The pope was not discussing LGBTQ issues, liturgy, synodality, or a number of other hot button topics. What was the point of discontent?
Cats and dogs.
Online media feasts on using snippets to evoke emotion, which produces eyeballs, clicks, ad recognition, and a number of other traps for the unbeknownst reader. The Holy Father’s mere mention of cats and dogs fed right into the online-media monster of a machine.
In full disclosure, I do not own any pets, so I literally do not have a dog in this fight.
First, let us look at what Pope Francis stated in the original context.
The subject of the General Audience was the fatherhood of St. Joseph and the important role of parents. Francis offered a beautiful exhortation on parenthood.
Quoting from Patris Corde, Pope Francis stated, “Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person.”
Having recently celebrated the first birthday of my second son, who was born during the pandemic, the pope’s words burn deeply within me.
It doesn’t matter how many parenting books I read or that my wife is a literal parenting expert. Parenthood is a gift from God and a grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit. The demands of parenthood are by far my most challenging and my most rewarding. Like St. Paul, I cling to these words from on high: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
There are days when I miss my life prior to children, especially when the teething one-year old wakes us up multiple times at night.
But Christ does not call us to a life of comfort and pleasure but to the cross (cf. Matthew 16:24).
If anything, the crux of the pope’s message was lost in the scuffle. Below are the words of contention:
The other day, I spoke about the demographic winter there is nowadays, in which we see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one—but they have two dogs, two cats… Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children.
Does Francis hate cats and dogs? This seems unlikely for a pontiff who took the name of a saint known for his love of animals.
Rather, what Pope Francis is highlighting is the mismatch of prioritization between pets and humans and the need to focus on the family.
While this is certainly an extreme, Paris Hilton paved the way for a culture that places pets on a pedestal. Indeed, many people treat their pets better than they treat other people.
From 1994 to 2020, the U.S. pet industry increased from $17 billion to $104 billion, and it is estimated at $110 billion for 2021. Approximately 31 percent of pet owners are Millennials, of which 69 percent prioritize natural and organic foods for their pets.
There has also been an uptick in claims of emotional support animals, some of which are likely untrue claims that diminish the credibility of this avenue of wellness for those who truly need it. Some fraudulently make this claim to obtain fee waivers for bringing pets on flights and as an excuse to bring dogs into the workplace. Silicon Valley culture encourages this.
And while pets do offer a tremendous benefit to persons and families, I do believe the pope has a point.
Human beings are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:27). We must prioritize the dignity of the human person. When billions are spent on pets while people are dying on the streets, we have a serious problem.
Moreover, and central to the pontiff’s point, if there are couples prioritizing pets over having children, then we surely need to pause here.
Note the pope recognizes that there are those who cannot have children:
And how many married couples want to be fathers and mothers but are unable to do so for biological reasons; or, although they already have children, they want to share their family’s affection with those who do not have it. We should not be afraid to choose the path of adoption, to take the “risk” of welcoming children. And today, with orphanhood, there is a certain selfishness.
If having children, whether natural or adopted, is less of a priority than having a pet, it suggests that the dignity of the person is less than that of an animal. This trajectory justifies the diminishment in the dignity of life—from the unborn to those near death—and promotes a throwaway culture that ultimately leads to death. I believe the Holy Father made these statements to warn us about this trajectory, not to insult pet owners.
However, as social media has proven itself adept at doing, it led many people to be triggered by Pope Francis’ words. Animal lovers feel hurt by the pontiff’s remarks. But again, if one takes a step back and looks at the message objectively and not emotively, Francis is not attacking pets and pet lovers, he is highlighting the de-prioritization of the human person.
Secular culture wishes to subtly foment this de-prioritization and militate against anyone who does not follow in its lead. Pope Francis’ focus on children over pets resulted in a target on his back from those swayed by these forces.
Moreover, and more sadly, the beautiful message on parenthood, family, and the call to adoption was lost.
We cannot help but notice Satan’s work in this: the de-prioritization of the human person, a recycled tactic from a fallen angel who could not accept God becoming human, the emphasis on a consumer culture that favors pets over those who are truly in need, and a diminishment in the call from God to be fruitful and multiply (cf. Genesis 1:28). Satan would rather we not follow Christ’s call to the cross but be entrapped in consumer comforts.
Thus, Catholics must not permit the subtle de-prioritization of the human person to continue. While pets are not bad, placing pets over people certainly is. We must promote the Kingdom of God, not a secular, consumerist culture that is averse to the call for those who are capable to have children.
Let us join Pope Francis in asking the intercession of St. Joseph to awaken consciences toward an openness to life and to promote the dignity of the person.
[Photo Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images]