Pity poor old Ryan MacDonald, a 21-year-old Masters student from Derby. On hearing that he’d been selected as one of five Brits to go through to the next stage of selecting the team to go to Mars in 2024, Ryan MacDonald said:

“The most important thing to do in life is to leave a legacy. A lot of people do that by having a child, having a family. For me, this would be my legacy.”

I can only presume, the very next day, that he will have received an official missive from the Vatican, signed personally by Pope Francis, eloquently upbraiding him for his inexcusable irresponsibility in deciding to forego the joys of having children. He would, no doubt, have been invited to examine his conscience, to reassess his primary duty to procreate (often, and without recourse to artificial contraception, but not, let me remind you, ‘like a rabbit’1) down here on terra firma.

For that, it appears, is the infallible view of Pope Francis. Just a couple of weeks ago he took time out from one of his regular homilies to berate all those people who choose not to have children as ‘irresponsible’.

I just want that word to sink in for a moment before we get to grips with deconstructing it. I know that logic and Catholicism make surreal bedfellows, but I can only presume that the Pope was sending out a bit of a spoiler that he is shortly going to be reversing centuries of cruel, inhumane dogma by permitting Catholic priests to renounce their vows of celibacy, and have as many children as they can – on the same responsible basis as would apply to Ryan MacDonald. And since we’re into logic, nuns too, as this Pope is nothing if not PC. Just so long as they keep any rabbits out of it.

I take the Papal piss, of course. But only to mask my intense anger at an accusation he was apparently levelling at all those who choose not to have children. To be fair, belatedly, he probably had in his sights that small number of affluent individuals in the rich world who choose to remain childless for fear of any unwanted brats getting in the way of their sybaritic self-indulgence.

‘Fair game’, as far as I’m concerned, and with those individuals in mind, let’s keep the papal thunderbolts coming – not least because Pope Francis is now one of the very few people who speaks out, given half a chance, and very effectively, against the moral degradation of today’s super-rich. (And I love him for that, incidentally.)

But beyond that, who did he have in his sights apart from the Catholic Church’s own feckless, fertility-denying priests? Which of the following do you imagine he was aiming at:

1. Individuals or couples who are disinclined to surrender to the pro-natalist pressures of contemporary society, but lead wholly responsible, caring lives.

2. Individuals or couples who are so concerned about the state of the Earth that they feel their principal responsibility is not to add to that cumulative burden – only too aware that their decision, in and of itself, will make little difference, but intent on making precisely that little bit of a difference, if only to offset the ‘irresponsibility’ of those in the rich world who think it’s just fine to have four, five, six or more children. Mostly, but not exclusively, Catholics, it has to be said.

3. Individuals or couples who come to the conclusion that to bring any children into a world as riven and hell-bent on self-destruction as ours so clearly is would be the height of irresponsibility. “What right have we”, such reluctant parents might say, “to inflict that future horror story on any other ‘being-to-be’, regardless of whether or not we ourselves might ‘enjoy’ having children?”

4. Gay or lesbian individuals or couples, who choose not to avail themselves of their legal rights … Sorry, I think we know that the Pope definitely had them in his sights. So I’ll cut this one short.

5. Individuals or couples whose childhood was so blighted by the ‘dark side’ of family life that the thought of having children of their own just doesn’t make any sense.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of knowing many people (including many good friends) in each of those categories – as well as a couple of Catholic priests weighed down by their own compulsory childlessness. When I joined the Green Party in the mid-70s, the debate about population was very much in our lives and in our late night discussions. The idea that any of these people came to their often painful and complex decisions not to have children out of some ‘selfish impulse’ is so utterly hateful that I find it hard to bottle up my contempt for anyone – Pope, politician or pundit – who is so careless, ignorant or inhumane to utter it.

And I guess I feel this even more strongly than I might otherwise because of my own personal experience. Throughout my 20s, I was resolutely in categories 2 and 3. It wasn’t that I didn’t love children; my ten years as a teacher in a west London comprehensive was source of the deepest fulfilment. But much to the chagrin of my parents, childlessness seemed like the most responsible response to the world as it was revealed to me then.

Then I fell in love with a woman for whom childlessness was quite simply no-go territory. I came to the conclusion that she was right, and I was wrong. And ever since, everything the Pope says about the joys of parenthood has been borne out in our own lives. Our two wonderful daughters are a source of constant, life-affirming delight that nothing else comes near to providing. (And I say that as a full-on, only slightly regretful workaholic!)

But that’s been our path. It’s not everyone’s path. Indeed, I know many people as fulfilled and content (in the most responsible, thoughtful of ways) without children as any couple or individual with children.

So who the hell did the Pope think he was getting at, in this off-hand, massively hurtful assertion?

1  A few weeks before his blast at the wilfully childless, the Pope reminded all good Catholics that they ‘did not have to breed like rabbits’. It wasn’t only rabbits that were somewhat mystified.