Apparently, dogs can go to heaven. At least according to Pope Francis, who is supposed to know about these things. During an appearance on St Peter’s Square, the pontiff tried to reassure a young boy who was upset over the death of his dog by telling him, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”
As an atheist, the status of my soul or those of my pets and other loved ones is pretty much irrelevant. My priority is making sure that those around me have as much comfort and as little suffering as possible while they’re still alive, rather than after death.
With that caveat, the Pope’s statement definitely means something to other people. Enough so that a few words said to a child in pain have already become a bone of contention among the faithful. Many theologians have spoken up, saying that what the Pope said was merely conversational, and doesn’t represent Church doctrine. For instance, The Guardian quotes Gianni Colzani, professor emeritus at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, warning people not to make too much out of the Pope’s quote. “We all say that there will be a continuity between this world and the joyful one of the future, [but also] a transformation,” he told the paper. “It is the balance between the two things that we are not in a position to determine. For that reason, I think we shouldn’t make [Pope Francis] say more than he says.”
In other words, don’t get too excited, animal lovers. Other church officials and theologians have made similar statements, saying that it was just a casual, off-the-cuff remark that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Regardless, animal rights organizations have been very excited about Pope Francis’ words. Naturally, PETA spoke up, asking that the Pope follow up by endorsing veganism. “It’s a vegan world, life over death and peace between species,” Sarah Withrow King told The New York Times. “I’m not a Catholic historian, but PETA’s motto is that animals aren’t ours, and Christians agree. Animals aren’t ours, they’re God’s.”
Christine Gutleben of the Humane Society of the United States told The New York Times, “If the pope did mean that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals have a soul. And if that’s true, then we ought to seriously consider how we treat them. We have to admit that these are sentient beings, and they mean something to God.”
That’s always a disturbing argument to me. Does the morality of pain and suffering ultimately depend on whether or not an animal has a soul and will go to heaven? If we were to finally decide, once and for all, that animals don’t have souls or that the deity of one’s choice didn’t care for them, does that mean that we can beat and starve them without consequence? Is their fate after death supposed to be the deciding factor in how we treat them while they’re alive?
I don’t know if souls or heaven exist. To put it as politely as I can, it seems unlikely to me. But I do know that dogs and people alike suffer right here, in this life, if you strike them with a closed fist or make them sleep outside in freezing weather. What does it say about us if that’s not sufficient reason to protect them from violence or abuse?
Telling a grieving boy that his dog has gone to heaven makes good headlines, but despite the controversy among Catholics, it’s also kind of an easy shot. It would be more impressive if the Pope were to make more specific statements about how we treat dogs here on earth and what kind of laws should protect them. That might at least reduce the number of stories I comb through every day detailing sadism, brutality, and neglect against dogs.
What do you think? Will your dog go to heaven? Do you want them to? And does the Pope’s quote actually help dogs in the everyday world?
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