The Pope and Pets

by Sherry F. Colb

Last week, the Pope reportedly told an audience that married couples that have pets instead of children are selfish. Before you could say “He no play-a da game, he no make-a da rules” (Earl Butz's reaction to an earlier Pope refusing to endorse contraception as a means of reducing world hunger), social media lit up with debates about whether the Pope did or did not "have a point." I will briefly touch on the substance of these debates and then turn to a somewhat different but related argument that I have heard more than once.

Those attacking the Pope's words pointed out that (a) he does not have children, raising the question whether it is the absence of children or the presence of pets that triggers the charge of selfishness; (b) he lives in a palace surrounded by priceless art, suggesting that he also lives in a glass house; (c) our world is overpopulated, and the large number of children who then become grownups strains the carrying capacity of the planet, pumps carbon into the atmosphere, and threatens the extinction of many species, suggesting that the selfish choice is to reproduce rather than to refrain from doing so; and (d) why would a man who took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, condemn couples who care for animals as selfish?

Responses came from (no surprise here) devout Catholics and others who believe in what they call "natural law." Natural law, in this approach, looks very much like the law that our current U.S. Supreme Court is in the process of deploying against those who live by a different religion or no religion at all. It says that it is natural for a man and a woman to come together and create children through their union. I would not dispute that such behavior is natural, but they go on to say that the following are unnatural: a man and woman coming together and using birth control so they do not create children; a man and a man or a woman and a woman coming together, masturbating, etc. These are unnatural because the telos or purpose of the sex act is procreation, and it is therefore unnatural to separate sex from procreation (either by having sex that cannot result in the creation of children or by creating children without sex, as in in vitro fertilization). Such people somehow find a loophole for infertile couples coming together, but I forget what that loophole is.

One of the reasons the whole concept of "natural law" and the "unnatural" strike me as unconvincing is that just about anything that humans and other animals do is necessarily "natural," and it is rather arrogant to presume that the main "purpose" of sex is procreation when, for instance, one of our two closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the Bonobo or Pygmy Chimpanzee, is famous for same-sex sexual liaisons and for many extramarital partners. Does that mean homosexuality is natural, adultery is natural, and monogamy is the unnatural practice? Given how common same-sex sexuality is in nature, it seems clear that procreation is not "the purpose" of sex.

Defenders of the pontiff also said that being celibate in the way that priests (including the Pope) are is a valid choice, while having sex but preventing the sex from yielding children is an invalid choice. One person referred to married couples that enjoy contracepted sex as having a masturbatory relationship. I do not really have a response to that claim because it seems like simple name-calling. Celibacy is a good way to not have children (because it avoids inheritance struggles over Church holdings), but getting married and having non-procreative sex is bad because it is "masturbatory." Calling the latter masturbatory begs the question of what makes masturbation bad--if it is unnatural, then someone ought to tell that to the dogs who live with selfish, childless couples (dogs hump legs, couches, and almost anything they can find). 

What interests me most about the Pope's reported remarks is the resemblance they bear to a common complaint I hear: You are vegan. You care about animals and their lives. Don't you think humans could use your help? Do we really have the luxury of caring about animals in a world in which so many humans are suffering? The suggestion here is, of course, that standing up for animals is selfish because it takes time that one could have spent helping humans.

There are many problems with this argument, much as there are with what the Pope said. The people who level condemnation at animal rights activists for being insufficiently helpful to humanity are typically not great humanitarians themselves. It is not as though eating a steak makes you a great contributor to human wellbeing. Indeed, the opposite is true. Even if a person felt at peace with the torture and slaughter that his food choices inflicted on living, breathing, suffering animals, the slaughterhouse harms more than just animals. It contributes enormously to global warming, it uses up shocking amounts of clean water, it requires the production of a great deal of "feed" that could instead have gone to growing vegetables and fruits to feed the hungry. And it traumatizes workers who generally have few other options and may be undocumented so that perhaps singularly among U.S. industries, it participates in regular human rights abuses. People who work in slaughterhouses are also more likely than otherwise comparable people to commit acts of domestic violence and to become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Like choosing not to have children, choosing not to consume animal products is eminently wise for its beneficial impact on humans.

Apart from the benefits that veganism bestows on the planet and on our fellow humans, it simply is not true that we have a finite amount of love in our hearts and must decide whether to spend it on humans or on animals. When I first adopted my older daughter, she had a bad cold and was crying nonstop. I held her in my arms and sang the song "Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away, yes, love is something if you give it away, you end up having more. It's just like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won't have any. Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many, they'll roll all over the floor, for (repeat)." I sang it over and over and over until she fell asleep. She's all grown up now, but she remembers that song. (And not just because it seems to embrace a Keynesian economics.)

The song is true. The more you love, the more you love. People who love animals and advocate against the cruelty of consuming the products of animal agriculture (including mammals, birds, fishes, and their reproductive secretions) have more love for humans, not less. People do have to decide how to allocate their time, but most animal rights activists find a way to incorporate their activism into their work rather than taking time away from loving humans. And where is the human rights outrage at people who just work at their jobs and spend their leisure time relaxing with a good book or going shopping? Is protecting animals against torture and slaughter so worthless that the world would be better off if activists instead watched "Curb Your Enthusiasm?"

The Pope was wrong to name-call married couple who decide not to have children, whether they also decide to have pets or not. Indeed, having pets reduces the odds that children will grow up with allergies. To view procreation as an obligation does not bode well for the mental health of the children that come out of that union. And taking care of an animal takes nothing away from children. The same is true for veganism and animal rights. These pursuits benefit humans and create a more habitable and kind planet, kind to people and to animals. People and animals need not compete for respect. Treating them both with the kindness to which they are both entitled will more firmly entrench an ethic of compassion. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.