After months of deliberation, last week I adopted another cat. This led to me Googling pet-related search terms on my work breaks, and I found this article about Pope Francis, in which he warns married couples not to “replace” children with pets.
This hit close to home because one of the reasons we debated whether we should get another cat is that we are thinking about having children — and that is such an unknown factor that we wondered if it was really wise to introduce another unknown factor into our lives before then.
Still, the Pope’s “advice” rubbed me the wrong way because, like many of the hierarchy’s proclamations, it is too simplistic, dismissive of the complicated choices people must make about their lives. The decision whether or not to have children is an intensely personal one, and probably has the farthest-reaching consequences of any choice a couple will ever make. This requires deep soul searching, not a rote edict from a man who will never have to lose hours of sleep over a baby’s cries or a teenager’s rebellion; who will never have to make the decision to take the hit to his career for the flexibility parenthood requires; or who will never have to stay in a soul-crushing job because he needs the money to feed his children.
At the same time, the statement dismisses the many ways animals can teach us about advocacy, love, responsibility, and compassion. I grew up on a dairy farm and have always lived my life alongside animals, which has been instrumental in my spiritual development. The constant physical affection I received from my two cats when I was living alone did more to keep me on the “straight and narrow” than years of abstinence training could, because it answered my very human need for physical affection in a way that the best intellectual arguments couldn’t; this kept my loneliness from ever turning to a desperation that would lead me to make decisions that could harm myself and others. And my dog has probably taught me more about forgiveness than any human being I’ve ever met. Whether I have kenneled him for hours (which he hates) or skipped his walk because of a work emergency, my arrival still delights him every time. I’ve often wished I could so easily forget the transgressions of the people I love. Why can’t I be elated just to be in a loved one’s presence, despite the mistakes they have made or the hurts they have caused? I think many people who have lived with companion animals could attest that they offer a better example of unconditional love than most people do.
Although caring for children and caring for animals may require development of many of the same traits, I know the love a parent feels for a child is leagues away from the love a pet guardian feels for her animal — if it were the same, I don’t think many people would be brave enough to adopt and love the animals they will almost certainly outlive, going through the pain of that goodbye several times in one lifetime.
In his book Going Home: Finding Peace when Pets Die, Jon Katz says:
“I do not love animals at the expense of people. Animals have not taught me that people are dumb or cruel or hopeless. Animals have kept love alive in me; they have been my bridge to people, my path to humanity. I think our humanity is defined by the way we love animals and the way they love us.”
I think that Pope Francis fears that married couples are loving animals at the “expense” of people (especially their potential children), but children who don’t exist can’t suffer. Marriage and parenthood are both paths of spiritual growth, sacrifice, and love for which there is no “substitute.” But there is no need for substitutions because God has given us many different paths by which we can learn important lessons about selflessness, patience, forgiveness, commitment, and love. Because while it may not be the same as the love we feel for other humans, the love guardians feel for our pets is still love–and love, in whatever form it takes, teaches us about God.
John Katz goes on to say:
“I adhere to few rules, but one of them is this: people who love dogs and cats should have them.”
I agree — whether single or married, with children or without. Nearly three million healthy, adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized each year because we have been such poor stewards of the animals under our protection, and that’s not something that is easy for a Catholic like me, who was raised in a culture of “life,” to easily ignore. And I would add this: People who don’t love/want kids shouldn’t have them. The world is a better place when those who do not want kids are self aware enough to know that, and to make the decision not to bring children into an environment of resentment. And if those same people decide to provide a home for others of God’s creatures, I am grateful for the good that they do.