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Pope Francis, pets, and the growing culture of narcissism

As much as my peers and I need to develop the skills of discipline, self-sacrifice, and delayed gratification, what’s needed above all is a promise that only Christ can give and fulfill.

(Image: Chewy/Unsplash.com)

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for upsetting people across the cultural spectrum with his “hot takes,” which while often being ambiguous and sometimes imprudent, always have a level of truth in them that ought to be taken seriously. I, for one, was not surprised by his hot take on the “risk” of having children during his catechesis on St. Joseph in early January. Rather, I thought that he was stating the obvious:

The other day, I spoke about the demographic winter there is nowadays, in which 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.

More and more of my peers, namely college educated millennials living in coastal regions of the US, are buying pets in place of having (or adopting) children. Most of them are single, some are in “partnerships,” while even fewer are married. But the vast majority seem to treat their pets as their children. Many go as far as having kitty photoshoots which they use on their “holiday cards,” hosting doggy birthday parties, and calling themselves “mommy” or “daddy” when talking to their pets.

When I saw how many people were annoyed or even scandalized by the Pope’s words, I couldn’t help but think of historian Christopher Lasch’s prophetic book The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch diagnosed this “selfishness” back in 1979, attributing it to a growing “therapeutic climate” in which people “hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”

This climate has been exacerbated by “our growing dependence on technologies”, which “has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization.” As a result, “relationships with others are notably fragile; goods are made to be used up and discarded; reality is experienced as an unstable environment of flickering images. Everything conspires to encourage escapist solutions to the psychological problems of dependence, separation, and individuation, and to discourage the moral realism that makes it possible for human beings to come to terms with existential constraints on their power and freedom.”

The declining birth rates are due in part to the normalization of the ideal of living “for the moment…to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.” Pope Francis’ recurring comments on the lack of intergenerational dialogue and respect for the dignity of the elderly echo Lasch when he says, “we are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”

I think both Lasch and Pope Francis are correct to point to the narcissism and selfishness that are endemic to my peers (and I include myself among them). Many of us are afraid of the risks that come along with making commitments and planting our roots in one place. The unpredictability of  life as a parent is much more threatening than the convenience of a bourgeois life without children.

On the other hand, many avoid having or adopting children out of a fear of projecting their unhealthy psychological complexes onto their children, or perpetuating negative patterns learned from their own parents. Rather than being inspired by pure selfishness, this taps into a deeper seated fear of “screwing up” their potential children.

Further, many American millennials find that we are afraid to say “yes” to commitments, whether that be to marriage and childrearing, or to consecrated life, because our parents didn’t give us the tools to confront adversity and deal with unpredictability. Many of us lived sheltered lives and were coddled too much, being told that the objective world around us should conform to our subjectivity–our personal dreams, whims, and instincts–rather than vice versa.

This, obviously, is a skewed view of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Reality, Truth, and, ultimately, God, precede our existence. Our relationship with reality is distorted when we begin from our subjectivity rather than the objectivity of what’s beyond us, when we seek to impose ourselves on the world around us rather than accepting it as something to be received as a gift. All kinds of emotional complexes–especially low self-esteem and dysfunctional attachment patterns–are born of the frustration of our subjective whims hitting the “wall” of reality.

I look to our parents—the “Boomers” and “Gen-X-ers”—who presented us with this unrealistic vision. Part of it was due to laziness, of not wanting to do the work of teaching us discipline and delayed gratification. But another part of it, for many, was a reaction to an authoritarian upbringing, which over emphasized blind obedience, discouraged emotional intelligence, and in some cases justified abuse, having the effect of totally annihilating their sense of individuality and personhood.

That being said, even those millennials who were reared with more traditional values and who are living lives of self-giving need to recognize that none of us are totally immune to the selfishness Pope Francis identifies and warns against. Whether due to the “air” of the culture we breathe in everyday, or the reality of original sin that all humans are subject to, we all have our narcissistic moments and fear sacrifices and taking risks.

As much as my peers and I need to develop the skills of discipline, self-sacrifice, and delayed gratification, what’s needed above all is a promise that only Christ can give and fulfill: that within our daily inconveniences, sacrifices, and losses, is an everlasting Beauty. Only Christ can reveal to us the promises of love and hope that hide beneath the bloody veil of the Cross. No amount of natural virtue can grant us the existential certainty that is born from an experience of his supernatural grace.

I understand the impulse to turn to a non-rational being for affection–their lack of free will spares us of the risk of rejection so many of us fear. Humans, possessing free will, are complicated, unpredictable, and have the risk to create much bigger emotional messes than can cats and dogs. But this is why we need an encounter with a God who not only embraces our messy and complicated humanity, but embodied it himself.

