‘Insensitive’: pet owners react to pope’s remarks on animals and children

Whether millennials prefer to raise plants and pets over children for financial and environmental reasons or because they’re lazy and entitled has been hotly discussed in recent years. Now Pope Francis has waded in , saying that not having children is “selfish and diminishes us” and that people are replacing them with cats and dogs.Pet owners have reacted angrily to the comments, made during a general audience at the Vatican. They argue that animals have a lower environmental footprint than children, enable them to lead a life that is different but equally rewarding, and compensate for financial or biological difficulties in having children, rather than directly replacing them. On social media, people pointed out that the pope himself chose not to have children and said there was hypocrisy in such comments, coming from an institution which has grappled with a legacy of child sexual abuse. Guardian readers who responded to a call-out asking for their views were similarly critical of the pope’s comments, which were branded “out of touch” and “sexist”. Sophie Lusby, a 48-year old NHS manager in Belfast, said they were “really naive and insensitive” and failed to reflect that not everybody can or should have children. As a Catholic, she has struggled with feelings of shame about her inability to have children for medical reasons, given her religion’s emphasis on motherhood. “That’s what’s quite triggering about the pope’s words.”She added that although she has two pets, which are “great company when you live on your own”, she doesn’t see them as substitutes for children, and instead has found meaning in her relationships with her nephews, nieces, siblings and parents. “If Catholicism is about family, I’ve been very successful at being a great family member and I don’t need to be told off.” Estee Nagy, a 27-year-old jeweller from London, said that “having a child in today’s world is a luxury” because of lower earning power and a more challenging labour market. “It’s easier for those who were simply lucky and are rich or have more money than an average salary, but it gets harder when there isn’t enough.”

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Stef’s dog Boss enjoying his holiday at the Vatican.Stef’s dog Boss enjoying his holiday at the Vatican. Photograph: Supplied
Stef, who works in education, said that in her home town of Brighton “loads of people have dogs and treat them like kids”. She has taken her rescue dog, Boss, on holiday to 11 countries, including the Vatican , and feels that he is “part of the family”. “I don’t think anybody decides to have a dog instead of a child, you have a dog and you take care of the dog and it becomes like a child.”People’s feelings about their pets may reflect the immense psychological benefits of pet ownership, especially of cats and dogs, said Deborah Wells, a psychologist at Queen’s University, Belfast. Studies have shown that it results in increased companionship, feelings of self-worth and self-esteem and reduced depression, loneliness and isolation.Wells added that there was no evidence that people are using pets as replacements for children, but rather the analogy applies in the sense that they are also dependents that need to be cared for, and many owners develop “an enormous bond of attachment”.Instead, the pope’s comments likely reflect the fact that birth rates have been declining in Europe over the past seven decades, especially in traditionally Catholic countries in the south, where there is a lack of government childcare support, gender roles are more entrenched and youth unemployment is high. While just 10% of European women born in the 1950s were child-free, that rose to 15% for women born in the 1970s. Demographers predict the proportion to increase for women born from the 1980s onwards, although not at as high a rate.The reasons for falling birth rates are far more complicated than personal choice. Francesca Fiori, a demographer at the University of St Andrews, said they include precarious employment, expensive housing, economic uncertainty and a lack of affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements. She added that decision-makers would do better to focus on addressing these issues rather than blaming people.Bernice Kuang, a fertility trends researcher at the University of Southampton, said the pope’s intervention may also be premature given that evidence suggests that people born in the 1980s and 1990s are not choosing not to have children, but are delaying childbirth, often until well into their 30s, although she noted that the climate crisis is increasingly an argument against child-rearing for these generations. “It’s not that humans’ desire to have families has plummeted, circumstances are terrible for young people.”Kuang added that although European societies may worry about fertility rates given their ageing populations, and the impact this could have on pensions, healthcare and the workforce, these can be solved through immigration as there are no problems with population replacement at a global level.

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