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Opinion Is Pope Francis right about babies and pets?

Pope Francis pets a dog during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on September 19, 2018, in Vatican City. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Pope Francis rattled some big cages when he said people who adopt pets instead of people are selfish in some cases. The last part of that sentence was left out of many stories, and the rest informed some rabid reactions from pet lovers, as well as some childless-by-choice folks.

Mainly, he was saying that economies are in trouble because of declining birthrates that are leaving not-enough productive people to support aging populations. He was also expressing concerns about what the effect will be on our humanity as people increasingly turn from human families to pet households.

‘Tis a rare day when I agree with everyone.

I am an irrational animal lover — I love anything with a heartbeat — and so my heart swells when an animal is rescued and adopted. But the idea that animal lovers like me ought instead to be having or adopting children — and are selfish for not doing so — seems to me a preposterous conflation leading to a false conclusion.

That said, he’s the pope, and who am I?

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Answer: Someone who thinks she knows what he meant.

We do seem to be obsessed with our animals these days, especially since covid-19 made pet companionship an around-the-clock experience for many of us who started working at home. This is especially true among millennials — the childbearing demographic — who reportedly have more pets than children, according to one study. One in 10 American pet owners are putting off having children (or having more) because of pet expenses, according to the American Pet Products Association (yes, there is one of those, too).

Sergio Peçanha: Pope Francis, your comments on choosing pets over children don’t add up

Our “fur babies,” a popular term that makes me want to spit dog hair, aren’t merely “pets” but are family members essential to the making of a home. They’re easier and (somewhat) less expensive than children. Moreover, pet-parenting can be a good warm-up exercise for would-be parents. If caring for a pet is too much trouble, imagine what children require. By all means, skip Lamaze classes and hire a travel agent.

The pope would never say this, of course, but my thinking is that people who don’t want children really shouldn’t have them. If they do happen to birth a baby, they can find adoptive parents easily enough, but they might be in for a surprise. In my experience, very few first-time parents have any idea how much they’re going to love their little peanut. I mean uppercase L-O-V-E.

This observation, I think, corresponds more accurately to the pope’s intentions. Love for one’s child is unexpectedly unselfish. Good parents surrender themselves to the care and nurturing of these helpless, tiny people and suddenly cannot imagine what they did with their lives before. Nothing that mattered, many will say.

It is hard to convey that to someone who isn’t a parent. You can no more explain the overwhelming, all-consuming, all-protecting love you feel for your newborn than you can explain the feeling of being in love to the uninitiated. (Thus: poetry.)

A much younger me once swore I’d never marry or have children. In college, I even ripped out the back page of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” signed a pledge to have no more than one child and mailed it in.

What nonsense. Ehrlich, who predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s and offered coercion as a population control measure, wasn’t wrong about everything. But overpopulation isn’t the terrifying prospect he made it out to be. If anything, birthrates are declining in many industrialized nations. Economists (and the pope) now worry there won’t be enough people to support aging populations. Estimates are that by 2030, a solid one-fifth of America’s population will be 65 or older.

Given the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception and abortion, it seems perfectly normal for the Vatican to take note of declining birthrates. The pope is right about needing more, not fewer, births if the relationship between economics and the social safety net is his focus. He’s also right to wonder what effect the seeming preference for pets might have upon our humanity. That’s his main job, after all. What does it mean, ultimately, to trade the gift of life for communion in a dog park?

If a good helping of selflessness is essential to safely bringing another human into the world, then might it seem like “selfishness” for some to take the easier path of a pet? Maybe, if you’re the pope.

As someone who has had it all — children and an unbroken series of adopted animals — I can’t rightly say. But I’ll tell you what an old friend told me when I told him I was expecting. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “Now you can know what love is.” That, I think, is what the pope was trying to say.