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Are people who chose pets over children just selfish? The pope thinks so.

From the time of his surprising election in 2013, I have admired much of what Pope Francis has done and said.

Kids-petsIndeed, the man who then was my pastor and I wrote an admiring book about what we Protestants could learn from this wise man: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

But something the pope said recently was, frankly, ridiculous. He said people who choose not to have children (or to have just one) but choose instead to have pets are guilty of "selfishness."

Francis has taken considerable flak for his words, and mostly they are deserved, even if some of what he said was a reflection of his essential compassion and made sense.

For instance, he spoke about Joseph, husband of the mother of Jesus, Mary, saying that "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." Right.

And he put in a good word for adoption, saying: "How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them! And how many spouses wish 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 have been left without."

But there can be many good reasons not to have children as well as good reasons to adopt a pet. The pontiff seemed to miss that point.

As the author of this CNN opinion piece put it: "The pope's suggestion that failing to have children is selfish is far from the truth. Especially for those of us living in countries with a large environmental footprint, the choice to have a small family or no human family at all is one that helps everyone -- particularly children, whose future depends on a more sustainable planet.

"Additionally, a person's value, moral standing and character is not defined by parenthood. And showing love for animals is surely something that enhances and demonstrates our humanity -- rather than diminishing it."
And the author of this column in The National Catholic Reporter said it this way:


"The pope's mentality is not entirely foreign to me. My parents, born in China at a time when few people had sufficient resources to feed their children, let alone pets, have also often balked at American families' spoiled pets, recognizing that many Chinese families today cannot afford to spend nearly as much on their children. 'This dog has more toys than my siblings and I did growing up,' they would comment. Owning pets, especially expensive pets from breeders, is a privilege that demands examination in light of the world's ever rising inequality.

"For most, however, it was not just about the pets. Rather, in a seemingly anti-pet statement, the Catholic Church's narrow view on reproduction and marriage is again reinforced by a pope who himself is outspoken about gender equality and LGBT inclusion. While church teaching on marriage theoretically leaves room for couples who are unable to conceive children, childbirth (and sometimes as an afterthought, adoption) is still upheld on a pedestal as the highest way for a Catholic marriage to be 'fruitful.'"

Similarly, the writer of this Bloomberg opinion piece says: "I’d argue that doting on a fur baby rather than an infant is far from selfish. Humanity and morals aside, the pope would do better than to rhetorically kick puppies. There are solid economic reasons for the decline of birthrates across the world, and they need addressing."

Having a wanted child is a beautiful thing. I fathered two of them and will never regret it, even if and when we disagree about things.

But the key word there is "wanted." To have children simply because you feel some obligation to populate the world or to replace yourself is immoral at best and almost certainly a disaster for the child, who almost inevitably will recognize that he or she lives out of a sense of parental obligation and not a sense of love.

Pope Francis seemed to be speaking off-the-cuff in unprepared remarks. On such sensitive issues, maybe he should think twice before speaking once.

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It is pretty easy to forget the details of an important person's life and remember only an achievement or two and a few words he or she said. In some ways, that's what has happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the nation and the world will celebrate this weekend and Monday. (His actual birthday is Saturday. He was born Jan. 15, 1929.) So to give a fuller picture of King -- focusing on the last year of his life before he was assassinated -- Religion News Service has searched its archives and come up with several King stories from that time that you can read here. And if you've never read King's 1967 speech in which he described why he opposed the war in Vietnam, you can read it here. It's remarkable and courageous.

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P.S.: I've mentioned here before the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, located at Indiana University. The center has announced a series of programs coming up this year. You can read about them here and register for them (watch for the "Register" link within the document) so that you can attend virtually. Not that the document to which I've linked you is horizontal in shape and requires clicking an arrow on the right to move forward.


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