By Fr Robert Christo Vicar for Communications
“Yuh treat meh like a dog, but yuh treat yuh animal like a king.”Perhaps motivated by ongoing global discussions and the UK government’s move in its 2021 Animal Welfare (Sentient) Bill which proposes that animals will be formally recognised as sentient beings in domestic law, Pope Francis, at his general audience in Rome on January 5, 2022, commented that, “… many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats.”
While some supportive commentators on the Pope’s statement certainly echoed the Catholic Church’s rich teaching on the Theology of the Body, the sanctity of family life —motherhood and fatherhood—and the prioritisation of human life over all creation, the Pope was not above backlash.
Instead, reaction to his comment was swift and loud on social media. “Cat-twitter getting mentally prepared for saying people who choose pets over kids are selfish,” suggested @clockoutwars. Others tweeted, “Who would risk raising kids in a weird world gone so mad?”.
It is noteworthy that the Pope did not say it is selfish to not have kids. He did not say to have as many kids, regardless of one’s ability to care for them. He did not say the world is not messy and one must “risk all” for the sake of raising kids.
Rather, he is saying that it will be a loss to civilisation, especially for future generations, when animals replace human life in society—when cats and dogs replace children. It is this current trend which prompts Pope Francis to challenge couples to re-prioritise their virtues and values and take the higher risk to become parents. I believe that the Pope is also speaking to the increasing reality of a contraceptive culture of self-absorption, careerism, and reprioritisation of animals over human life. These facets of contemporary society are becoming rampant.
Issue of animals over human life The reprioritisation of animals over human life blatantly denies and trivialises the richness and sanctity of motherhood, fatherhood, and family life. In Genesis 1:31, all of creation is deemed as good. However, man and woman were created in a higher order, in God’s image and likeness, sharing a Divine filiation. Essentially, human life, with its inherent spiritual and religious nature is considered more valuable than animal life because of our unique relationship with God. Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§356) declares:Of all visible creatures, only man is able to know and love his Creator.
He is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.Indeed, the Catechism agrees that animals are God’s treasured gifts too, and we ought to treat them with love, respect, and kindness. Children must be taught to do the same, while simultaneously enjoying rich therapeutic relationships with them.
But there is an order in God’s creation that places human beings after God but higher than animals because we are made in God’s image and likeness (imago dei) and share a special relationship with Him. However, today’s trends threaten to change that order of creation. The order of creation Changes in this hierarchy of creation can wreak havoc in relationships and ignite disorder. Don’t we often hear people in our local parlance say, “Yuh treat meh like a dog, but yuh treat yuh animal like a king.”
This is the crux of the matter—Pope Francis is not opposed to pets but to couples who are closed to raising children (even where adoption is a viable option) and decide to have pets instead of children. The emphasis on adoption as a viable option was reiterated when Pope Francis celebrated the role of St Joseph as an adoptive father calling it “among the highest form of love”.
Adoptive parenting is prevalent in our Caribbean culture. Recently, one of my Confirmation students stunned me with a response to couples raising children from different parents: “I hope one day my life is inspired by St Joseph and all he has done, that even if the children I am called to care for are not mine, that I will still love them as my own, because they are my own.”Likewise, Pope Francis also offered a prayer at the end of his meditation that, “no-one will feel deprived of a bond of fatherly love” for there are many children who long for such.
He asked St Joseph to intercede for couples who wish to have a child as he prayed:St Joseph, you who loved Jesus with fatherly love, be close to the many children who have no family and who wish for a father and a mother. Support the couples who are unable to have children. Help them to discover, through this suffering, a greater plan. Make sure that no one lacks a home, a bond, a person to take care of him or her; and heal the selfishness of those who close themselves off from life, that they may open their hearts to love. Amen.