Children versus pets, which is better? No, it’s not a madcap challenge for Harry Hill’s TV Burp. It is in fact the latest moral dilemma (or guilt trip) laid before us by the Pope. Unsurprisingly, he’s rooting for the kids, and goes so far as to say choosing to go without “is selfish and diminishes us”, while warning dogs and cats are taking “the place of children”.

I don’t normally pay much attention to his Eminence, but reading the furious reactions on social media he certainly knows how to wind people up. As you might expect, the most vocal critics are childless pet owners, accusing Francis of insensitivity and hypocrisy. After all, it’s claimed, what does a celibate man who heads an institution dogged (no pun intended) by a legacy of child sexual abuse and bans priests from marrying, know about having kids?

Well quite, but what cuts deepest, though, is the claim that childlessness is the manifestation of a self-obsessed society. It is your duty to humanity, the argument goes, to sacrifice your life to parenthood and not take the easy way out by owning a pet instead.

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This is the point where it gets personal. I have two young boys and a dog, and I’m fortunate to have the best (and worst) of both worlds. But, like me, I’m sure most parents would admit there are times when fleeting thoughts of life without kids have crept in – no tears, tantrums or fights, etc. Bliss!

But, before you contact social services, those demons are quickly vanquished by the laughter, cheekiness and joy that are all part and parcel of being a dad.

And I’m also sure most of us parents have been in a situation where you’re having a conversation with friends or colleagues about our respective children or schools, or whatever, when a non-parent starts talking about their cats on equal terms. It’s hard to suppress a wry smile, but to avoid being insensitive it’s best to go along with it.

There are millions who want kids but for a myriad of reasons – financial, biological and even environmental (although I’m not entirely convinced by this) – won’t reproduce. The Pope also ignores the companionship a pet provides, especially to those on their own.

I know many non-parents who would have loved to have been one if only they had met the right person or felt they could take the chance. Luck and circumstances all play their part too. And, yes, there will always be those who just don’t want children. Selfish? Who am I to judge, but at least it’s honest. Having a child is by no means an essential prerequisite to being a fully well-rounded adult.

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However, despite his clumsy reasoning, I do share the Pope’s concerns over the demographic time bomb that awaits us. Italy has seen a dramatic drop in births. And according to the National Records of Scotland, by mid-2043, it is projected that 22.9 per cent of our population will be of pensionable age, compared to 19.0% in mid-2018, while the proportions of both working age and child populations are set to fall. The real issue is who is going to pay for all the extra pensions and healthcare?

The rise of the gig economy, the lack of affordable housing, the decline of jobs for life, insufficient childcare and the attack on the welfare state have to be the biggest disincentives to having a child.

If you can’t buy a home or don’t have a secure income, how wise is it to bring another life into the world? It’s not about choosing Fido or Felix over a child that’s to blame, it’s mainly financial insecurity. So, on this one Francis, I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.


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