Do we love our pets more than people?
“A lot of people love their pets very much, and St. Francis saw God in every creature. However, for some people these pets end up as a child substitute, and people spend a lot of money for them. How should our relationship with animals be?” – A.F.
By Msgr. Michael Magee
People today seem to have a heightened sense of respect for the creatures that God has placed with us on earth. On balance, this respect is certainly a good thing.
Ironically, however, at the same time there is an observable lessening of respect for the dignity of human persons, especially in those situations where people require more demanding care from us — for example, in the difficulties of rearing children, providing care to the elderly or when society must contend with those who have committed serious offenses. People may be tempted to despise them simply as refuse to be discarded.
As we discern God’s will in all these different situations, it is important to be open to the moral demands of the truth that you have already expressed so well, as ascertained by St. Francis of Assisi, who “saw God in every creature.”
In fact, in every creature — and especially, every living creature — God reveals himself to us. It is his goodness that we revere in the care that we instinctively recognize that we owe to such creatures. In particular, we see his nature reflected in our fellow human beings, who are endowed with the spiritual faculties of intellect, will and emotion, being thus created — to use Scripture’s own language — “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). No illness, limitation or even moral guilt can take away this inalienable dignity of the human person.
Although animals operate on the levels of sensation and instinct rather than of intellect and will, their loyalty to human beings is in many ways vividly symbolic of God’s own care for us, and their reliance on the care of human beings is often very life-giving for those who care for them. They may provide companionship to the lonely, and their unconditional affection for the human beings who care for them has powerful effects for those who might otherwise be deprived of steady companionship.
Their presence in people’s lives can therefore be regarded as a true gift of God.
Your question, however, accurately expresses a critical insight that should be taken into account at the same time. In comparison with human relationships, the care of animals is relatively easy! Animals generally do not complain when they are treated with disregard, but continue to rely on whatever love human beings offer them.
They do not manifest consciousness of time, and therefore do not display the impatience that human beings can show when the fulfillment of their wishes is postponed. They tend to act in predictable ways. They seem incapable of holding grudges as people do, precisely because the pursuit of their needs does not lead them to any sense of indignation such as humans — including children — may experience by virtue of their heightened moral consciousness.
Ironically, relating to people can sometimes be much more challenging than relating to animals, precisely because other people are more like ourselves. This is the very reason why we are failing in the art of loving if we willingly prefer the relatively easy route of loving animals while shirking the challenge of loving our human brothers and sisters.
It does not seem, then, that anyone should be concerned about whether he or she loves animals too much. Instead, the question to ask is whether one loves human beings too little. Loving human beings is more difficult precisely because it is more important, since human beings are called to a higher vocation (that is, a higher kind of love), and also have higher needs than animals.
If someone is eager to show love to animals, but has no desire (as a married person) to have children and make the sacrifices that human parenthood entails, this may be symptomatic of a desire to take shortcuts, and to avoid the difficulties that authentically human love elicits. If someone loves her dogs and cats but has no time for her neighbors, it is a possible sign that she prefers a love that is less demanding.
Love does not seek the easy path, but stands willing to give away everything for the sake of someone else.
God has put animals with us to accompany us with their loyal affection and assist us in other ways. We should be grateful for such a gift and accord them the dignity that is theirs. But we must not use them to fill the place in our hearts that is meant to be filled by relationships with other human beings.
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