John M. Crisp: Pets or kids? How about neither?

By John M. Crisp

Pope Francis seems like a decent man whose humility and enlightened thinking sometimes put him at odds with more traditional segments of the Catholic Church. But good for him. I’ll like him even more when he raises women to equal status in the church, which they’ll never have until they can move into management. Still, his heart appears to be in the right place.

Last week, however, the pope's traditionalist side rose to the surface during a General Audience recorded under the date “Wednesday, 5 January 2021 (sic; apparently not everyone in the Vatican is infallible).

In his address, Francis scolds young married couples for not wanting to have children. In fact, he complains good-humoredly, some couples have no children or only one, “but they have two dogs, two cats. … Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children.”

Some of Francis’ concern over pairs who prefer pets over progeny reflects his larger concern over falling birthrates in general. He cites a “demographic winter,” raising the question of “who will pay the taxes for my pension, if there are no children? ... Who will take care of me?”

Pope Francis doesn’t attempt to square these comments with Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 6:34: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow.” But he can be forgiven for sharing the practical concern for failure to procreate with economists and demographers worldwide.

Appropriately, however, Francis’ chief concern is spiritual. He asserts that parenthood is essential to personhood. “Fatherhood and motherhood are the fullness of the life of a person.” And “a man or a woman who do not develop the sense of fatherhood or motherhood, they are lacking something, something fundamental, something important.”

Of course, for himself Francis has chosen “spiritual” fatherhood over what he calls — revealingly — “real” fatherhood. But I doubt that he has ever changed a “spiritual” diaper or walked the floor at 3 a.m. with a really sick “real” child.

Francis is a good man, but his advice on this subject should be resisted, for at least two reasons:

First, he is wrong in asserting that a person requires parenthood to have a full, rich, abundant life. How do I know? I have such a life. And so do many other people without children.

Second, the world already has too many people. The carrying capacity of the Earth’s resources is subject to debate. But if we haven’t already overburdened them beyond their ability to support us, we soon will.

While the world’s population continues to grow, the Earth’s resources continue to shrink. Rising sea levels and desertification mean less land for a growing population. A disaster is in the making — or it’s already here — and the pope’s advice isn’t helpful.

Ironically, Francis’ perspective coincides with capitalism’s. Our nation’s economic model is built on growth, and when we finally reach the point where population growth is no longer sustainable, neither will be our economic model.

And then what? This is, indeed, a spiritual problem. But maybe instead of encouraging more growth, Christianity should heed Jesus’ most basic message, which was to be satisfied with what you have and to lay up your treasures in Heaven.

Of course, someone has to have children. Humankind needs to perpetuate itself. I guess. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be you.

In fact, if you’re worried about overpopulation, climate change, worldwide chaos and the currently shaky foundation of American democracy, maybe you should get a cat rather than a cradle. You may have to send your dog to obedience school, but he will not require an increasingly unaffordable four-year college degree. So get a pet.

Or not. We spend $100 billion on our pets every year and, in 2018, only $60 billion on food stamps. But, then, Jesus also said, perhaps too resignedly, “The poor you will always have with you.”

America and the world are facing hard times. Look for support wherever you can find it — in your pets, other people, your children, other people’s children. But ultimately we’ll each have to summon our own inner resources. Other people’s advice may not serve us very well. Even the pope’s.


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