VATICAN CITY – Many pet lovers choose to be called “mom” or “dad” instead of master, or whose bumper sticker boasts of “four-legged grandchildren.” But when Pope Francis recently denounced the ‘selfishness’ of choosing to care for an animal instead of adopting a child, animal lovers flinched, criticizing the pope’s ‘insensitive’ comments about their choice to spread their love to other species.
“A lot of couples don’t have children because they don’t want to, or they only have one because they don’t want any more, but they have two dogs, two cats. … Yes, dogs and cats replace children,” the pope said.
Among those intrigued by Francis’ remarks was the Reverend Sarah Bowen, animal chaplain at the Compassion Consortium, an interfaith and interspecies religious organization based on “rekindling lost bonds between animals, humans and nature.” Earth “.
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“I’m not sure Pope Francis realized some of the implications of his statement at the time,” Bowen told Religion News Service. She said her comments go beyond cats and dogs to address issues of bearing children in a crowded world and living a full life without children.
It’s not Francis’ call to adopt, it’s what Bowen says has touched people. The pope’s statement implied “that people who do not have children and who do not experience fatherhood or motherhood do not experience the fullness of life,” she said.
“The pope’s comments have a huge impact on Catholics, as well as people who are curious about what the pope is saying and who may not be part of the Catholic Church now, but are interested in what it means to us culturally,” Bowen said. , which estimates that around 57% of homes worldwide have cats or dogs.
As a clergyman for Compassion Consortium, Bowen hosts monthly online services in which she prays for animals that have lost their habitat or are threatened with extinction, and often prays and meditates with the animals, who are always welcome. on the screen. Recently, a special guest speaker, Bree the Rooster, inspired a reflection on the impact of intensive farming on animals and the environment.
Part of Bowen’s ministry also addresses the pain and grief that follows the loss of an animal companion, at the heart of his new book, “Sacred Sendoffs.”
Bowen prefers the use of the term “animal companions” rather than pets. She said she shares her home in the greater New York area with three people: her human husband, Shawn, and two felines. A “Christian preacher’s child” raised in a house full of cats, she turns to the Bible to learn how to interact with animals. She quotes Psalm 104: “Wisely you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” – and Psalm 104 – “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
But she said she was inspired by the pope’s own remarks on nature and the environment. “Because all creatures are related, each should be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures depend on each other,” Francis wrote in his 2015 “green” encyclical, “Laudato Si ‘”.
The document is inspired by the Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his relationship with animals and who is often depicted surrounded by squirrels, donkeys, wolves and all kinds of birds.
The animal chaplain saw the pope’s recent remarks as “a step backwards” from his earlier advocacy for the world’s diverse inhabitants and “typical of the tension that all humans feel about the entanglement between the needs and human and non-human lives”.
Many popes have shown an affinity for their own animals, from Pope Pius II’s love of his dog in the 15th century to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s fondness for cats. At a general audience in May 1969, Saint Paul VI declared that even animals long “with anxiety for the glorious manifestation of the children of God”, while Saint John Paul II went so far as to affirm that animals too have a “vital smell”. or the breath they received from God.
Bowen is convinced that animals have a lot to teach humans about spirituality. Any cat owner can relate to seeing feline friends in a “completely happy” state, she said. This complete relaxation is not unlike prayer, she says.
“There’s a lot of capacity for many different kinds of species to be spiritual,” Bowen said, citing MRI studies that show the same human brain activity seen during prayer, chanting, or meditation is present in some animals.
Primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall has highlighted the deep emotional lives of chimpanzees and gorillas, affirming Bowen’s belief that animals too “have experiences of awe and wonder and what we humans would call spirituality. “.
Francis could benefit from this evidence, Bowen said, and from studies that show children raised in homes with animals have increased empathy, not to mention other studies that show animals can ease depression and anxiety. anxiety while improving cardiovascular health and dementia. “I think he would be very interested to know more about these connections, and I would be curious to know how he reacts to this in Catholic doctrine,” she said.
Whether or not this scientific data swayed the pope’s views, Bowen said his words did not accurately represent Christian teaching. Francis seemed to imply, she said, that “love is a limited supply.”
In Bowen’s eyes, there is more than enough love to share with children, other people’s children, and even pets.