The recent words of Pope Francis in a sermon to married couples, about some people preferring to lavish their affections on cats and dogs rather than children, reported in this newspaper,has generated a huge amount of comment. Even The Times made this the subject of its third editorial last Wednesday, wondering if this seeming swipe aimed at childless cat-lovers was some sort of veiled criticism of Pope Benedict, who is well known to love cats, and has no children.
This controversy, if that is what it is, is nothing new. Some years ago, La Civilta Cattolica, the ultra-serious and rather dull Jesuit magazine, whose contents are approved by the Vatican before publication, thus giving it semi-official status, ran an article about how one should not love one’s pets, and that love is only to be given to human beings, if memory serves. It condemned the idea of animal rights, and the way people spend more on animals than they do on human beings. Needless to say, this was misinterpreted by some (again, if memory serves) as an attack on animal lovers in general.
In fact the role and status of pets even makes it into the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 2418 says: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.”
The Pope may well have been thinking of this section of the catechism. But it is also worth pointing out that the Argentine-born Pope is in fact Italian in culture, and Italy is not like England. In Italy many people are from the countryside, from farms, or related to farmers, and as such they do not have the romantic idea of animals as pets which the English have, thanks to the fact that very few of us ever see a farm. For most Italians, dogs and cats are working animals rather than pets, or, to use the more politically correct phrase for pets, “non-human animal companions”. To seek companionship in animals, as far as most Italians are concerned, is simply eccentric. I lived in Italy for eight years, and often heard remarks to this effect. Moreover, I lived in Africa for four years, and often heard the people there wondering at the way the wazungu (Europeans) loved their dogs, and gave them such good food too. Here indeed is the rub. Your average dog in England is truly pampered compared to many people in Africa. Indeed, even in Africa itself there are baby elephants fed on powdered milk in a sanctuary near Nairobi, looked after by devoted wazungu, while down the road human babies never see powdered milk from one year’s end to the next.
It is not fanciful to say that we love animals more than we love people sometimes. And the amount of cash we give to animal charities does raise moral issues. Our love of pets (and I speak as a former dog owner) is a sign of our membership of a post-agricultural society. Our love of pets could be, Pope Francis is pointing out, a sign that we are not simply post-agricultural but post-familial too. One can’t survive without agriculture, as we all have to eat. And, it might be added, we certainly cannot survive without the family.