Opinion: Hey, Pope Francis: Some people would rather raise pets than children

When Pope Francis urged married couples not to substitute raising pets for having children — or risk growing old in solitude “with the bitterness of loneliness” — all I could think was: Get this man a pet. We’d have to start with making the Vatican residence pet-friendly — there’s a “no pets” rule at the moment — but I’m sure Francis could have that changed in no time. And he could adopt one of the many cats that roam the garden at the papal retreat, Castel Gandolfo.

Clearly he’s not getting what the households owning 74 million cats and 69 million dogs, in the United States alone, understand: Furry children are, indeed, a blessing. (Not to mention that there are millions of fish, ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters residing in American households.)

Francis made his remarks Monday at a small Mass in a Vatican chapel before 15 married couples. He said it might be “more comfortable” for couples to have no kids or “a dog, two cats,” but then they’re alone at the end. “It is not fruitful, it does not do what Jesus does with his church: He makes his church fruitful.”


I know Francis isn’t telling people to stop having pets, he’s just telling married couples to start having kids. Although, as we all know, having children is no slam-dunk hedge against loneliness and bitterness in old age.

Still, I was a little taken aback by the pontiff’s comments. He’s earned such high marks for his ground-breaking nonjudgmental remarks about gay people and for scorning bishops who enrich themselves with material goods. I forgot that this is another divide between the church and many of its members: the edict to have children and the decision not to have them.

Having covered animal welfare issues for years, I know welfare advocates who are married with pets and without children; I know ones who are married with children and with pets; and I know married couples, not involved in animal welfare, who happily don’t have children but do have dogs and cats.

“Clearly the pope has never had a pet or he would know the unconditional love that our animals have for us,” animal welfare advocate Cheri Shankar told me. Shankar and her husband, Naren, a television writer and producer (who do not have children), have opened their spacious home to numerous cats over the years, and I’ve watched them lovingly tend to them all.

Certainly animals have been fruitful and multiplied, and fortunately for them and society, thousands of people, like the Shankars, rescue and care for them. I have no children, but I had my cat, Arnold, from his kitten days until the early morning, 18 years later, when he died on the floor of my bedroom as I sat beside him. And like my other pet-owning friends, we are better people, not bitter people, for having loved and nurtured them, even if we eventually lost them.

Francis might want to consult his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who resigned his office. Benedict had a cat named Chico before he left Germany for the Vatican. (The cat, apparently, was being cared for by the keeper of his personal residence in Germany.) And when he was a theology professor in the late 1960s in Tubingen, Germany, a neighbor cat followed him regularly to Mass.

And Francis should also meditate on his namesake, Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, who believed they were as much God’s creatures as humans and, according to legend, once preached to a flock of birds so spellbound by him that they didn’t fly off until he was done.

We don’t need this Francis to be a bird whisperer, but it would be nice if he could see that people’s humanity is well used when they care for cats and dogs. And if they choose to do that and not raise children, that’s not a failure to fill their lives with children, that’s a choice to fulfill their lives with animals.