It has been one week since Pope Francis labeled childfree people “selfish” and I am still not over it. If you were fortunate enough to miss it, I will fill you in: To an audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis explained that “We see that some people do not want to have a child … Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children … This may make people laugh, but it is a reality … This is a denial of fatherhood and motherhood and diminishes us, takes away our humanity.” He concluded that choosing pets over children was “a form of selfishness.”
My husband and I have chosen to be childfree. Instead of children, we adopted two senior dogs from the Humane Society, Amos and Millie. Amos was a breeder in a puppy mill before he was surrendered and Millie’s original owners requested that she be euthanized because she was losing her eyesight. We love them dearly and, yes, we consider them our children. Condemn me.
But a 2021 Pew Research Study reveals that we are not alone in this decision. In fact, 44 percent of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say that it is unlikely they will ever have children. This is an increase from 37 percent in 2018. Of those childless adults, 56 percent explain that they just don’t want children, while 43 percent cite medical and financial reasons, climate change, world affairs and personal reasons.
Concurrently, statistics show that Millennials represent the biggest share of pet owners in the United States at 32 percent. In fact, many Millennials have declared that “plants are the new pets and pets are the new children.”
Perhaps that is why I take so much umbrage over Pope Francis’ blanket statement that being childfree is selfish. To be clear, I do not think that anyone owes anyone else — much less the pope! — an explanation for why they do not have children. The choice to have (or not have) children is deeply personal and cannot be painted with a broad brush. However, I feel compelled to respond to his ridiculous and heartless statement. So with Millie resting at my feet, I will provide some counter points to the papal claims.
First of all, let’s define the word “selfish.” According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition of selfish is “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.” According to Pope Francis, people who do not have children are selfish. But this does not correlate to the definition. My decision to not have a child does not negatively impact anyone. In fact, one could argue that my decision to not have children is selfless as I have more time, money, and energy to devote to social causes and be active in my community. Even more important, my husband and I are not further contributing to climate change and ecological ravages that too many humans are causing on our planet.
However, by Pope Francis’ own estimation of selfishness, isn’t he a bit hypocritical? Here’s a man who is (presumably) childfree as a Catholic priest, daring to chastise the rest of us childfree folks. After all, choosing priesthood over fatherhood was a clear choice. I suppose in his eyes, his dedication to telling people how they are immoral because of how they choose to live their lives is the definition of selflessness.
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Furthermore, the Pope is totally removed from the reality of raising children. After all, children cost money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that it costs about $230,000 to raise a child. In fact, research by the Center for American Progress has found that childcare costs about $16,000 per year for one child. While worker wages have barely increased in decades, raising children simply isn’t a viable option for millions of people who literally cannot afford it. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a man whose room and board and living expenses are subsidized by the Vatican to understand how most laypersons live. For him to enjoy the Vatican’s wealth — estimated between $10 and $15 billion dollars — while calling working class folks selfish is not just tone deaf, it is downright cruel.
But perhaps what aggravates me the most about Pope Francis’ claims about selfishness is that it belies the true intention of the anti-abortion movement: to control women. After all, the Catholic Church hierarchy is fiercely anti-abortion and Pope Francis has called abortion murder. To call women selfish for not having children is not too dissimilar to calling them murderers for having an abortion. Effectively, the Church is angered that women have the ability to choose to enjoy sex and to not have children. Since the bible tells women that “you are not your own,” the Catholic Church and religious extremists alike prefer that women be subservient and denied these freedoms.
And yes, sexual health is a human right.
Is it any wonder that with the legalization of contraception fertility rates in the United States have declined from 3.5 children per woman in 1960 to 1.78 in 2020? And for good reason! Nobody should have children unless they truly want them.
How awful to bring children into this world because of a sense of religious obligation, rather than a true commitment to parenthood. In fact, countless people regret parenthood, but are socially and culturally restricted from admitting so. Just take a look at Reddit, where people can anonymously share their regrets and resentment over parenthood.
Many writers explain that they felt pressure to become a parent even though they knew deep down that they didn’t want to be one. On the flip side, there are certainly people who would love to have children, but cannot because of finances, mental health issues and personal concerns. To label either group “good” or “bad” because of their choice to have (or not have) children is callous.
I look forward to a world where we can speak openly and honestly about parenthood and being childfree without judgment or labels. Pope Francis and the Religious Right’s condemnation does not move us in that direction.
Now excuse me, I have to take Millie and Amos out for a walk…