To be a progressive Catholic is to set yourself up for disappointment.
Frequently recognised for his seemingly liberal views, Pope Francis sometimes appears as the answer to the prayers of those of us who struggle to reconcile our politics with the faith in which we were raised. But, with every public pronouncement about global warming, gender equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion, some deeply regressive nonsense is never far behind.
Last week, the pontiff highlighted the “selfishness” of childfree pet owners, accusing those of us with cats and dogs of “a denial of fatherhood and motherhood” that “diminishes us, takes away our humanity”.
Our behaviour, choosing pets over children, risks a “demographic winter”, he said, in which “our homelands suffer because they do not have children”.
From my perspective – that of a woman at the top end of her childbearing years with a Facebook account – I see no reproductive crisis. I see financial uncertainty, worry over climate change and stress about home ownership, but no shortage of new baby announcements and adorable back to school photos.
And so I ask: this year, can we stop pitching parents and non-parents against each other? Can we stop pretending that either status is a one-or-the-other, removed from nuance and agony and complexity and compromise, and that the lives of those with and without children do not enrich and intersect with each other’s?
I love the kids in my life – but I know I don’t want my own
While the Pope’s comments were hitting social media, I was blissfully unaware. In Covent Garden, 600 miles away from my cats, I had just discovered that the tinny MIDI rendition of Merrily We Roll Along I’d been haunted by since Heathrow was coming not from my sleep-deprived brain, but from a set of pink, plastic novelty car keys belonging to my one-year-old niece. I must have stashed them in my pocket while I was helping my sister baby-wrangle on the first leg of her post-Christmas journey home to Dubai.
So selfish I am currently six hundred miles from home (and my cats) with my niece’s car keys in my pocket. Which is a relief, because I thought I was hallucinating the music after three hours sleep. https://t.co/wrlnwgHuEd pic.twitter.com/gltdcN3E3n
— Lisa-Marie Ferla (@lismferla) January 6, 2022
The more time I spend with my nieces and nephews – both familial and honorary – the more deeply I love them. And the more it reinforces how correct my instincts were to not have any of my own.
Chronic mental illness often leaves me with little energy and ability to meet my own needs, never mind the needs of others. I show up for the little people in my life wholeheartedly, delighting their parents in desperate need of a break from constant questions or the 20th go on a slide – and rarely sleep more deeply than in the quiet of my own home afterwards, a cat kneading my stomach with her paws.
I was told I didn’t know my own mind, that I’d regret it in old age, that I was letting my (equally childfree) husband down
As a cisgender woman married to a man, in signing my marriage certificate I signed up to a societal pressure to procreate that persists in stark contrast to the views of the Pope – who, it’s worth pointing out, speaks from a childfree position himself, albeit one shielded in the language of “vocation”.
‘Selfish’ would be having children for the sake of it
I was told I didn’t know my own mind, that I’d regret it in old age, that I was letting my (equally childfree) husband down.
But, recognising my own boundaries and limitations is, to my mind, the opposite of selfish. Selfish, surely, would be succumbing to pressure to bring a child into the world in my image without that child being fully wanted.
Selfish would be having children as the default, as just something one does when one gets married, like updating your next of kin in the back of your passport. The passive creation of new life on a planet struggling to cope with demand on its resources and where child poverty is rising, according to the End Child Poverty coalition. Where those desperate for biological children of their own put themselves through years of invasive, expensive and undignified medical treatments, and where LGBTQ+ people continue to face financial and structural barriers to growing their families.
Pope Francis took his name from St Francis of Assisi, the Italian mystic and patron saint of animals who once preached to birds and called all creatures his brothers and sisters. The Pope has written extensively on his desire for the Catholic church to take a non-judgmental, inclusive approach to marriage and family life, dedicating a formal apostolic exhortation, or papal letter, to his views on the subject.
“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” he wrote in 2016 – an exhortation more eloquent than any of mine to leave those of us putting a different kind of legacy into the world alone.
Lisa-Marie Ferla is an arts and culture journalist and the new music columnist for The Scots Magazine