“Ask a Priest: What If I Only Really Love My Pet Rabbits?”

Q: I am married, with children; by all accounts I have a reasonable happy and normal life. I never had any major upsets in my life. However, recently I have been troubled by some thoughts about love; the subject our Lord Jesus has put so much importance on. What troubles me is almost any love I see around me is partially a “transaction.” For sure, my wife loves me, but I am also a provider of financial and emotional stability for her; in that sense her love is not unconditional. Should I become, say a drug addict or a dropout, her love would probably diminish. Likewise, my mum loved me too, sure, but she also had certain expectations of me; that I should go to university and get a nice job and visit her in her old age from time to time. When I didn’t live up to her expectations, I didn’t feel her love so much. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, that’s how life is, but the troubling thought is that in that sense, to be brutally honest with myself, the only pure love I have in life is for my two pet rabbits. There is nothing transactional about that; I try to provide them with the best life possible, feed them, clean them out, take them to the vet and — this is the key point here — I don’t expect anything in return. My love for them is unconditional. The event that really brought these thoughts out was the death of my father after a long struggle with cancer. He was a good father, and while I felt sadness, I did not cry. Then years later when my pet rabbit died, I did cry, and I feel I grieved more deeply for her than I did for my father. Is this how it is? Is this the mystery of love? – L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note. It’s good that you can at least honestly articulate your concerns and recognize your attachment to the rabbits.

To address that point first, it might be worthwhile to quote from the Catechism, No. 2418: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. … One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.”

What you mention about human relations has some truth to it. Many relationships are tinged by self-seeking.

Part of our spiritual growth — that is, part of what Jesus calls us to — is a purification of our affections for others. We are called to love as Christ loved, to seek only the glory of God and the good of souls. This is a high ideal. But since Jesus calls us to it, it’s not impossible to achieve.

As for your wife and your mom and whether they would love you less if you didn’t measure up: That is precisely the moment when Jesus is beckoning you to maintain your level of love for them. That is how your heart can become more like Christ’s. That is how your love becomes unconditional.

Perhaps three points are worth considering.

First is to understand the Christian definition of love. Love is an act of the will. It isn’t necessarily accompanied by warm, fuzzy feelings. Rather, it is a conscious decision to look for the best for other people and to be willing to sacrifice for them.

Here it might help to remember that we are serving Jesus when we serve others. “‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).

A corollary to this is that, properly speaking, we shouldn’t and can’t love animals in the same way we love people. Animals aren’t persons made in the image of God. They are his creatures, but they don’t have intellects or immortal souls. By nature they won’t complement us as we need to be. This lesson comes through clearly in Genesis 2:

“The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him. […] The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man.” [italics mine]

It’s possible that the rabbits have become a kind of refuge for you. They don’t trouble you. They don’t make big demands. They don’t complain. In a word, they are easy to get along with. If only humans were the same way!

On the other hand, since the rabbits don’t make big demands, you might not be growing in the same way you could otherwise. When people annoy us, they give us a chance for our hearts to grow and for our patience to deepen. Stick with only the rabbits and you might not progress very far in the spiritual life.

Also, an important aspect of authentic love is mutual knowledge. A healthy love between human beings has the potential to be much more satisfying than our love for pets, precisely because another person can actually know us, and being deeply known is one of the deepest needs of the human heart.

Second, let that “unconditional love” for the rabbits be the ideal you want to apply to the people in your life. If you can give without expecting things in return, that’s great. Lavish that kind of generosity on human beings. This is what is means to be a Christian.

Third, it might be helpful to meditate on the passion and death of Christ. See the love with which he endured his suffering amid the insults of his persecutors. Then recall that he did this for love of you and for your redemption. He didn’t wait for you to return the love. Rather, Jesus did it to carry out his Father’s will and to show his love for you and me and every other human person.

It’s helpful to recall that Jesus also died for your wife, your dad, your mom and everyone else you know. That means each person is special to Our Lord. If Jesus can see something immensely valuable in each person, that might be a good lesson to take to heart.

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