During his first general audience of the New Year, the pontiff encouraged couples to embark on the challenges of parenthood.

Pope Francis has in the past denounced the falling birth rates in developed countries.
Pope Francis has in the past denounced the falling birth rates in developed countries. (Reuters)

Pope Francis has suggested that people who substitute pets for kids exhibit "a certain selfishness" as he spoke on parenthood during a general audience at the Vatican.

The head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics lamented on Wednesday that pets "sometimes take the place of children" in society.

The practice, said the Pope, "is a denial of fatherhood and motherhood and diminishes us, takes away our humanity".

Thus, "civilisation grows old without humanity because we lose the richness of fatherhood and motherhood and it is the country that suffers", the pontiff said at the Paul VI Hall.

Italy's International Organization for the Protection of Animals (OIPA) said it was "strange to think that the pope considers the love in our lives limited quantitatively" while citing the sacrifices of volunteers who save the lives of animals.

"It is evident that for Francis, animal life is less important than human life. But those who feel that life is sacred love life beyond species," said OIPA President Massimo Comparotto in a statement.

READ MORE: How the receding global population could affect the world

'Demographic winter'

In 2014, Francis told Il Messaggero daily that having pets instead of children was "another phenomenon of cultural degradation" and that emotional relationships with pets was "easier" than the "complex" relationship between parents and children.

On Wednesday, while inviting couples who are unable to have children for biological reasons to consider adoption, he urged potential parents "not to be afraid" in embarking on parenthood.

"Having a child is always a risk, but there is more risk in not having a child, in denying paternity," he said.

The Argentine pontiff has in the past denounced the "demographic winter", or falling birth rates in developed countries.

Earlier this year, he criticised modern society, in which career and money-making trumps building a family for many, calling such mentality "gangrene for society".

READ MORE: UK seeks ways to address the falling demographic crisis

Source: TRTWorld and agencies