Today I came across this article: More Books Suggest Heaven Is for Real for Dogs (and Cats, Horses and Birds Too) (Title suggestion: Heaven is for Real, Wilbur, by Mr. Ed). Here in the First World, money is spent on such things as literature concerning animal afterlife, offered by sellers in the hope to realize some of the $60 billion per year spent by Americans on their pets.
Pope Francis has an opinion regarding spending on pets, which is consonant with the magisterial teachings of the Church. He connects it with the idolatrous attitudes of paganism such as “relativism, narcissism, consumerism. They are completely foreign to worship of the True God”.
From an interview given by Pope Francis (before he became Pope)(linked here), an excerpt of which (at around the 3:00 mark) is transcribed here, he says:
One interesting fact about this paganism….. the amount spent on non-necessities worldwide. Let’s put aside spending on necessary things such as food and medicine. Of those things that are not necessities, or superfluous things, the greatest amount is spent on pets. The most unnecessary spending is made on pets. Pets are idolized. And there’s the idolatry to buy, to rent, to have a feeling to give as I want, where I want, without needing a response, isn’t that true? It’s all a caricature of love. And the second largest amount of money is spent on cosmetology. Cosmetics. I don’t remember exactly the amounts worldwide, but there are millions and millions spent on these two things. Meanwhile the Pope is talking about children who are dying of hunger in underdeveloped continents like Africa, Asia and America. First come pets. And then if there is something left we throw it to the children…..”
Pope Francis is not raising a new issue. The Catechism states that it is “…unworthy to spend money on them [animals] that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” (CCC 2418).
The Catechism specifically states that animals “…may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure” (CCC 2417) and that we must treat them with kindness (CCC 2416). Taken from the proper context, it’s likely true that the Holy Father is not referring his comments absolutely to all pet owners and all forms of spending on pets.
Idolatry can take many forms. In the case of spending on pets, Francis is speaking about attitudes that prioritize the use of our resources for animals at the expense of the care due our fellow human beings, and which tend to disregard human suffering.
My interpretation is also that what we spend on pets is merely a symptom of the larger problem brought on by the “relativism, narcissism, [and] consumerism” of pagan culture. When we personify our pets, when we devote and expend our best energy and attention on their care and attention, at the expense of other people, then we have gone too far. It becomes narcissism — a form of self-love — only “a caricature of love” — that involves satisfying our own desire to love and think ourselves loved.
First, people. Then, pets.
St. Francis, pray for us!