over the past decade birth rates have been declining in many of the more developed Western nations and surveys have indicated that this is because some families were choosing not to have children. Furthermore, some research has found that many millennial women have stated that they are content to have a pet dog or cat in lieu of having children. The Pope has suggested that this is an act of selfishness.

The Pope Strikes Out at Childless Pet Owners

The Pope's comments came during a general audience at the Vatican in Rome when he was discussing parenthood.

"Today ... we see a form of selfishness," he told the audience. "We see that some people do not want to have a child.

"Sometimes they have one, and that's it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children."

He goes on to say, “And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.”

Pope Francis said that people who are unable to have children for biological reasons should consider adoption, urging people "not to be afraid" of embarking on parenthood.

This is not the first time that Pope Francis has vilified people who choose pets over children. In 2014 in an interview with the Rome daily Il Messaggero he was asked whether he believed some people in society valued pets more than children. He said that it was a reality that reflected a “sign of cultural degeneration.”

“That’s because an emotional relationship with animals is easier, more programmable,” he said at the time. He added, “Having a child is something complex.”

A Complicated History

The Catholic Church has a long history of negative views of animals. The rise of Christianity seems to have ushered in the belief that animals like dogs deserved no special treatment and would not make it to heaven. This is despite that the word animal is derived from the Latin word "anima" which means “soul,” Christianity has traditionally taught that dogs and other animals have no more consciousness or intelligence than rocks or trees. According to religious doctrines at that time, anything that had consciousness also had a soul, and anything that had a soul was capable of love, must be treated humanely, and could earn admission to heaven. To grant that animals had souls was simply unacceptable to the Catholic Church. In later years they would claim support from some scientists and philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, who would have described your dog as just some kind of machine, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys. This machine doesn't think but can be programmed to do certain things. Machines have no souls and therefore one need not allow a Beagle-shaped automaton or a mechanized Maltese to pass through the pearly gates of heaven.

These views were strongly held, and Pope Pius IX, who headed the church longer than any other pope (1846–1878), actually led a heated campaign to try to prevent the founding of the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the grounds that animals have no souls. Plus, he quoted Thomas Aquinas to prove his case, since Aquinas often noted that animals are not beings, but just “things.” However, Aquinas seems to have had some doubts since he warned, “we must use animals in accordance with the Divine Purpose lest at the Day of Judgment they give evidence against us before the throne,” which would certainly suggest that animals would be around in the afterlife.

It is interesting to note that Pope Pius IX (who created the doctrine of Papal Infallibility) was later contradicted in 1990 by Pope John Paul II who said "also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with smaller brethren."

There is also the case of Pope Pius II, who lived during the Renaissance and wrote about his dog, Musetta. Once he even stated that he loved her as he would a child.

A Stormy Response

Following the publication of these most recent statements by Pope Francis, there was an immediate flood of commentary on social media — the vast majority of it condemning the Pope's position. One of the most common themes involved people pointing out that the Pope, Catholic priests, and nuns had all made a deliberate decision not to have children themselves and therefore the pronouncements that he was making were hypocritical.

Another criticism that appears in various forms is reflected in a tweet by Dana Nessel, the Michigan Attorney General: "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 bc the Pope thinks you should. Your children will know they weren’t wanted, and it leads to terrible outcomes for both the kids & parents."

Some commentators have pointed out the irony of the Pope's suggestion: If people cannot have their own children they should adopt. This is a contradiction when the vast majority of Catholic adoption agencies bar the adoption of children to nontraditional families such as those in the LGBT community. This leaves pets as the only option to fulfill the psychological need to nurture in such people.

The Pope appears to have forgotten that the feelings people have for animals and children are very similar. Historically, Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals, was also the founder of the first major child welfare society. It was to be called the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. However, in more than 300 societies in North America, the child welfare and animal welfare movements were linked together under one banner, and many still are to this day.

As a psychologist, I am saddened by what I believe to be an underlying assumption in the Pope's comments. It seems that Pope Francis considers the love in our lives to be limited in quantity, suggesting that giving it to someone, such as our pet dog, takes it away from others.

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