Dear Pope Francis, I’m Not Selfish

From the Editors: Writer and Professor Lisa Whalen shares her response to Pope Francis’s declaration that the decision not to have children is selfish. Continue the conversation in the comments!

I didn’t want a kitten. I made that clear when I began volunteering and fostering for the Animal Humane Society (AHS) years ago. Contrary to predictions by everyone who knew me, I had no problem returning the kittens at the end of their foster period. In fact, I often found myself relieved, even though I’d grown fond of them. I preferred adult cats.

When I agreed to foster a two-month-old stray, Ziggy, and continued saying I didn’t want to adopt a kitten, everyone assumed that it was grief talking, that I’d change my mind. The recent death of my 17-year-old orange tabby sucker-punched me. From the moment he entered my life as a six-year-old, we simply “got” each other. I could predict his moods and movement; I always knew what he was thinking. I often worked from home, so he and I spent most waking hours together. I spoiled him as if he lay at the center of my life. So, yes, I mourned. But that’s not why I remained reluctant to adopt Ziggy.

I knew from experience that kittens are far more like human toddlers than most people would like to acknowledge. They demand 24-hour attention. When they don’t get it, they misbehave. They don’t understand boundaries and don’t care for rules. I knew I didn’t have it in me to give a kitten what he needed long-term, so I avoided adopting one.

My husband, Chad, along with everyone who met Ziggy, grew enamored. Chad wanted to adopt, but since I do the care-taking, he left the decision to me. I watched Chad bid Ziggy a sad farewell the morning I was to return him. Then I caved.

I regretted it. And didn’t. Then did again. Now I ping-pong between amusement, protectiveness, irritation, affection, and anger from hour to hour. I try to work; Ziggy chases my fingers across the keyboard. I wash dishes, he climbs my leg and bites my ears. I set the table, he jumps on my feet and trips me. I lie in bed and he . . . curls up on my chest. I smile at his tiny white paws, his gray stripes that expand and contract with each sleepy breath.

Then he pounces and bites my feet through the bedspread.

I glimpse a fantastic companion hidden beneath his frantic exterior, but it lies at least 18 months in the future. I worry impatience will push me to return him. I wonder if that might be better for him. I’ll wait and see how things go, I decide. Then I’m ashamed. That’s not the kind of pet owner I want to be.

My ambivalence toward keeping Ziggy confirms doubts I’ve long held about my suitability as a parent, which is why I’ve chosen not to have a child in spite of conflicts that decision generates with my Catholic faith. Catholic doctrine contends that sex between married couples must remain open to procreation because God and nature have selected procreation as the purpose of marriage. The Church bans all contraception except natural family planning (i.e., the rhythm method). Since I don’t intend to have a child, I’ve ignored that ban.

From the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio selected “Francis,” patron saint of animals and the natural environment, as his papal name, I felt a stirring of hope. His choice reflected a focus on compassion for all living beings. It also hinted at a willingness to buck authority and flout rules when conscience demands it, for his namesake defied parental mandates to work in the family business, rejected familial wealth, and spent the majority of his adult life living out a vow of poverty and serving the poor. Perhaps Pope Francis would lead the Vatican away from its obsession with “the letter of the faith”—rule, ritual, and papal infallibility—and toward “the spirit of the faith”: love, service, forgiveness, and inclusion.

My initial hope seemed well-placed. In addition to eschewing the trappings of his office and seeking personal connection with society’s least fortunate at every opportunity, Pope Francis upheld the primacy of conscience, asserting Catholics’ right to do what their inner relationship with God tells them is right, even if that conflicts with Church doctrine. Like his namesake, Pope Francis recognized that practicing selflessness and love sometimes requires breaking rules. I took comfort. He seemed to assert that Church doctrine was not infallible or absolute. Perhaps he and the Church might recognize my decision not to have a child as one based on careful reflection, on a desire to do what was right not only for me, but also for any child I might have as well as for the society that would educate and employ him/her.

I grew even more hopeful when, in February 2015, Pope Francis declared that Catholics need not reproduce “like rabbits”. He urged them to space out children’s births by a few years. I took these comments to mean Pope Francis acknowledged the value of self-awareness and the ability to make individual moral decisions, that he didn’t share his predecessors’ disdain for contraception. I dared think he might change Church doctrine. But two days later, he walked back his initial comments, upholding the ban on contraception.

Worse, Pope Francis claimed that not having children is “a selfish choice”. I disagree. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. My conscience tells me that every child deserves to be raised by a parent who cherishes him/her; who can provide for his/her physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; and who relishes the opportunity to do so. I don’t meet those qualifications. Self-awareness leads me to that conclusion; primacy of conscience tells me that given what I know, to try and fail would be irresponsible, regardless of Church doctrine. Putting the child’s needs ahead of my own desire to leave a part of myself behind after I die is decidedly unselfish. Chad and I risk having no one to care for us when we’re old; therefore, we save aggressively, unselfishly wanting to avoid becoming a burden on the rest of society’s children.

According to Pope Francis, having children is not “an irresponsible choice” because births enrich rather than impoverish; that’s why all Catholic married couples are to have them . That may be true in many cases, but not all. Put bluntly, children are expensive. Many suffer the effects, through no fault of their own, of being born into families or societies who can’t—or won’t—provide for their needs. That seems a more irresponsible choice than using artificial contraception. And testing, measuring, and documenting in an effort to manipulate the body’s reproductive process, as is required for natural family planning, strikes me as anything but “natural.”

Even as Pope Francis urges us to care for our planet by combating climate change, he seems, at best, ambivalent about unchecked reproduction—one of the greatest threats to any ecology. More people consume more resources.

The sole purpose of organizations like the one I volunteer for (the Animal Humane Society) is to improve society by caring for its animals. Animal shelters witness every day how individual animals suffer because of overpopulation. Not enough caretakers exist to meet all animals’ needs, so many end up suffering neglect or living as strays despite having lost natural survival instincts through domestication. At some animal shelters (not AHS), unwanted animals are euthanized due to lack of resources. This is the result of unchecked procreation, not so different from what the Catholic Church seems to advocate.

Research shows the best way to improve animals’ lives is to prevent overpopulation, so many shelters spay/neuter pets before making them available for adoption. I would never advocate such practices for human beings, obviously, but I find it ironic that the Church won’t allow its members to prevent unwanted pregnancies with artificial contraception even as most of humanity agrees preventing unwanted pregnancies is the most humane and effective way to improve animals’ quality of life.

Ziggy dozes on my lap as I write this. I anticipate with a measure of annoyance the fact that he’ll soon wake and begin clawing at my hair, which reaffirms for me two important lessons: 1) I was right not to have children, for their sake as much as mine, and 2) I appreciate these sweet, serene moments all the more, knowing they’ll be rare for quite some time.

Lisa Whalen HeadshotLisa Whalen teaches writing and literature at a Minnesota college and volunteers for the Animal Humane Society. Her writing has been featured in An Introvert in an Extrovert World (Cambridge Scholars), Before and After the Tutorial(Hampton Press), WorkingUSA (Wiley & Sons), and several peer-reviewed journals. She is writing a memoir, currently untitled, set to be complete in 2016.


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