Sometime in the summer of 1973, D. Keith Mano of National Review took a trip to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County to make preparations for his aging Aunt Cybelle, who was (I hope, though Mano never says as much) a cat. Amid the excess and kitsch of the massive animal graveyard, Mano mourned:
The slow, rhythmic work of ovaries thwarted. Jerry: “Mommy’s only baby.” Cleo: “She put joy in my life.” We are cruel to the sterile, as if fertility were a moral instance. Hartsdale has the careful presence of females: false pregnancies, false infant burials here. But there are men, too, and couples. The last name given: Grumpy Goldberg; Baby Blue Ribbon McArdle. It’s not ethnic: Jewish stars and Virgin Marys bless evenhandedly. A matter of deep loneliness. The vital dates run between ten and 13 years: In that short time trust, friendship were established. Hercules, 1901–1913, “Never Forgotten,” though the rememberers lie buried in another cemetery. If we are ephemeral, what are our small retainers?
Yet Mano could not condemn the fantasy of Hartsdale. By the end of the visit, in fact, he was willing to celebrate it outright:
You hear it as a catchphrase: The American people spend more for cat food than for —. It is smart, irrefutable, yet somehow there is a refutation. On the absolute scale of values human life and dog life cannot be balanced out. I presume there are no Hartsdales in Moscow; if there are even suburbs in Moscow. But there is a quality of human life, below which that life is no longer worth living, as there is a caloric intake below which life is impossible. We insist, it is a survival instinct, on certain gross luxuries of sentiment. “Muddie’s constant pal.” Foolishness. But it is an asset of our freedom to be, now and then, ludicrous, impractical. And, yes, selfish.
Though I doubt he would put much stock in the words of the bishop of Rome (Mano, once an Episcopalian, converted to Orthodoxy before it was cool) the writer might have benefited from the wisdom of Pope Francis.
The octogenarian pontiff came under fire this week from an army of 30-year-old dog moms for comments made in his Wednesday audience. Reflecting on the virtues of St. Joseph, the pope spoke on the social necessity of parental love, and lamented the fact that so many couples today are willfully forgoing the establishment of families. He was particularly harsh on those who substitute pets for children, opting for the easily trained affection of an irrational animal over the more demanding relationship with an actual human being; the pope called such a cop-out “selfish.”
We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one — but they have two dogs, two cats…. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality. And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.
Alana Massey, who describes herself as “a writer working, decorating, and tending to her collection of petty grievances in the High Woods of upstate New York,” responded: “Said a celibate childless wizard who magicked the Parthenon and it’s [sic] deity tenants to teacup size to keep as pets to win favor with his own god.” (I cannot claim to understand exactly what this means, but it does make Pope Francis sound incredibly cool.) Nor was Ms. Massey alone in her outrage at the pope’s pastoral guidance.
Dana Nessel, the Democratic attorney general of Michigan, spectacularly missed the point in tweeting:
Having done a great deal of work with the foster care system, I can tell you nothing is more “selfish” than having kids you don’t want just bc the Pope thinks you should. Your children will know they weren’t wanted, and it leads to terrible outcomes for both the kids & parents. https://t.co/YhM4j0Kevr
— Dana Nessel (@dananessel) January 6, 2022
A surprising number of people jumped into the conversation to point out that the pope himself, despite being 85, does not have a single child.
In only a marginally more coherent comment offered to Forbes, Scott Steinberg—who purports to be a “brand market expert and social media pundit”—dropped this bit of insight: “To each his own: after all, these days, pets are children to many people, and more adults are waiting longer and longer to have children if they decide to have them at all. Also, last I checked the decision to have kids – which is life-altering and comes with countless responsibilities – is a personal choice.”
Well. It is a personal choice in the sense that any choice must be made by a person. But beyond that basic and more or less meaningless fact, the matter of procreation is profoundly social. On the most fundamental level, of course, there is the biological imperative that people must have children; it would be very difficult for the human race to carry on if they didn’t. Then there is the problem of civilizational stability. When social, political, and economic structures have been operating at high capacities and on assumptions of long-term growth, a sudden collapse in both present population and prospects for future revival can be devastating. This the pope acknowledges at the end of the quote above (“nations suffer from this,” per another translation). He warns further that we may be facing a “demographic winter.”
Most troubling of all, though, is what the dog mom epidemic does to people’s souls: It “diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.” A society suffers horribly when its adult citizens are not formed by the experiences of parenthood, and when its grand vision is not informed by the loving desire to preserve the good life for the next generation. A society of dog moms and cat dads is a society of miserable, half-formed people, who cannot be expected to conduct their own lives properly, much less steer the ship of civilization. On this point, Francis has been consistent since the earliest days of his pontificate. In 2014, the pope conceded that while it is easier to redirect natural parental instincts into pet ownership, the vital relationships of the family are neglected thereby. “Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”
Things have only gotten worse since then. The Holy Father on Wednesday described our current moment as “an age of notorious orphanhood,” in which the goods of family life are experienced only by a privileged few, while the great mass of humanity is left lonely and aimless, unloved and unfulfilled. Of course, we cannot blame the dog moms entirely for this. But they are the final stage of the degenerative process in which people made for communal and family life, for the full gift of self to others, become self-indulgent decadents whose highest comfort is a furbaby who will find himself in Hartsdale before long.
I suppose here I must make a confession of sorts. A reader with too much time on his hands could turn up easily enough that I, like the pope, do not happen to have any children. In fact, it’s much worse than that: I live alone in a studio apartment in Washington, D.C., with my cat, Thomas. He’s quite pleasant company. My girlfriend also has a chiweenie I’m quite fond of. (That’s half dachshund, half chihuahua; besides the fact that he never shuts up, he’s pleasant company too.) I can’t say I don’t like my life. It’s carefree and happy; I have plenty of time, just enough money, and no real responsibilities once I clock out for the day.
But I can’t imagine keeping this up for long. It’s fine enough for 22. But by the time Thomas is old he ought to have a whole bustling brood of real, human children to accompany. If he didn’t—if at 35 it was still just me and the cat—I can’t imagine how miserable I’d be. What’s worse, I can’t imagine how dysfunctional a society filled with people like that would be. But I know it would be lonely, shortsighted, shallow, hedonistic.
And, yes, selfish.