According to comments Pope Francis made while celebrating Mass on Monday, any married couple who has pets instead of children has made the wrong choice. He was very specific about the consequences of that choice: “In the end, this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”
Before we get any deeper into this, I feel like I should give a disclaimer: I don’t like the pope. Not Pope Francis specifically; any pope. It’s not that the job description requires you to believe in god, and that as an atheist, I think that’s a really bad way to decide the course of peoples’ lives. Contrary to what certain people might think, I don’t spend all my time in my secret lair underneath Area 51 plotting the destruction of all believers, and I do have quite a few among my friends. (Besides, the WiFi signal there is surprisingly bad for a top-secret government installation.)
My dislike for the pope and the Catholic hierarchy is more from the fact that their jobs largely consist of issuing advice on things that they are utterly unqualified to speak about. Every pope in history has obsessed about who should have sex, what kind they should have, who they should do it with, and what kind of health care they should use before and after the act.
Pope Francis’ statement on Monday is a perfect example: If there’s anything that a celibate man whose every material need is taken care of by the huge international organization that is the Vatican should not be lecturing other people on, it’s sex, families, and relationships with pets. He is about as qualified to speak on these things as I am on the subject of 15th-century agricultural techniques in rural Sweden.
Dogster and our sister publication Catster probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that the bond between people and their pets can be very intimate and very serious. Dogs are not mere fashion accessories or toys, and it’s a serious commitment to raise one. It’s true that there are a lot of people who don’t realize this, and they wind up buying puppies with the same thought and care they put into selecting a microwave dinner, and this is a bad thing. Dogs — or any pet — just aren’t for everyone.
But the same is true for children. Having children is a huge commitment. It involves a lot of things that Pope Francis will never have to worry about, including feedings at 3 a.m., taking care of the kids when they’re sick, disciplining them when they’re wrong and supporting them when they’re right, worrying about whether you can afford food and vaccinations, and simply always being available for one crisis or another for a solid 20 years, if not longer. That’s a big commitment, and not one that should be made out of obligation or fear.
As with pets, no one should have children without being utterly honest with themselves about whether that’s the best choice for themselves and the child. I know that it’s not right for me. I decided a long time ago that while I enjoy other people’s children (and often prefer socializing with the kids rather than the adults at certain parties), it’s better for all involved if I don’t take on that full-time, 20-year commitment. I respect the people who can take it on and do it well, but it’s a decision that everyone makes for themselves; not for their parents, not for society, and certainly not for Pope Francis.
Of course, all dog lovers will recognize that Francis’ statement that having pets instead of kids comes entirely from focusing on doctrine rather than reality. I read the Internet every day and find stories of people whose lives are made less lonely, and less bitter, because of their dogs. The one who comes immediately to mind is Patricia Cudd, whom I wrote about in April. Facing terminal cancer, one of her last concerns in life was to find a new home for her Pit Bull, Sherlock. She found a new home for Sherlock in May, and at the same time, found a new home for herself, when a local woman allowed Cudd to stay in her home.
It is clear that Cudd’s life would have been more lonely and more bitter without Sherlock. For more than a year, she lived in a motel room near her chemo center with the dog as her only companion. If there was a failure in Cudd’s life, it was not because she didn’t have children. It was the failure of our society to provide health care and resources for people with severe illness. It was the fact that we are content to leave dying people alone in motels, on their own. We can at least be thankful for the bond between her and Sherlock, and that it was able to ease her situation.
That’s the sort of thing that Pope Francis is unable to see when speaking down to the rest of us from his pedestal. He will never starve, he will never lack for clothing, and if he gets cancer, he will always receive good care. The rest of us have to worry about the details of what we need in real life, and not what wealthy priests think we need.
Read about dogs in the news on Dogster: