Pope Francis and the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition

Pope Francis and the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition January 13, 2022

Let me start by stating that I generally and genuinely admire Pope Francis. That’s not to say I don’t often disagree with him — he is, after all, distressingly un-Baptist. But when Francis uses the familiar papal device of addressing not just the faithful but “all people of goodwill,” it usually seems as though he’s allowing the possibility of such a category and genuinely welcoming the rest of us to meet him there. So mostly I like the guy.

But I don’t like this, not at all: “Today … we see a form of selfishness,” Francis said last week in Rome. “We see that some people do not want to have a child.”

Choosing not to have children, Pope Francis says, is “a form of selfishness.” He doesn’t say that such a choice can sometimes be selfish, but that it is categorically a selfish choice. And all those who have made this choice, he says, have demonstrated that they are selfish people who deserve to be condemned for their immoral selfishness.

Well, that’s what Pope Francis said — and this isn’t the first time he has said this — but it cannot possibly be what Pope Francis meant. Because, after all, Pope Francis is himself someone who has deliberately chosen not to have children. The same is true of all of his cardinals and bishops, and of a large percentage of those who work for him and with him in the Vatican. And of course Francis did not mean to include either himself or any of those cardinals, bishops, priests, sisters, or brothers among the self-evidently selfish who stand condemned as such for having made the same choice they have made not to have children.

“My choice is good, your identical choice is bad” is an embarrassing argument. But this isn’t hypocrisy or what we usually mean when we speak of a “double standard.” It’s worse than that. And far more pernicious. It is, rather, exactly the sort of thing that C.S. Lewis warned us is “the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”

Francis wasn’t suggesting that there is some objective ethical rule that applies to others but not to himself. He was, rather, saying that this choice — his choice — is sometimes good when it is made by responsible, virtuous people for responsible, virtuous reasons, but that the very same choice is bad when it is made by irresponsible, vicious people for irresponsible, vicious reasons. And thus he is saying that everybody who isn’t him is presumed to be irresponsible and vicious.

That’s bad. It’s morally bad in that it involves a willingness and a desire to presume the very worst of everyone who isn’t you, thus causing Francis to bear false witness against millions of his neighbors based solely on his presumption that they cannot possibly share his own exceptional virtue. And it’s intellectually bad in that it thereby distorts his perception of the rest of the world — and of himself — leading him to incorrect conclusions based on false premises.

If this were merely hypocrisy, then Francis would merely be guilty of the same thing he says everyone else is guilty of: selfishness and inhospitality. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. His personal, deliberate choice not to have children does not seem to have anything to do with selfishness or inhospitality. His choice, I think, demonstrates one way in which that choice can be an expression of selfless generosity — of giving up some personal benefit for the greater good of others. His own choice and his own life, in other words, stands as proof that the choice not to have children can be a responsible, wise, loving, and morally praiseworthy choice. But he refuses to allow that what is obviously true for him is just as obviously true for others.

The trap into which Francis has stepped here is the prideful temptation of assuming that his own motives are exceptionally virtuous and therefore are incomprehensible and inaccessible to most people. And he thus assumes and presumes that others making the very same choice he is must be doing so for the worst possible reasons.

As we noted, the choice not to have children can be and often is responsible, wise, loving, and morally praiseworthy. In other circumstances, it may also be the opposite of all of those things. It’s not impossible, or even difficult, to imagine a scenario in which some person or couple chooses not to have children for reasons that are selfish or shallow or inhospitable. But it’s one thing to say “Some people making this choice might be doing so for the worst possible reasons” and quite another to say “Everyone making this choice must be doing so for the worst possible reasons and none of them could possibly be doing so for any of the many good and responsible reasons we can just as easily imagine.”

To do the latter — as Francis has just done — is, again, to bear false witness against one’s neighbors. And it is also to engage in a form of vain self-flattery that makes one foolish. It is morally vicious in its contempt for others while also being morally silly in the way that all undue self-congratulation is ridiculous.

This is the same mixture of contempt and vainglory that we see in the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition.

As always, the first thing that we need to say about the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition is that they are 100% on the right side of the issue. Burning kittens is wrong and they’re not afraid to say so, emphatically, unambiguously, without fear or hesitation. I wholeheartedly commend them for standing firm against the burning of adorable little innocent kittens. No one can accuse them of wavering on that issue.

What makes the AKBC ridiculous, though, is that they’ve convinced themselves, somehow, that everyone is accusing them of wavering on that issue. Even more ridiculously, they’ve convinced themselves that everyone else disagrees with them about their bold and heroic moral stance against the burning of kittens. They’ve convinced themselves that their opposition to kitten-burning makes them exceptional. They’ve convinced themselves that their embrace of a bare-minimum, lowest-common-denominator, nearly universal and unanimous moral view sets them apart from and above everyone else.

It doesn’t. The only thing that makes them different from everyone else is their mistaken belief that they’re different from everybody else.

The pompous peacocking of the Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition is clownish and ridiculous but, alas, it is not only that. It also produces real, tangible harm to themselves, to others, and to society as a whole. People who are convinced* that everyone else is irredeemably depraved and untrustworthy tend to set about creating the kinds of rules and laws and governments that such an unruly, monstrous mob would seem to require. Those kitten-burning, selfish, inhospitable others who cannot be trusted with freedom and agency and choice must be denied freedom and agency and choice. And because everyone else is cruel, selfish, and inhospitable, it seems recklessly foolish and unsafe to extend to them any form of kindness, selflessness, or hospitality. To survive among such people, one must become like them — at least outwardly. One must build walls, build prisons, lock doors, hoard resources, and live in a constant state of fear and suspicion.

It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s a familiar one.

* Never wholly “convinced,” mind you, but wholly committed to pretending to be convinced.

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