Pope should know poverty, not pets, keeps people from having kids under capitalism
Mary Altaffer / AP

As a pet companion, who often feels like I occupy my cat’s apartment and not my own, I was disappointed at the Pope’s recent scolding of couples opting for pets over having children or having only one child. It was a missed opportunity the Pope did not seize.

“Today…we see a form of selfishness,” Pope Francis said during a General Audience at the Vatican on Jan. 5. “We see that some people do not want to have a child. Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children.

“Opting for pets over children is selfish and takes away our humanity,” the Pope said.

This echoes a comment he made in 2014 when he described this practice as “another phenomenon of cultural degradation.”

Granted, my worldviews do not hover in the Vatican’s orbit. I do not await any words that come out of his mouth, but I appreciate the Pope has a potential audience of over one billion Roman Catholics, which is over one billion greater than mine.

Francis’ more measured words and criticism of capitalism have come as a welcome change of tune over Pope John Paul II’s Cold War anti-communism and his criticism of liberation theology. Since being placed in office, this particular prelate has appeared to advance the church’s thinking away from the 19th century and more in the late 20th century.

Among his encouraging comments since becoming pope are calling for a “redistribution of economic benefits;” criticizing how “the current model … does not appear to favor an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak, or the less talented to find opportunities in life;” responding to a question about lesbian and gay Catholics, he replied, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” And he has attributed climate change to human activity.

Louisa Gouliamaki / Pool via AP

But in the way he addressed people having pets over children and calling it selfish and cultural degradation, I thought his otherwise advanced, 20th century nuance had failed him.

I would have liked some reflection on the tremendous pressures the working class faces, particularly women and single parents in the workforce.

In the last generation, as the welfare states of Western Europe dismantled parts of their social safety nets to various extents, and as the U.S. has done much the same with welfare “reforms” and cuts to housing assistance, working people—married or not—have been forced to view the raising of children as another great expense and less the joy the Pope seems to imagine.

The choice this pressure places on working people is not of their own doing. It comes from above through frequent budget cuts or spending freezes, by both Republicans and Democrats. It comes from the austerity measures that are produced through neoliberalism.

The selfish, soulless ones are the governments that have increasingly prioritized military spending and giving the broadest girth for corporations to secure profits over every social issue you can think of, including children.

Given the pope’s other public observations, he must know this. But he does not say it. In 2014, he further warned that not having children would lead to bitterness and loneliness in old age.

Instead of frightening people with a lonely old age, he should have savaged the way our public policies treat our elderly, where unless you are destitute or filthy rich, nursing homes and eldercare are out of reach. Having children, the Pope should have observed, only shares these incredible burdens with your children. It does not alleviate them.

The Pope addressed none of these things. It was an opportunity for him to do so, but instead, he burdened the working class with this.

If Francis wants to reverse the “demographic winter,” as he calls falling birthrates, he should say what needs to be said: that Western, capitalist countries are serial child abusers by the conditions they produce. Their governments allow policies that have increased child poverty, made precarious their access to their next meals, and undermined their access to free, quality education.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny III lives in Hawaii.