Speaking on parenthood during a general audience at the Vatican, Francis lamented that pets “sometimes take the place of children” in society.
“Today… we see a form of selfishness,” said the pope. “We see that some people do not want to have a child.
“Sometimes they have one, and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children. This may make people laugh but it is a reality.”
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The practice, said the head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, “is a denial of fatherhood and motherhood and diminishes us, takes away our humanity”.
Thus, “civilisation grows old without humanity because we lose the richness of fatherhood and motherhood, and it is the country that suffers”, the pontiff said at the Paul VI Hall.
Francis has been photographed petting dogs, allowed a baby lamb to be draped over his shoulders during Epiphany in 2014 and even petted a tiger and a baby panther.
But while his predecessor, Benedict XVI, was a cat lover, Francis is not known to have a pet at his Vatican residence.
In 2014, Francis told Il Messaggero daily that having pets instead of children was “another phenomenon of cultural degradation”, and that emotional relationships with pets was “easier” than the “complex” relationship between parents and children.
On Wednesday, while inviting couples who are unable to have children for biological reasons to consider adoption, he urged potential parents “not to be afraid” in embarking on parenthood.
“Having a child is always a risk, but there is more risk in not having a child, in denying paternity,” he said.
The Argentine pontiff has in the past denounced the “demographic winter”, or falling birth rates in the developed world.
Earlier this year, he criticised modern society, in which career and money-making trumps building a family for many, calling such mentality “gangrene for society”.
But a study by the Istat national statistics agency revealed that most Italians do want to have at least two children.
Experts pointed out that Italy’s high levels of unemployment, the broadly badly-paid, short-term work contracts, and a lack of affordable housing and childcare mean many young people put off starting a family as they think it’s unaffordable to do so in Italy.
Italy has for years recorded one of Europe’s lowest birth rates and is set to lose a fifth of its population in 50 years, further official data from Istat suggests.
The agency stated that the data marked “a potential picture of crisis”.
Italy’s population is expected to decrease from 59.6 million people in January 2020 to 47.6 million in 2070, it predicted, representing a drop of 20 percent.
In 2012, Italy saw births fall to the lowest level since it became a nation state in 1861, to around 534,000. Since then, new record lows have been established every year.
In 2020, the Italian population shrank by almost 400,000 due to the effects of the pandemic.