On January 5th, while talking to a general audience, Pope Francis said, “Today…we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. 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. This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity…and our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.”
In 2014, he stated that people who choose to remain childless by choice, have pets, travel the world and end up alone “with the bitterness of loneliness.”
While I find it hard to argue with the main thrust of what Pope Francis said, the media storm attacking him is unrelenting. Many people feel personally attacked. It is not surprising that the advice coming from a religious leader, a spiritual adviser, would not be palatable to the people it is directed at. That has always been the case and, I guess, will always continue to be.
Being a person of faith, my first reaction upon reading the Pope’s comments was that he sounded perfectly reasonable. That stance was not shaken even after deeper analysis, even though observers rightly pointed out that he himself is childless by choice and so should not be telling people to have children. Indeed, the Holy Quran says:
“O ye who believe! Why do you say what you do not?”Holy Quran, 61:3
Since the Holy Quran also enjoins us to practice gracious presumption, I choose to believe that Pope Francis was tacitly acknowledging that monasticism was not enjoined by God but was coined by the church as a means to preserve the church’s wealth. Or perhaps this is a preamble to the church granting permission for priests to marry! Given that the Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by scandal after scandal, the logical solution would be to reverse its cruel policy of shunning marriage.
Regardless, the Pope—who is celibate by choice—affirming the wisdom in Allah’s design is noteworthy. The Holy Quran clearly states:
“And monasticism they invented—We did not prescribe it for them—for the seeking of Allah’s pleasure; but they observed it not as it should be observed. Yet We gave those of them, who believed, their due reward, but many of them are rebellious.”Holy Quran, 57:28
I agree with the Pope’s statement that the, “denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.” Motherhood sets the highest example of humanity toward our fellow beings. The ultimate spiritual goal in Islam is that we attain communion with God Almighty. We achieve this by, among other things, raising our compassion and concern for all of mankind to the level that a mother has for her children. Prophet Muhammad (sa) said, “Paradise lies under the feet of a mother.” Meaning, a mother has the capacity to create a heaven for her children wherever she treads.
When the Pope says, “Our homeland suffers,” it would appear he is arguing against celibacy from an economic point of view. Countries like Italy and Japan are already experiencing the negative impact of decline in population growth. China has reversed its one-child policy to guard against it. Germany has opened its doors to immigrants for precisely the same reason.
The phrase “the civilization becomes aged and without humanity,” is quite poignant. He seems to be saying that even if they took measures to avoid the “bitterness of loneliness,” society would still lose the opportunity to benefit from the humanity of its elders. If the elderly knew that they were leaving children and grandchildren behind, they would be motivated, till their last breath, to leave a better world behind.
I also agree with the Pope that pets should not replace children. In Islam, peace originates in the home, within a family, and radiates outwards to society. The role that parents play in the upbringing of their children, and the respect with which children grow to treat their parents, other relatives and neighbors is regarded as the foundation on which the peace and harmony of the entire society depend.
It must also be said that there is absolutely no prohibition on having pets in Islam. Human beings are fully capable of having loving families along with loving pets.
This op-ed was first published on the Muslim Sunrise website on January 20, 2022.
Last modified: January 2022