Recently, during his regular weekly address at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican, Pope Francis declared that all animals go to heaven. He made this statement while trying to comfort a boy who was upset about the death of his dog. While this may be a comfort for everyone who has ever mourned the loss of a beloved pet, it is a major point of controversy in the Catholic Church.
In early history there was no question that dogs had souls and would be allowed into heaven. Rameses III, who became Pharaoh of Egypt in 1198 BC, buried his favorite dog Kami with all the ritual ceremony due to a great man including a coffin, linen, incense, jars of ointment and the ritual scroll that he would need for his entrance into paradise.
The rise of Christianity seems to have ushered in the belief that dogs would not make it to heaven. Despite the fact that the word animal is derived from the Latin word "anima" which means “soul,” Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church) has traditionally taught that dogs and other animals have no more consciousness or intelligence than rocks or trees. According to religious doctrines at that time, anything that had consciousness also had a soul, and anything that had a soul could earn admission to heaven. To grant that animals had souls was simply unacceptable to the Catholic Church. In later years they would claim support from some scientists and philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, who would have described your dog as just some kind of machine, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys. This machine doesn't think, but can be programmed to do certain things. Machines have no souls and therefore one need not allow a Beagle-shaped automaton or a mechanized Maltese to pass through the pearly gates of heaven.
These views were strongly held, and Pope Pius IX who headed the church longer than any other pope (1846–1878) actually led a heated campaign to try to prevent the founding of the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the grounds that animals have no souls. Pius quoted Thomas Aquinas to prove his case, since Aquinas often noted that animals are not beings, but just “things.” However Aquinas seems to have had some doubts since he warned, “we must use animals in accordance with the Divine Purpose lest at the Day of Judgment they give evidence against us before the throne,” which would certainly suggest that animals would be around in the afterlife.
It is interesting to note that Pope Pius (who created the doctrine of Papal Infallibility) was contradicted in 1990 by Pope John Paul II who said "also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with smaller brethren." He went on to say that animals are "as near to God as men are." Although the pope's statement was reported in the Italian press it appears that it was not widely discussed—perhaps to prevent the embarrassment of having two infallible popes contradicting one another, or to avoid a mass action suite that might be filed against the church by the spirits of animals that had been unjustly denied entry into heaven in earlier regimes.
Only three years after the death of John Paul II, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, seemed to once again close the doors of heaven firmly to pets and other animals. Although he was personally a cat-lover, Benedict asserted the traditional doctrine that only humans have immortal souls. In a sermon he gave in 2008 he stated “For other creatures, who are not called to eternity, death just means the end of existence on Earth.” He would later point out that the Bible makes it clear in Mark 16:16 that only "he that believes and is baptized shall be saved." The implication was clear since it is certain that the apostles never baptized or preached the gospel to dogs or cats.
Following Benedict's short tenure, his successor was the current Pope Francis. Since he adopted his papal name in honor of the patron saint of animals, Saint Francis of Assisi, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to side with John Paul II and to once again open the doors of paradise to animals. This can be justified in Scripture by citing the Old Testament passage Isaiah 11:6 which says that in the life hereafter "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fatted calf together," which would certainly suggest that a whole lot of animals might be residing in heaven. The statement made by Pope Francis is really quite unambiguous. He said "One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God's creatures."
If the viewpoint of Pope Francis is accepted I am sure that the next round of questions to be debated by ecclesiastical scholars will be "If animals go to heaven, can they also go to hell?" In other words will the nasty dog who bit my young grandson suffer hellfire in perdition? Or, do all dogs have an automatic ticket to heaven since they lack the intellect to make rational moral decisions? And where does God draw the line? Is there a hierarchy of animal life forms that separates those eligible for entry into paradise from those who are not sufficiently evolved to benefit from the comforts a heavenly existence? What about insects, bacteria, and viruses? While we can draw pleasure from the fact that the Pope believes that we will share heaven with our beloved pets, it appears that the issue is still neither simple nor clear-cut.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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