Recently, Pope Francis reflected on the “pet parent” phenomenon, noting that sadly, many married people chose to have pets rather than children (and pets that they treat like children, at that). If you have not yet read the entirety of his Wednesday audience, you can find it here. Ironically, it is not about pets, but rather about adoption and spiritual paternity, in light of St. Joseph. The Holy Father’s comment about pets was tucked into that context.
Like most of those reading this article, I was amused by the secular media’s uproar over this statement. The Pope said nothing out of line with the Catholic faith, after all.
Although it was not the primary intent of the Holy Father to draw attention to the “pet parent” culture that we see in the United States, it is an important conversation to have. The Church does not teach that we should not have pets, or that human-animal relationships are not good. Rather, she teaches the beauty of stewardship of creation.
Praying through Raising a Puppy
Right before Thanksgiving, our family got a puppy. Named Davy (because he is small, like David against Goliath), he is an orange roan English Cocker Spaniel, with the sweetest personality. Cuddly and cautious, he tolerates endless amounts of attention, petting, and snuggles from all of us.
Our family had a puppy five years ago. That puppy was a different breed, a different temperament, and was not a good fit for our family. She ended up needing to go back to the breeder, who found her a family more experienced in raising strong-willed dogs.
But more importantly, I was no longer able to care for her the way I needed to, because I was pregnant with our fourth child. I get crippling hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy, and the health of myself and our littlest child had to take precedence. But even before I became pregnant with that child, I wrestled with understanding how having a dog fit into our family’s mission and the work of God in my life.
Half a decade later, while working through grief and depression from unhealthy childhood experiences, I began to see dogs in a different light. I began to see how the right dog could play a role in my healing, and in our family’s mental and physical health. One day, my in-laws were visiting with their dog, and as I sat holding her, I realized something – I could hold her, I could pet her, and I didn’t need to worry about meeting her mental/emotional needs the way that I did with my children. Dogs don’t mind being held, and they exist to please their humans (and eat treats). Thus began our search for a puppy that would be a good fit for our family. Unfortunately, in the midst of the pandemic everyone was looking for a puppy, and six months into our search, we hadn’t found one that would be a good fit for our family. Then, suddenly, we had someone reach out to us asking us if we were still interested in a puppy from her dog’s recent litter.
I am convinced that God must have picked out this puppy for our family. He fits right in with our pack of Chronisters.
But more importantly, he fits in beautifully in my prayer life and in the context of the work of God in our family’s life. He has helped with my depression, has soothed the anxiety of myself and some other members of the family, and has done a good job of being a beautiful manifestation of God’s work of creation. One of the first days we had him, I remember sitting on the porch holding him. As he nestled his little head on my shoulder, I marveled at how beautifully he was created – his fur, his eyelashes, his little puppy teeth. I realized that I had never before been close enough to an animal to really marvel at that type of creation. And, holding a sleeping puppy, I found myself turning my heart to God in a kind of gratitude that I had never experienced before.
Caring for a Dog with Stewardship in Mind
In having Davy, I have found myself often thinking of Adam in the Garden of Eden. He had a close bond with all the animals, but among them none was a “suitable partner.” He needed Eve.
Yet, once Eve was created – fulfilling Adam’s desire for union with another – God did not instruct Adam to then disregard the animals. Rather, God instructed Adam and Eve to be stewards of all that he had created.
What is stewardship? A steward is one who has been entrusted with the goods of another for a time, tasked with the care and upkeep of those goods. We are, of course, all called to be stewards of whatever gifts God has given us. Importantly, stewardship is not the same thing as ownership. (In addition to reflecting on stewardship in relation to pets, it is also important for Christian parents to remember that our children are also not our possessions – they belong to God and are entrusted to us for a time.)
Although I think that “ownership” is a useful term in terms of our legal relationship to pets, it is not technically as accurate as viewing pets through the lens of stewardship. A steward cannot mistreat the master’s goods, and must care for those goods in accord with their true nature – crops must be harvested, gold must be protected or invested, wool must be combed and spun, etc. Wool cannot be left to be infested with moths, and gold cannot be spun (no matter what Rumpelstiltskin may lead us to believe). The steward does this because he has a sense of loyalty and love to the master – he wants to please his master, and care for what has been entrusted to him in the way that the master intends.
When pets are viewed in that lens – as creatures fashioned by and ultimately belonging to God, who he is entrusting to us for a time – then it is easier to understand how they must be treated. As gold cannot be spun, dogs cannot be made into children. They are dogs. Being a good steward of a pet means caring for and enjoying the animal in the way that God does. I don’t find delight in dressing my puppy in clothes but seeing him romp through the woods on a hike, keen on the scent of a small woodland creature – it fills my heart with a much deeper joy and wonder at creation and the work that God has accomplished.
Pope Francis’s words can be viewed in this lens – as encouragement to steward animals as the gifts of God’s creation they are. In doing so, they cannot possibly fill the hole in our hearts made for spiritual/adoptive/biological motherhood or fatherhood. Rather, we can delight in our domestic animals in their own right, drawn closer in praise of God’s goodness as we do so.