Pope Francis: Let’s Not Promote Further Prejudice

I get the appeal of a world where there is no gray — only  black and white. When there’s only one way there’s no pesky thinking required. The only problem is we live in a complex world where ‘choice’ isn’t always what it seems.  And that’s where things get muddy.

Amid the rash of stories this past week with headlines condemning those of us who are not parents:

Pope Francis: ‘The choice not to have children is selfish’ *

Couples Who Choose Not to Have Children Are ‘Selfish,’ Pope Says **

Hip Pope declares couples who don’t want kids ‘selfish,’ says they are part of a ‘greedy generation ‘***

… there was a breath of fresh air from a columnist at The Guardian.  The column headline read: ‘Remaining childless can be wise and meaningful. The Pope should know.’ (And here I must cop to my own bias. I immediately leaped to the conclusion that the author, Gaby Hinsliff, was of my tribe: a woman not parenting.)  So there was some sheepishness, as I eagerly lapped up her copy and nodded instinctively at her observations….:

“We live in an age where one in five women will not have had children by their mid-40s. (And no, there’s no equivalent data for men; giving birth to a child being a more unmistakably public event than fathering one). For some that will have been a positive choice, for others painfully not so; and for a third group it’s perhaps somewhere in the middle – a difficult consequence of choices made but not regretted, a fork in the road not taken. But although it’s something millions experience, not having children still carries a wholly unfair stigma for both sexes, an unspoken sense that you owe the world an explanation.”

“There’s precious little evidence that having children makes you a nicer person …”

“Any woman … who doesn’t have children can expect endless nosy questions about why it never happened; whether she had to choose between baby and career, or whether perhaps there’s an intimate gynaecological problem that she fancies sharing with the world.”

…in discovering Gaby is, in fact, a mother. At that point I found myself doubly pleased and schooled. Her piece reminded me that I can still be pleasantly surprised and that society is often quite wrong in its assumptions — something I wrote about a few months ago.

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I applaud Gaby most heartily for calling out the Pope and others who harshly judge those who are not mothers or fathers. (Added props to her for acknowledging that “having children is without doubt the single most selfish thing I’ve ever done.”)

The whole episode also made me consider what it must be like to be young and impressionable. Let’s do a little role play exercise. Imagine with me for a moment:

You’re an easily influenced teeny-bop-esque girl on your way to becoming a young woman and forming your beliefs and view of society. You are surrounded by competing messages about parenthood, fertility, and the ‘right way to live.’ In short, you are trying to make sense of a convoluted world. On the one hand you see from People, Elle or The New York Times Magazine stories of women and couples going to extremes (freezing eggs, pursuing 3-parent IVF and doing everything in their utmost) to achieve motherhood or parenthood.

These ‘motherhood or bust’ stories are juxtaposed with headlines admonishing those not parenting. Layer on the more insidious bias against those not parenting raised by Gaby (and others who have experienced it directly).

Now, what is a young girl/woman to think? Let’s see … do I want to be socially acceptable and bask in the glow of baby bumps and motherhood? Or do I want to be in that other category — the one associated with spinsterhood, selfishness or hostile second-guessing about why I have no children.

Not a particularly easy set of questions to navigate. So why don’t we change the paradigm? Can’t we insert a third category — ala Gaby’s headline: Remaining childless can be wise and meaningful? (How fortunate for any child raised by such an empathetic mother.)

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Couple final thoughts. Welcome yours, too.

Beyond the fact that some ‘choices’ are beyond our control, is it any wonder that women/couples today are going to extremes to pursue pregnancy? If it were simply about ‘choice’ most people would not ‘choose’ to have unexplained or circumstantial infertility and invite the prejudice that comes with it. Take it from one who knows, there’s no glory or social privilege in ‘choosing’ not to have children. That’s why it seems all the more ironic that a man who leads an entire cohort of men who ‘chose’ not to have children condemns those who don’t pursue parenthood.

Kinsey adds her two cents on what this week’s reporting raised for her in this blog post, Are you kidding me?

* The Independent headline
** NPR headline
*** National Post headline

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10 thoughts on “Pope Francis: Let’s Not Promote Further Prejudice

  1. Heidi

    When considering the Pope’s statements about children, it’s worth taking two things into consideration. First, that within Catholic understanding, *openness* to children is an essential part of what makes a marriage valid (in other words, if a couple goes into marriage explicitly intending to never have children, they are not validly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church – it’s grounds for annulment). Second, that the Catholic Church is opposed to IVF (& donor eggs, surrogacy, etc.) – so being open to children does not translate into requiring couples to pursue having children beyond simply not trying to *prevent* ever having any children. Clearly deliberately trying to not have children is not the situation that an infertile couple finds themselves in!

    1. There is absolutely a difference between choosing not to have children and not having children as the result of infertility. But I think the point of this post is that comments like this easily lead to feelings of alienation by people who have battled infertility, regardless of the comments not being directed at them. Whether a couple makes a conscious choice to not have children or a couple can’t have children no matter how hard they try, hearing a message implying that people who do not have children are “selfish” is incredibly disheartening. Pope Francis may as well have said “you are not welcome here.” I have to think that this is not a message that Jesus would have approved of.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out! Glad to know that you appreciated my sleepless, under-caffeinated reflections. After re-reading I realize that I probably should have edited before posting….

