Even a clock that has stopped will correctly tell the time twice a day.
On 23 May, I posted a blog on something that was on my mind for a while: what Pope Francis said about spending on pets in an EWTN interview that he gave before his election as Supreme Pontiff. In short, what he said there was that pet ownership can be taken over by a kind of pagan idolatry that disregards human needs.
Francis said that we shouldn’t prioritize resources so that pets become the target of all of our discretionary spending (and affection) when there are still human concerns, like starvation and homelessness. He said it shouldn’t be first pets, then children if there’s anything left over.
Then, on 2 June, in one of his fervorinos given at a mass a Sanctae Marthae for married couples, the Holy Father doubled down on his theme, saying that married couples who choose not to have children (note the word choose; some couples cannot have kids — he’s not talking about them) have fallen under the influence of a “culture of well-being” that says that life is better without kids.
Pope Francis admits that life “might be better,” or “more comfortable” to just have a dog or cat to whom a couple sends their love. But, “in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”
As I stated in the original post, I do not think the Pope is condemning pet ownership or spending associated with their legitimate care. I think what he’s really developing as his theme is that sometimes pet ownership becomes one of the distractions present in pagan culture that carry illusory promises of happiness but ultimately are not the same as authentic human relationships with other people.
We are becoming more and more isolated by our technology, growing accustomed to interacting through the digital realm. Families are shrinking, leaving individuals less connected than before. We want to be comfortable; we want rest and relaxation and autonomy in our personal pursuits, and a pet is a lot easier (in terms of personal gratification) than caring for another person.
Pets simply do not demand the same sacrifices that children do. We shouldn’t be looking for “fulfillment” in owning pets. Pope Francis is reminding all of us that while we may receive much from having a specially loved pet, it in no way can replace our need for human relationship, for community and family, and it certainly has no parity with authentic parenthood.
When we tell ourselves that owning a pet can replace these things, and so it is therefore good to invest our best energies, money, and time into our pets at the expense of other people, then we have fallen prey to what the Holy Father calls the culture of well-being.