The World Is on Fire, and the Pope Is Troubled by Your Pet

The pope has issues with your dog. And your cat. And your guppy, though he didn’t specifically mention your guppy. He was focused on pets in general — and on how, according to him, we’re rerouting our procreative and protective impulses toward them.

Where you see a cockatoo, His Holiness apparently sees a baby who will never be.

That was the gist of remarks that Pope Francis made two weeks ago, and while I perhaps missed my proper moment for outrage and should be moving on, I haven’t quite shaken the pointlessness and presumptuousness of it all. The world is on fire, democracy is on the ropes and he’s troubled by … your budget for kibble?

“Dogs and cats take the place of children,” he said, calling childless people with pets selfish and saying that their — excuse me, our — “denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us” and “takes away our humanity.”

He referred to the “demographic winter” of declining birthrates, rued the precariousness of pension plans in societies with too few toddlers and boldly identified the culprit: Fido. Or, rather, your adoption of Fido rather than your propagation of a Francis or Frances. Because, of course, that’s the coin-toss way of the world: Heads, I get an account with Buy Buy Baby; tails, with Chewy.com.

That’s actually more insulting to parents than to non-parents, inadvertently trivializing their commitment to a child by suggesting that it could be exchanged for commitment to a cat. And it tells me that the pope doesn’t get around much. When asking childless people about their lives, I’ve never heard, “I decided on a Labradoodle instead.”

Did he get up on the wrong side of the Vatican? As popes go, he’s usually an affable one. He’s lighter on the moralism than many moral leaders. There’s often humility in his infallibility — an oxymoronic triumph if ever there was one. And if he hasn’t quite tugged the Roman Catholic Church into the 21st century, he has moved it partway into the 20th. That’s a two-century improvement on its archaic lot before him.

Pet pique isn’t some papal peculiarity. As Elisabetta Povoledo noted in her article in The Times about Francis’ little fit, his predecessor, Pope Benedict, “was such an avowed cat person” that there’s a children’s book about him with a feline narrator. According to that same article, Pope Paul II had a pet monkey, and Pope Sixtus IV a pet eagle. According to a subsequent article in Salon, Pope Pius XII had a pet goldfinch, and Pope Leo X a pet elephant, while Pope Leo XII “kept ostriches, deer, goats and African gazelles in the Vatican Gardens.”

Francis needn’t frolic with big game, but a big pooch might soften him. For the pontiff, a mastiff?

And where does a man who has committed himself to a childless life — by which I mean a Roman Catholic priest — get off measuring the humanity of others in terms of their fecundity? Francis went down this road before, back in 2014, when he groused that “an emotional relationship with animals is easier, more programmable,” while “having a child is something complex.” I’m not sure how he’s an authority on this.

And I question his strategic sense. I mean, I get the general be-fruitful-and-multiply encouragement. That has been the church’s way for a very long time, and religions are largely about presenting certain ideals to their followers. They also survive on replenished ranks.

But cheerleading is one thing, browbeating another — and it’s among the explanations for organized religion’s diminished sway in many parts these days. Four-legged creatures aren’t a drag on Catholicism. But closed-minded ones just might be.

For the Love of Lyrics

Aimee Mann performing in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 2008.Credit…Stefan M. Prager / Getty Images

You love your Beatles. I was expecting that. When I invited you to nominate, for this new feature, songs whose lyrics you especially admired, I knew that the words of the Fab Four would be well represented.

But I wouldn’t have predicted the frequency with which some other multiply nominated songwriters were mentioned. Paul Simon made a stronger showing than either Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. (I’m not disagreeing with that assessment, just saying that it wasn’t in my crystal ball.) I wasn’t prepared for four shout-outs to Jackson Browne. And I wasn’t sure you’d pay the lavish tribute to Joni Mitchell that you did — and that she very much deserves.

I’ll revisit those musicians and their songs in future installments of this feature. But today I want to showcase a prodigiously talented songwriter who may be unfamiliar to many of you: Aimee Mann.

I’ve long been smitten with her lyrics, which reflect serious thought, teem with surprising rhymes and sometimes tell unusually nuanced and complete stories. The terrific song “I’ve Had It,” from her 1993 album “Whatever,” is a perfect example, and it made the cut of “31 Songs” that the hugely popular British writer Nick Hornby praised and parsed in a charming book of his with that title.

“A true poet” is what Marios Koufaris, of Brooklyn, N.Y, said of Mann in his email to me. He drew special attention to the song “Little Bombs,” from the album “The Forgotten Arm” (2005). Its lonely narrator gazes out from a high floor of an Atlanta hotel and, in a classic Mann couplet, muses:

Ah, Mann’s couplets. From “I’ve Had It,” not exactly a couplet but not far off:

“Calling It Quits,” a contagious trifle from the “Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo” album (2000), seems to exist largely for the sake of wordplay and rhymes (and near-rhymes) that you don’t see coming: “ruby” and “booby”; “handicap” and “booby trap”; “Ritz” and “quits”; “masterminds” and “valentines” and “story lines” and “gold mines.” It’s a hoot.