    This discussion makes me want to pull a post that I’ve had in my draft folder for ages about religion/god and infertility and post it. We’ll see.

  3. I’ve been rolling my eyes since Pope Francis’ comments. As a recovering Catholic, there is clearly only one approved way to live your life. IVF and fertility treatments are a big no-no, but so is making the decision not to go that route. And even though adoption is seen as acceptable, there is still a level of pity to anyone who goes that route.

    Gabi’s article is dead on. And so is your exercise. We’ve gone too far off the deep end glorifying the baby bump. Yet we don’t talk openly about the fact that birthing children doesn’t make you nicer, wiser and somehow bring purpose to one’s life. Yes, parenting is an important role, but too many people assume that a fulfilled life means birthing children. We’re long overdue for the reality check.

  4. I am so glad that there were at least several responses pointing out his hypocrisy. I’m glad too that Kinsey and you have both commented on this. And I love love love the title of that article – Remaining childless can be wise and meaningful. I want to say it again and again, because it is one of the key messages of my blog!

    I see too that the Pope returned to an earlier misconception (chuckle) – that without children, you’ll have “an old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.” Yet studies show that this is not the case. But when did statistics and facts ever interfere with religious doctrine and propaganda? Sigh.

  5. Karen

    Me and my husband decided not to have children before we got married. We just do not want the responsibility of raising a child and all of what it demands, including time( a lot less for our couple relationship) and expenses. Maybe this is what the Pope was thinking when de talked about selfishness…. But what does he want instead? I can’t get pregnant just to see if finally after giving birth I like the child or not. And if not? There are no returns!

  6. Totally agree with you and with the other commenters — and I saw and loved the Guardian piece too. :) As I said to Kinsey on her blog, I am not Catholic — but I have been following this new(ish) Pope with interest. I’ve been impressed and encouraged by what he’s had to say on other contentious matters — so to hear this from him was deeply disappointing. :(

  7. Rose

    Apparently he said: “People think it is better or easier to have a puppy, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the puppy. Isn’t this true or not? Have you seen this? And in the end, this marriage will end in old age in solitude, with the bitterness of bad solitude.”
    There is no tact or thoughtfulness in this statement whatsoever. Whether he’s talking about deliberatley childfree people or not, he’s insulting millions of others.
    I’ve had enough of this fella. Just because he made one seemingly ‘liberal’ statement (“Who am I to judge?”); he has cancelled it out a hundred times over with his silly comments. He is NOT liberal: he is the Pope.

  8. So at the outset, I’ll say that as a practicing Catholic, I’ll cop to laziness for criticizing (MANY OF) Pope Francis’s public statements as-reported in major news media without reading the originals in full. (Evidently he is regularly misunderstood substantially, sometimes probably deliberately, other times innocently.)

    But even though I haven’t taken the time to do that, I feel it’s fair for me to say that the man is a PR DISASTER. He is the single most visible religious figure in the world, part of his role is a preaching and teaching one, and he obviously is aware of the global reach of his statements. And yet he has not made the efforts necessary to be clear and thoughtful with the things he says – he acts as if he were a country pastor preaching to 200 people sitting in a field (who can raise a hand and say, “Hey, what did you mean by that?”), rather than a pope in the 21st century. It’s truly disappointing. Contrast Pope Benedict XVI, who was a super-smart theologian (whether you agree with his teaching or not, he really knows his stuff) and never delivered a papal homily or address that hadn’t been edited heavily by other theologians – which is all the way at the other end of the spectrum from speaking off the cuff (at all, let alone regularly).

    As far as I can tell, in this particular case, the dumb comment is an attempt to counterbalance another dumb comment Pope Francis made on January 19th: namely, that Catholics should not feel they have to breed “like rabbits” because of the Church’s teaching that artificial contraception is morally unacceptable. So in a sense, this is equal-opportunity needless offense based on family size.

    Both of these statements would be fine over a beer with a cardinal or two, wherein all parties would know that what he really meant was (in the first case) “big families are awesome, and heroic openness to life is, well, heroic – but there should NOT be an ‘I-have-the-most-babies’ contest to prove how Catholic you are, that’s just unhealthy and not what we teach”; and (in the second case) “couples should not foreclose the possibility of having children without grave reason, and certainly not for the purpose of material possessions. That would be selfish.”

    Not everyone would agree with either of those statements either, but (a) they would be clearly consistent (as opposed to flippant versions of something that could be generously assumed to be consistent) with the Church’s teaching and (b) I think they would offend far fewer people (and confuse fewer people about what the Church actually teaches at the same time). Heidi gave a good explanation of Catholic Church teaching regarding marriage and openness to life.

    In any case, I have given up being offended by the things Pope Francis says, because I don’t think he’s actually paying close attention to what he says; why should I?

    I really miss Benedict.

  9. I totally love this post, especially the conglomeration of varying viewpoints (some clearly more grounded than others!).

    Even before IF I was always at least mildly suspicious that, as a whole, people with children didn’t contribute as much to society as they would often like to think.

    As an adult, I’ve been infinitely guided and nurtured by those without children in ways that those who parent likely could never offer. To think these special souls are considered less in the eyes of some because they don’t have children of their own is unacceptable, so yes, here’s to changing the paradigm, as you suggest.

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