December 08, 2014
In his weekly address at the Vatican late last month, Pope Francis issued a
remarkable statement that's sure to come as welcome news to anyone who's ever
lost a beloved pet. According to Francis, the promise of an afterlife applies
not only to believers, but to all
animals as well.
"The Holy Scriptures teach us that the realization of this wonderful plan covers
all that is around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God,"
Pope Francis said, as
quoted by Italian news site Resapubblica.
The Pope then went on to say that "heaven is open to all creatures, and there
[they] will be vested with the joy and love of God, without limits."
Pope Francis's stance on animals stands in
contrast to that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who despite reportedly
being a cat lover, said that animals' existence was limited to their time on
Earth. But Francis isn't the first pontiff to take an animal-friendly approach
to ideology. As newspaper Divisione
la Repubblica notes, Pope John Paul II held a similar position, saying
animals had a "divine breath."
This isn't the first time that Francis, who adopted his papal name in honor of
the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, has spoken out on behalf of
nonhumans. In his first
homily as pope, Francis articulated mankind's role in serving not only the
divine, but in all creatures born from it:
"The vocation of being a 'protector,' however, is not just something involving
us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human,
involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created
world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us.
It means respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in
which we live."
Another week, another story about Pope Francis saying something a little
weird and a little cool. News reports suggested that Francis told a boy that
dogs go to heaven.
As it turned out, the current pope was misquoted. But popes in the past have
weighed in on whether our pets will go to heaven.
Let's break down what happened.
Did Pope Francis say animals go to heaven?
No, this appears to be based on a misunderstanding.
York Times and other outlets originally reported that during a weekly
address in St. Peter's Square, Francis, comforting a young boy who'd recently
lost his dog, said this: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity
of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
But, as David Gibson explains at Religion
News Service, this isn't what happened at Francis' November 26 talk. Gibson
says a version of the animals-in-Heaven quote was uttered by a pope -- but not
by Francis, by Pope Paul VI (who died in 1978). CNN
explains the confusion.
The confusion may have begun when Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera
referred to Paul's quote in a
story that carried the headline, "The pope and animals: 'Heaven is open to
The story itself does not indicate Francis said that. Instead, it refers back to
According to Gibson, part of the confusion might be owed to the fact that
Francis was discussing
themes related to the environment. In other words, the context of what he was
preaching about lent itself well to a discussion of animals.
What about other popes? Have the talked about animals going to heaven?
Absolutely. In fact, Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, already tackled
this topic -- and reached a conclusion that might anger some dog lovers. For the
now-retired Pope Emeritus, an animal's death simply "means the end of their
existence on earth," and that they "are not called to eternal life."
Yes, as the Times points out.
Pope Pius IX, who led the church from 1846 to 1878, longer than any other pope,
strongly supported the doctrine that dogs and other animals have no
consciousness. ... Pope John Paul II appeared to reverse Pius in 1990 when he
proclaimed that animals do have souls and are "as near to God as men are."
Are the popes allowed to disagree about Catholic doctrine?
Hold your Heaven-bound horses. This is not doctrine, nor is it official teaching
of the Catholic Church. If the pope were to speak directly to a young boy in the
hopes of comforting him, his statements would need to be seen for what they are,
as theologian Charles Camosy told the Times. Francis' pastoral language isn't
"really meant to be dissected by academics," he said.
Have other theologians weighed in on this?
According to Brandon Withrow , a
religious studies scholar and author, this question has a long trajectory within
Christian history. Irenaeus, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis
-- all of them have taken on the issue in various ways.
Those debates continue today. In this
Christianity Today article, three Protestant thinkers tackle the question of
whether or not pets will be in Heaven.
What does any of this have to do with the name Francis?
Believe it or not, the two things are somewhat connected.
Since 533, it's been customary for each newly appointed pope to choose his own
papal name. The pope's name carries a great deal of significance since it
signifies the kind of pope he will be, and what kinds of passions, interests,
theologies, etc. will come to define his reign.
The name Francis hearkens to St. Francis -- the patron saint of animals.
According to legend, the saint had a profound love both for animals and the
environment. His fondness for animals is recalled in an anonymous 14th-century
text called The Little
Flowers of St. Francis. In one passage, he is shown taming a wild wolf that
was terrorizing an Italian village, calling it "Brother Wolf." In other
passages, he's shown preaching
What's the bigger story here?
That probably has something to do with reporting in the age of Pope Francis, who
is considered to be somewhat of a media darling. As Gibson says, the story about
the unconventional Pope comforting a young child with off-the-cuff comments
about dogs and paradise "had so much going for it." Not the least of which was
Francis' blatant disagreement with his predecessor. "That apparent contrast fit
a common narrative pitting the more conservative Benedict against the ostensibly
liberal Francis," notes Gibson.
Fascination with a global leader who condemns systemic injustice and corporate
greed is not necessarily a bad thing. But, as this episode reminds us, the first
priority of journalists needs to be getting the story right.
C'mon, just tell me: is my beloved childhood dog in Heaven?
As Jesuit priest and author Jim Martin told me in an email, to speak about
heaven is to speculate. "The only person who can speak about heaven with direct
experience would be Jesus, and he didn't say anything about animals," he wrote
in an email. "So this falls under the general theological category of 'Who