But I’ll always be partial to the songs on “Whatever,” including “4th of July,” which begins, ever so sadly:

“For the Love of Lyrics” will appear every five weeks or so. To nominate a songwriter and song, please email me here, including your name and place of residence. “For the Love of Sentences” will return next week; you can use the same link to suggest recent snippets of prose for it.

What I’m Reading (and Watching)

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos”Credit…Alamy/Amazon Studios
  • I’d heard of “dad jeans” and, without being a dad, own several pairs. But “dad bands”? More specifically, “sad dad bands”? That was not only new but also hilarious to me, at least as rendered in this McSweeney’s article. I am apparently a semi-sad dad: About half the musicians mentioned appear on my playlists, with one of the bands — The National — in very heavy rotation. Whether this article applies to you or not, it’s likely to make you chuckle.

  • “A Higher Ed Subsidy from the Right.” That was the headline atop a recent article, by Sarah Brown that was a joint project of The Assembly and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and yes, you read the “Right” part right. The article describes the impact of NC Promise, a college-affordability program that significantly lowers and caps tuition at three campuses in the University of North Carolina system. “It’s sort of Bernie Sanders’s ideas brought to you by conservative Republicans,” Steve Long, a former member of the governing board that oversees the system’s 17 institutions, explained. Interesting thought. Interesting read.

  • Although I was disappointed by the award-season thoroughbred “Being the Ricardos,” which is overly busy with stylized dialogue and flashbacks and flash-forwards and other narrative fillips, I was mesmerized by Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball. I think she’s badly miscast, and whatever combination of makeup and prosthetics was used on her face turns it into a kind of mask at times. But that makes the near-success of her performance all the more impressive. She aces that dialogue — written by Aaron Sorkin, who also directed the movie — and whenever she’s supposed to deliver an emotional wallop, she does. She’s an outstanding actor, and like Renée Zellweger, who took a similar leap by playing Judy Garland in “Judy,” she has guts to burn.

On a Personal Note

Liam Neeson in “Taken”Credit…Stephanie Branchu/20th Century Fox

The true function of Netflix isn’t to give you something to watch. It’s to let you hunt, often in vain, for something to watch.

That’s your post-work, pre-sleep distraction, the activity guaranteed to consume the final dregs of your attention. You go to Netflix — or for that matter, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max or some other realm of illusory bounty — with the idea of watching something, the hope of watching something, only to realize that you’ve already watched everything that was definitely worth watching along with everything that was debatably worth watching along with some indefensible dreck you will never, ever tell anyone you’ve watched.

You scroll down, you scroll sideways, you scroll back up, steering clear of any three-season, 30-hour odyssey that won’t give you resolution for weeks or months and will come to feel like unfinished homework no matter how juicy or artful it is. Maybe this decades-old TV movie starting Judith Light is an overlooked gem? While you wrestle with that delusion, some Liam Neeson action thriller catches your eye, but it’s indistinguishable from the Liam Neeson action thriller before it and from the Liam Neeson action thriller before that and also from the Gerard Butler, Bruce Willis and Jason Statham action thrillers that are advertised in the horizontal bar below the Neeson, showing you what its “customers also watched.” You’re now playing a game of anagrams, the testosterone edition.

What about this? It’s a movie you spot in a corner of the screen, with an ominous one-word title in creepy-crawly letters over the image of a face in mid-scream. But is it inventive, metaphoric horror, like “Hereditary” and “It Follows,” or torture porn? The trailer is inconclusive, but the “customers also watched” list is damning: a movie about killer alligators, a movie about killer grizzlies, a movie about killer colossi of unknown origin. You’d rather count killer sheep.

You’re reminded of those casino buffets in Las Vegas that are the length of a football field but fail to include the one thing you really want — a piece of chicken, roasted or fried, that’s moister than the surrounding desert — among the garlic-suffocated shrimp and the pepper-strangled steak and the cheese-gagged ziti, which aren’t so much baked as congealed. An infinity of calories. An absence of real satisfaction.

At least that’s my streaming experience of late, and in describing it, I’m complicating my previous observations that this is the Golden Age of television (if we’re defining television broadly), with such gleaming keepsakes from the past decade as “Mindhunter” on Netflix, “Mare of Easttown” on HBO, “The Night Manager” on Amazon Prime and more.

But the mine isn’t bottomless — or, rather, it has more dross than precious metal. The growth of streaming services spurred a record high of 559 new scripted television series in 2021, up from 216 in 2010, according to an article in Axios. Is that boom or bloat?

And an eager viewer can so easily feel hoodwinked — by narratives that should be told in four or six hours but are elongated to eight, and by rightfully buried movies that are wrongly exhumed and extolled by streaming services intent on sheer volume.

There is, however, an upside.

I’m reading more.

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