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On Pets as Family Members

Sure, you can love your dog . . . but how much, exactly?

The legendary French president, Charles de Gaulle, once quipped, “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”

From time immemorial, people have loved their pets. But today, dogs and cats enjoy a status in many homes akin to that of children. We hear often of “fur babies” who are afforded luxuries, like daycare, spas, gourmet food, and trips to parks and play areas, that their canine and feline ancestors would never have experienced. Some couples deliberately avoid having or adopting children, thinking they can substitute the love they might have experienced with more convenient companion animals instead.

Pope Francis remarked in a general audience in 2015 that loving pets as if they were children represents “a form of selfishness.” Obviously, the Holy Father was not casting aspersions on his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who was a noted keeper of cats! Rather, Pope Francis noted the lamentable drop in birthrates across the West, and he then explained that it is worth the inconvenience and risk to have children or to adopt them rather than opt for the company of house pets. The pontiff reiterated his concern about couples prioritizing dogs and cats over children more recently in an appearance with Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

Unsurprisingly, the Holy Father’s comments on pet ownership have not been universally well received, and a new study from the Pew Research Center may explain why.

According to new surveys, about 62 percent of Americans own at least one pet, and among all pet owners, 51 percent say pets are part of the family, “as much as a human member.” Men are less likely than women to consider pets on par with human relations, and suburban and rural respondents are considerably less inclined to prize animals as highly as urban people are.

The really interesting divides, however, come when comparing married versus unmarried people and parents versus non-parents. Among married people, 43 percent said they consider pets as much a part of the family as humans, whereas respondents who identified as “living with partner” polled at 65 percent, and those who said they had “never married” polled at 63 percent. Among parents, however, 42 percent said their pets were on equal footing with their children.

In brief, the data suggest that being married and having children results in a lower estimation of the status of pets compared to humans. Nonetheless, even among these traditional demographics, there is an alarmingly high number of people who take the idea of “man’s best friend” to a whole new level.

How should Catholics react, taking the Holy Father’s concerns to heart? We need to start by getting our -ologies straight.

First, theology. Who is God? God is God, and we are not. God made everything that exists, including humans and their pets, and everything in the world exists in a particular order relative to everything else, with the purpose of glorifying God.

Second, anthropology. What is a human being? He is the apex of God’s creation, made in God’s image and according to his likeness. The Catechism says, “with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence” (33). Humans are ensouled creatures, capable of reason, crippled by sin, but finally invited into participation in the divine life. No other creature is like man.

Third, zoology: What is an animal—every animal? An animal has personality, but it does not have a rational soul or will. An animal cannot sin, and an animal is not conscious of, nor does it strive for, heavenly bliss. An animal communicates, certainly, but not with anything like human language or reasoning. An animal is, and an animal acts. When a dog, cat, deer, or rhinoceros is thirsty, he drinks, but he cannot think, “Drinking is good for dogs” or “I am made for drinking.”

Our love for animals, then, can never be a meeting of equals, an assent to each other’s will, or an appreciation of the depth of each other’s being. The Catechism, referring us to the pairing of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:19-20, notes, “None of the animals can be man’s partner” (371).

So how should we love our pets?

The Catechism explains, “Animals are entrusted to man’s stewardship; he must show them kindness” (2456). Crucially for thinking about the Pew study’s findings, although “one can love animals, one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (2418). Our pets rely on us, get used to us, seek to please us, and may even help us in various ways, but they are not capable of the natural human loves of romance or friendship, let alone the supernatural divine charity that binds a Christian family together. If we love them the way we love a human, we will not only be left disappointed, but find our souls disordered.

And so we return to Charles de Gaulle’s statement: “The better I get to know man, the more I love dogs.” His quip may have been meant in jest, in frustration over the annoyances of human interaction, but in its literal sense, it rings true. The more we humans understand our role in relation to God, our fellow man, and the rest of creation, the more we can love each of these as is proper. Therefore, the less we consider our pets to be as loveable as our children, the more we will love them and enjoy them for what they really are.

And now it’s time for me to walk our dog Auggie and feed our cats, Kingsley and Remy. I love those guys.

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