The Pope and Selfishness: Contradictions and Fictions

It was a record-scratching, “hold up, wait a minute” moment a few days ago when Pope Francis, who had just a couple of weeks back told Catholics that they don’t need to “breed like rabbits,” followed that up by stating that “the choice not to have children is selfish.” KtB editor Mary K. Valle and I started to wonder about the Vati-math that would equal the Pope’s ideal number of children: selfishness = 0, rabbits = too many, so what is just right? If the Pope believes women should only use Natural Family Planning to hit this mystical ideal number of kids, what combination of thermometers and ovulation calculators and date nights would get her to that point?

It’s beyond my ken to understand what ideal number of children should be for Catholic women, because I’m one of those selfish ones who never had any. At 44, there is a slight chance I might, but it diminishes yearly and is made even less likely by the endometriosis I’ve had since I was a teenager. To control the symptoms of this disorder, in which cells scar the uterus and then migrate and clamp on to other organs, causing a heck of a lot of pain and likely infertility, I took birth control pills, paid for by my father’s health insurance. My father worked for a Catholic college, but because the pills were prescribed for pain, and not to prevent me from becoming a teen mom, they were covered.

Decades went by, and even after going off the pill, nothing was ever quite right or predictable reproductively. And to be honest, nobody in my marriage was particularly eager to have kids. Do we love kids? Yes. Do we think kids are great? Yes. Are we everyone’s favorite aunt and uncle? Of course. But do we also believe that parenting is a vocation and a calling and should be something people enter into with great consideration and deliberation not just for the parents but for the world as a whole? Yes. And I suspect that underneath the rhetoric, the Pope might feel the same. Dig deep into his seemingly contradictory statements, and you might hear something like this: kids are great if you want to have them. But don’t overburden an already overpopulated world.

Even while he tends to paint those of us without children with a brush that’s a bit one-sided, previously portraying childless married people as bourgeois pet lovers jetting off to summer cottages before they settle down to a bitter, lonely old age, he also sees that our culture’s focus on the self can indeed be a problem. But the word “selfishness” is an unpleasant choice at best. Being childless does not necessarily equal selfish. Having pets instead of kids doesn’t necessarily equal selfish either. My cat is 19 and has kidney disease. I wake up at 5AM to feed her a special gruel of food, clean up her chronic diarrhea and vomit, grind pills, give injections. I try to give her a decent quality of life. It’s a small act of compassion for a living thing. And because I didn’t have kids, I try my best to engage in many acts of compassion, mostly with human beings, every day. In many ways, being childless, whether by choice or circumstance, means a lifetime of overcompensation.

Celibate priests often say that the vow not to love one single person frees them to love many people. They, like the Pope, will never have children. I wouldn’t call that decision selfish; it’s caused many friends in the clergy to sacrifice something they really wanted and would have been very good at. But the Church stands by its notion that when it comes to relationships, reproductive marriage is the only sacramental version that’s valid. The love of a childless couple, an unmarried couple, a queer couple, a single parent, or any variation of those who choose to be bound by something other than heterosexual marriage that produces biological children remains as much as a mystery and a contradiction to some in the hierarchy as the belief in Trinitarian God is a mystery to those who don’t buy into God’s existence. And, at base, Catholic theological notions of families are at best a tangle of contradictions. We believe that Jesus had two fathers, but two gay men will have a hard time finding a church where their child can be baptized. We believe Mary, a teenage single mom nearly rejected by her fiancé, was impregnated by God, but single mothers are not always made to feel welcome. We belong to a religion of contradictions, in which a person who chooses not to have children can be labeled as selfish, but can also be the person who holds the highest position in the Church.

But Catholicism is also a religion of love, and particularly a religion that emphasizes a love of the people society is least likely to show compassion to. It’s a fact that the childless person, particularly the childless woman, can be socially rejected and isolated by her peers. She can be scorned and judged and left out. Yet many of those same women do the grunt work of taking care of kids in parishes, babysit and drive friends’ kids around, teach kids, nurture kids, feed kids, give medical care to kids. What if the Pope and the Church tried to understand that those women are not in fact selfish, but capable of loving in the same expansive way that Jesus did? Oh, by the way. Jesus never had kids. But we would hardly call that guy selfish.

Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.