ROME — Pope Francis has not been reluctant to offer his views on polarizing subjects, but on Wednesday, he waded into an issue involving two subjects on which consensus is almost impossible to find.
Pets and kids.
Speaking on parenthood during a general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, Francis bemoaned the global decline in birthrates — what he described as a “demographic winter” — and was bluntly critical of couples who prefer to have pets rather than children.
People who have pets instead of children, the pope said, were being selfish, exhibiting a “denial of fatherhood or motherhood” that “diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.”
“Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children,” Francis said, laying out the harsh consequences of a childless future, including the inevitable drying up of pension plans. “Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality.”
The reaction was heated.
Several people pointed out that the pope had made a deliberate decision not to have children and should have little say on the matter. “Is the Vatican gonna pay daycare?” asked one man.
Others noted that Francis was failing to live up to his namesake, Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.
The pope had already signaled his kids-over-kibbles stance in a 2014 interview with the Rome daily Il Messaggero. When asked whether some in society valued pets more than children, he said that it was a reality that reflected a “sign of cultural degeneration.”
“That’s because an emotional relationship with animals is easier, more programmable,” he said at the time. “An animal is not free, while having a child is something complex.”
On Wednesday, Francis said the world was experiencing “an age of notorious orphanhood,” that could be countered, in part, by caring for children, either through adoption, or naturally. “It is riskier not to have them,” Francis said. “Think about this, please.”
One animal rights group said it wasn’t an either/or situation.
“It is strange to think that the pope considers love in our lives to be limited in quantity, and that giving it to someone takes it away from others,” said Massimo Comparotto, the president of the Italian branch of the International Organization for the Protection of Animals.
“Perhaps the pontiff is unaware of the enormous sacrifices that volunteers endure” to help save animals, he said in a statement. “Anyone who thinks that life is sacred loves life beyond species,” he said.