It is only through communion with Christ, nourished by the support of a lively and joyful Christian community, that one will see and learn that losing hours of sleep from consoling a crying baby, making financial sacrifices, or confronting your own idiosyncrasies and weaknesses are more beautiful than living an easily managed life of complacency and convenience.


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About Stephen G. Adubato 11 Articles
Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the "Cracks in Postmodernity" podcast.

16 Comments

  1. as an adoptive parent im happy take a little praise lol .Wise words from Pope Francis .His New Year letter to families also well worth reading .

  2. The problem isn’t necessarily the content of his opinions. It’s that he has an opinion on every matter under the sun, and feels entitled to use his office to air those opinions. What, has the world run out of pagans to convert, so the focus can now be on lesser matters? Preach the gospel, Francis, and be quiet about everything else for a change.

  3. Number 1.Being too old and 2. Costs too prohibitive
    Theses are the usual main reasons why people say they dont want children
    And each reason is valid and neither reason gets much attention and it’s easier to rest the cause as a personal defect
    Its poverty/ lack of money..whatever the question or problem in the human sphere we all know money is at the root

    • Part of the problem is that people delay having children until their education is finished and if they are heading for a doctorate or master’s degree this means they are already in their late 20’s or early 30’s. And if they are not married by then the chances of marriage are much lessened.

    • You’re bang-on John. It’s the cost not narcissism. When I was a kid in the 60’s, pre computers, I had a fishing rod and some toy soldiers and wore my brother’s cast-offs. I didn’t hanker for anything else. Now kids cost the earth. They’re ruined.

    • Another reason: having children is in part learned behavior; maybe not the actual act that causes pregnancy, but knowing what to do with this 7-lb lump of crying flesh once it has arrived. A lot of us have no clue and it is traumatic. Most of us survive, but a good number of folks don’t want another after the first.
      .
      Then too, parents are loosing their rights over their own offspring via the education and medical systems. Seriously? A vax mandate for children under 12? Loosing visitation rights (heck, the whole divorce culture infects “orthodox catholics” just like anyone else) for opposing transgenderism?
      .
      I would not judge anyone who decided to forgo children and opt for the dog or cat

  4. I can no longer take Francis seriously on anything. He spends too much time on vague trivia well beneath his office. When he occasionally does hit the mark it gets lost in his self made static noise. Too bad.

    • I agree MarkM. Too many vague double meaning comments, constant attacks on people who make up the main body of the church. Besides look at the world through the prism of young eyes,militant islam on the rise, a green movement preaching doom and gloom and the very status of women about to be knocked for six. What a terrifying world to bring a child into.

  5. In American magazine we read: “Every Wednesday, Pope Francis gives a general audience in which he does some catechesis. He’s currently in a series of catechesis on St. Joseph. This Wednesday’s audience was mostly about the role of St. Joseph as an adoptive father. It was a celebration of adoption as “among the highest forms of love.” And then, in an offhand comment, he talks about how some people choose to have pets instead of kids.”
    The secular press did not highlight the main point of his teaching, and it seems that the even some in the Catholic media are following suit.

    • Yes, that is most notable.

      Here is the text in part:

      “This particular aspect of Joseph now enables us to reflect on fatherhood and motherhood. And this, I believe, is very important: to think about fatherhood today. Because we live in an age of notorious orphanhood. It is curious: our civilization is somewhat orphan, and this orphanhood can be felt. May Saint Joseph, help us understand how to resolve this sense of orphanhood that is so harmful to us today.

      To bring a child into the world is not enough to say that one is also their father or mother. … A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person” (Apostolic Letter Patris corde). I think particularly of all those who are open to welcoming life by way of adoption, which is such a generous and beautiful, good attitude. Joseph shows us that this type of bond is not secondary; it is not second best. This kind of choice is among the highest forms of love, and of fatherhood and motherhood. How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them! And how many married couples want to be fathers and mothers but are unable to do so for biological reasons; or, although they already have children, they want to share their family’s affection with those who do not have it. We should not be afraid to choose the path of adoption, to take the “risk” of welcoming. And today, even with orphanhood, there is a certain selfishness.”

      “…if you cannot have children, think about adoption. It is a risk, yes: having a child is always a risk, either naturally or by adoption. But it is riskier not to have them. It is riskier to deny fatherhood or to deny motherhood, be it real or spiritual. A man or a woman who do not voluntarily develop a sense of fatherhood or motherhood are lacking something fundamental, something important.

      https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2022/documents/20220105-udienza-generale.html

      I’m glad I found this. Thank you.
      —no fan of America Magazine though. Long ago that carried good content–now? hmmm!

      “Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person” (Apostolic Letter Patris corde).” —-and as noted elsewhere,
      biological, adoptive or spiritual fatherhood

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