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Pets vs. babies: exploring the Pope Francis row

The pontiff has castigated those who ‘renounce parenthood’ – does he have a point?

The UK birth rate has been in steady decline since the 1970s, said Peter Stanford in The Daily Telegraph. Yet as the rate of human births has fallen, our enthusiasm for pets has soared. The country is now home to an estimated 12.5 million dogs, which is almost three times as many as in 1965 and just a whisker below the number of children under 16.

“Are the two connected?” Pope Francis reckons so. During an audience at the Vatican last week, the pontiff castigated couples who “substitute cats and dogs for children”. It was, he said, proof of a “certain selfishness… it makes us laugh but it’s true. Renouncing parenthood diminishes us. It takes away our humanity.”

The Pope’s remarks were “incredibly tone deaf”, said Harriet Williamson in The Independent. There are all sorts of reasons why people don’t have children. Some are physically unable to; others are prevented by financial constraints or choose not to for environmental reasons. To suggest they’re somehow being selfish is “regressive and insulting”.

The comments hark back to an earlier, more old-fashioned style of Catholic leadership that Pope Francis had appeared to have left behind, said The Sunday Times. They certainly won’t have the desired effect, and “merely demonstrate how removed this celibate 85-year-old man is from real life and the real-world problems facing women of childbearing age and their partners”.

I can see why his words infuriated many pet lovers and childless people, said Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post. But I also kind of know what he was getting at. We do seem to be “obsessed” with our “fur babies” these days, and it’s valid to wonder about the wider effects of this.

The Pope is also right to worry about how countries with a shrinking base of young workers are going to support themselves in the future, said Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. Much of the world is facing the spectre of underpopulation. In Germany, they’re “razing empty flats to make way for parks”; in Italy, maternity wards are closing down. The difference between Francis and more militant environmentalists is that while they want to save the planet from people, he wants to save it for people.

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