by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I led a deprived childhood! I never had a dog! My brother and I begged my mother to allow us to have a dog. She refused for health reasons, claiming to be allergic to all animal hair.
My brother and I doubted the veracity of her claims because we had seen photos of my mother’s pet dog when she was a child. Even when we confronted my mother with the visual evidence of her past dog ownership, she remained adamant, insisting that she had adult-onset allergies.
I am still convinced these many years later that my mother’s objection to allowing us to have a dog had more to do with her (probably correct) assumption that, despite our assurances to the contrary, she would have wound up the primary caregiver for the dog.
Many years later (1989 to be precise), when I was appointed pastor of Ascension of Our Lord Parish in Northwoods, Missouri, I finally got my wish. I inherited a dog — Gypsy. My predecessor at the parish had discerned a call to hospital chaplaincy and his new living arrangements did not permit him to take Gypsy with him.
As far as anyone could determine, Gypsy was mainly Irish wolfhound. She was swift enough to outrun the neighborhood squirrels.
Unfortunately for the squirrels, losing a race with Gypsy was a death sentence.
Unfortunately for me, Gypsy dropped her hunting trophies at my feet and then I had to find a respectful way to dispose of the corpses.
After a few weeks, I came to the realization that my mother had been doing me a favor in my childhood. Dogs are a lot of work. They like to eat regularly and also prefer a consistent routine for walking and access to the outdoors to relieve themselves.
My schedule was anything but regular. In addition to serving as pastor of the parish, I was the pro-life director for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. My being away from the parish frequently in the evening was disrupting Gypsy’s usual routine. She did not adjust well to change.
To make matters worse, my predecessor was a gourmet cook, who fed Gypsy from the table. With my arrival, Gypsy was reduced to a steady diet of dog food. She was not pleased.
Fortunately for Gypsy and me, my predecessor determined, after about six months, he was not really cut out for hospital chaplaincy. He was assigned as a pastor to another parish, where he and Gypsy were reunited. As for me, I was relieved to be free of the responsibility that comes with dog ownership.
I still love dogs — other people’s dogs! It is great to play with them and pet them, but not to be responsible for their meals and everything else that goes with pet maintenance. Thanks, Mom, for not allowing me to get a pet pooch!
I was reminded of this last week while attending the annual Kansans for Life banquet. The keynote speaker for the evening was Wesley J. Smith, an attorney, who is one of our nation’s foremost experts on the tragedy of assisted suicide.
Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Smith reminded us that the biblical understanding that human beings are the masterpiece of God’s creation has become quite controversial. There are some very influential societal voices that object to the notions that human beings are uniquely made in the divine image and that our first parents were delegated by God to be the stewards of his creation.
In speaking about human dignity, Smith has been accused of speciesism! This term originated around 1970 with animal rights advocates who opposed scientific experimentation on animals for the benefit of human beings.
I want to state clearly that the argument for human exceptionalism is not advocacy for cruelty to animals. It is, rather, an acknowledgment that human beings —because of our ability to make moral judgments — possess unique rights and responsibilities.
Moreover, there is something that has gone awry when we begin to treat pets like human beings. Our priorities need to be examined when many human beings lack the bare necessities and we lavish gifts upon pets and dress them up like human beings — not for their benefit, but for our entertainment.
Pope Francis raised some eyebrows when he criticized the amount of money spent in First World countries on pet food and cosmetics, while so many children in the Third World are starving. Pope Francis also challenged a group of young couples not to substitute raising pets for giving life to children.
Recently, I was reminded of the pope’s critique when I saw national television advertisements for a dog walking phone app. You cannot only hire someone to walk your dog, but you can actually track the route and distance your dog walks.
Even though I am not a pet owner, I am convinced of the value that pets do bring to the lives of individuals and families. Children can learn responsibility by caring for pets. There is solid documentation that animals can enrich the life of residents at senior living facilities.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing and within reasonable limits scientific experimentation that contributes to caring for or saving human lives (2417).
The catechism also states: “Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals” (2416).
Finally, the catechism cautions: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (2418).
If from reading this article, the thought crossed your mind to get the archbishop a pet, don’t! It would not be fair to the pet!
On the other hand, it would please me if, in memory of Gypsy and all that she suffered while under my care, you made an extra donation to Catholic Charities or the Wyandotte Pregnancy Clinic or Advice and Aid or Catholic Relief Services.