Mice or Men: Reflections on Pope Francis’s Statements Regarding Pets Replacing Children | Christian Mills
On the 5th of January, Pope Francis suggested people who choose to have pets over children were acting selfishly.
During an audience in Rome where His Holiness was discussing parenthood in general, Pope Francis opined that such denials of parenthood “diminishes us [and] takes away our humanity”. Instead, they take dogs and cats and treat them as children instead.
Quite needless to say his comments evoked a number of reactions from people, both Catholic and non-Catholic.
While I won’t say that His Holiness is completely incorrect about some who may have opted out of parenthood, I must say that His Holiness is perhaps being a little too black and white about it and is reducing the issue of declining birth-rates to a rather simplistic and inconsiderate matter of personal choice.
Honestly, that more people wind up with a dog or a cat rather than a child is not the problem, but rather a symptom of the real problem at hand. As many who responded angrily to the Pope’s comments have pointed out: children are expensive.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group, the average British couple can expect to spend some £150k for two children by their 18th birthday in total costs. For a lone parent the figure is even higher, bringing it to over £185k. For those working on minimum wage, even if both parents are employed, that’s way beyond what their finances will allow. Even those on the median wage would be able to afford just one, with little wriggle room.
Over the course of the pandemic, with school closures and loss of jobs as a result of the necessary lockdowns, the task of providing for a family has become nearly impossible.
Gone are the days when a single parent could earn enough on their income to provide for their household. Now even with both parents fully employed, ends are only just meeting. Most income will be taken up by mortgages or rent, more by rising food and energy prices, and many more young people are now laden with massive student debts to repay.
In the United States, things are made even worse by the extortionate medical costs. Even before the costs of raising a child, the cost of childbirth in the average US hospital is anywhere between $8300 to as much as $20k in New York. Abortions, in contrast, can cost as little as $75 to $3000. The maths speaks for itself.
The problem at hand therefore is not that Millennials and Zoomers are lazy, entitled or selfish. It’s that, as has often been repeated, we’re the two most impoverished generations since the Lost Generation and Silent Generation of the Great Depression.
Throw in an ever-worsening housing crisis that makes it hard for most young couples to find a home large enough for two and a half children, and is it any wonder that many have decided that a couple of cats or a dog would make for a more practical alternative?
Being a homosexual man in his early thirties, I am unlikely to ever have children myself. As a Catholic it fills me with no small amount of shame and regret, as being a parent was something I genuinely wanted from a young age.
As things stand, however, even adoption is not an option for the reason of expense – I could not adequately provide for a child with what little I can make.
The crisis becomes existential when we look at the aging demographics of our kingdom. A greater proportion of our population is middle-aged or older. The average age of the UK is 40.4 years, in contrast with 34.4 years back in 1980. This average is projected to get older as time goes on.
It is a demographic time bomb.
More services will be required to care for this aging population and there may not be a sufficiently large workforce to provide for it. The burdens on our social and health care services will be astronomical, as it is in geriatric care that the most expense is found. The solutions if left to the last moment may mean anything from raised taxes to raised pension and retirement ages.
Production will plummet. The economy will stagnate. The result would be a society incapable of supporting itself slowly collapsing inward like a poorly baked souffle.
It has been suggested that immigration can make up for this shortfall, but let’s be serious. That’s a band-aid measure. Fertility rates in the developing world are also expected to decline. We cannot rely on importing people from overseas like some mass-produced good to tackle a domestic issue.
The lack of children is a serious concern, but what can we do about it?
There are lots of areas to cover with this, far too much for a single article to adequately address. It’s a matter of housing, social support, affordability, and even issues such as human impact on the environment. One could easily write a book about this, and indeed many have.
Rather than lose myself in a warren of thought, I’ll focus on the single key issue: the inadequacy of the current British wage for the purposes of maintaining a household.
Simply put, we need to make raising a family an affordable prospect for young couples again. This comes with improving wages for the British worker, ensuring that the expenses of progeny can easily be met by the earnings of the average family. At present, with depressed wages and skyrocketing living expenses, this just isn’t feasible.
It’s no secret that the real growth of wages has essentially flatlined since the 2008 Global Recession, failing to keep up with inflation or the rising costs of living. Food prices alone have gone up 40% since 2008.
Nowhere is the connection between income and fertility more starkly illustrated than in the example of Gravity Payments, which famously raised the minimum starting salaries of its employees to $70k a year in 2015. The company immediately went from having only one or two first time parents to nearly twenty a year.
By boosting wages families will be able to provide for themselves again. They set aside money to pay off old debts, put aside savings for a deposit on a house, make plans and preparations for a future with children. On a sufficiently large income, one of the parents can stay at home as a dedicated care-provider while the other acts as the bread winner.
Children will have greater opportunities for education and development, households and marriages will become more stable with the stress of finances removed, and the kingdom will prosper for it.
The family is the basic social unit of every society. Where the family is weakened, society is weakened.
With this it becomes clear – His Holiness’s claims that the decline in fertility by and large has very little to do with the personal choices of young parents today. To suggest so is at best ignorant and at worst insulting. It completely ignores and belittles the struggles young couples face, many of whom like myself would love children but cannot adequately provide for them.
This is not the sin of idleness or selfishness. It’s the virtue of diligence and prudence.
I would therefore advise the Pope to look more seriously at this, and to recommend to the nations that we cannot grow bountiful families if we continue to starve them as we have for the past half-century.