Pope Francis has been widely criticized for comments he made last week about young couples choosing pets over children:
We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one—but they have two dogs, two cats. . . . Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality. And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.
Certainly, animals figure large in both biblical accounts of creation. In Genesis 1, while plants have generative powers, bearing seed which will bring forth subsequent generations, every animal, from fish and birds on, is given volition, and is commanded by God to “be fertile and multiply . . .” Man is given dominion over the animals—a key way in which we are made in God’s image and likeness. But the most interesting Scripture passage on our relationship with animals comes in the second account of creation, in Genesis Chapter 2:
The Lord God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” So the Lord God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.
So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of the man’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .”
On first reading, one might think the passage confirms the idea that God gave us animals as companions because they seem to be the solution to the problem of our loneliness. But on closer examination, it becomes more interesting. The animals do not satisfy—“none proved to be a suitable partner for the man.” We have to ask, if, as we believe, God is all knowing and all powerful, why did He create animal companions that did not satisfy before creating woman from man’s rib?
One explanation is that God created animals to heighten man’s sense of longing and his existential discontent, in order that when woman was finally fashioned from his side, he would experience a transport of ecstatic union: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .”
In the following chapters, animals figure large, but in seemingly contradictory ways. Genesis 3 features a talking serpent who represents the devil—the enemy of God and the seducer of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4, the innocent Abel is a lonely wanderer and a keeper of flocks, while the farmer Cain, whose descendants would go on to build cities, is a murderer.
It would be too simple, however, to reduce animals to the merely instrumental role of awakening a longing for fuller human companionship. We are made more human by our humane regard for animals (and less human when we ill-treat them). But they are not the summum bonum. Our affection for animals must always be subordinate to our love for other people and especially to our love for God.
Finally, an anecdote to illustrate the disorder about which the Pope speaks. A few years ago, I was doing a pro-life witness in Montreal with a group called Show the Truth. In between our street-corner witnessing, we were doing a neighborhood postcard drop. It was a neighborhood of post-war bungalows, much like the one I had grown up in; but it was different. There were no bikes on the lawns. No wagons or skateboards or toys for dads to trip over. Then, to my great relief, I saw a woman walking toward me, pushing a baby carriage. When we passed each other, she smiled, but I could not. Her “baby” was a dog.
I did not speak to the woman, I know nothing about her. But I do know this: She did not forsake her sexual power to carry that puppy within her. She did not endure great discomfort, sleepless nights, and a complete redefinition of her being to bring that puppy into the world. She did not forge with a husband to make another human being. She and her husband and her puppy child did not reflect the Holy Trinity in the fruitful marital love prayer, for just as the Holy Spirit is the personification of the love between the Father and the Son, in holy reflection the child is the personification of the love between the father and the mother.
And that puppy will never be a human person, made in the image and likeness of God.
It is a great tragedy that so many are choosing the easy companionship of pets over the sublime gift of life parents give to children. Because doing so, as Pope Francis says, “takes away our humanity.”