With my post on “The Dog Delusion“, I was ahead of the curve, though I thought of it as a humorous Papal remark that wouldn’t go anywhere. I was wrong: the Pope’s implication that all animals go to Heaven (implying they have souls), as well as the discovery of an earlier and similar statement by Pope Paul VI*, have unleashed a frenzy of theological speculation, as well as musings by meat producers and vegetarians about the implications for eating animals. What all this shows is how intellectually depauperate religion is, and how believers fervently discuss questions that have no hope of ever being resolved. Theologians, and even the New York Times, think that the Pope’s remarks, and the uproar they’ve caused, are both serious and newsworthy.
In fact, Pope Francis’s pronouncements on animals and the afterlife made the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, in a piece called “Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis leaves pearly gates open.” And the controversy was on the evening news last night as well. The Times article raises many questions (quotes from the piece are indented):
Does this cause a theological ferment? Yes.
Charles Camosy, an author and professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, said it was difficult to know precisely what Francis meant, since he spoke “in pastoral language that is not really meant to be dissected by academics.” But asked whether the remarks had caused a new debate on whether animals have souls, suffer and go to heaven, Mr. Camosy said, “In a word: absolutely.”
Did the Pope really mean it? No, it was meant “casually” (i.e., metaphorically).
In his remarks, as reported by Vatican Radio, Francis said of paradise: “It’s lovely to think of this, to think we will find ourselves up there. All of us in heaven. It’s good, it gives strength to our soul.
“At the same time, the Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God.”
Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement.
Did the Pope mean it? Yes.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, the Catholic magazine, said he believed that Francis was at least asserting that “God loves and Christ redeems all of creation,” even though conservative theologians have said paradise is not for animals.
“He said paradise is open to all creatures,” Father Martin said. “That sounds pretty clear to me.”
NOTE: That last sentence, which was there yesterday, has mysteriously disappeared from the article this morning. It may be because Martin learned that “paradise is open to all creatures” came not from Pope Francis, but from Pope Paul VI (see below). But a Pope is a Pope. And Martin is quoted later in the article saying this:
Father Martin said he did not believe the pope’s remarks could be construed as a comment on vegetarianism. But, he said, “he’s reminding us that all creation is holy and that in his mind, paradise is open to all creatures, and frankly, I agree with him.”
Do all the Popes agree that animals have souls? No.
The question of whether animals go to heaven has been debated for much of the church’s history. 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. He even sought to thwart the founding of an Italian chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
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.” But the Vatican did not widely publicize his assertion, perhaps because it so directly contradicted Pius, who was the first to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1854.
John Paul’s successor, Benedict, seemed to emphatically reject his view in a 2008 sermon in which he asserted that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth.”
But were these Popes speaking ex cathedra, the only time when they’re infallible (or, as Archie Bunker once said, “inflammable”)?
Is it good news for animal lovers? Yes! Not only will you see your pets in heaven, but there are other beneficial results:
Ms. Gutleben of the Humane Society said Francis’ apparent reversal of Benedict’s view could be enormous. “If the pope did mean that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals have a soul,” she said. “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.”
Sarah Withrow King, director of Christian outreach and engagement at PETA, one of the most activist anti-slaughterhouse groups, said the pope’s remarks vindicated the biblical portrayal of heaven as peaceful and loving, and could influence eating habits, moving Catholics away from consuming meat — which she asserted had already been happening anyway. “It’s a vegan world, life over death and peace between species,” she said. “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.”
It’s interesting that in the last sentence PETA, which I haven’t thought of as a religious organization, suddenly buys into faith. They will in fact say anything that helps their cause. (I have mixed feelings about PETA, but think they’ve done some good things by calling attention to the horrendous mistreatment of animals raised for consumption or their eggs or milk.)
Is it bad news for meat producers? It would seem so, for killing something with a soul is murder. But the purveyors of meat don’t think so, and, as always, can cherry-pick the Bible to support their views:
“As on quite a few other things Pope Francis has said, his recent comments on all animals going to heaven have been misinterpreted,” Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said in an email. “They certainly do not mean that slaughtering and eating animals is a sin.” Mr. Warner quoted passages from Genesis that say man is given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.”
“While that ‘dominion’ means use for human benefit, it also requires stewardship — humane care and feeding — something all farmers who raise animals practice every day of every year,” Mr. Warner said.
It’s news to me that “all farmers” practice humane care and feeding every day of the year. Tell that to those who confine pigs or calves in small stalls, or cut off the beaks of battery chickens.
Is this whole debate insane? Yes!
Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., and an expert on the history of dog-human interaction, said she believed that there would be a backlash from religious conservatives, but that it would take time.
“The Catholic Church has never been clear on this question; it’s all over the place, because it begs so many other questions,” she said. “Where do mosquitoes go, for God’s sake?”
Indeed! I await the Vatican’s pronouncement about which animals get to go to Heaven, and which are Left Behind. Which species have souls, and which don’t? It reminds me of the barminology debate about how many “kinds” of animals there are.
This kerfuffle simply demonstrates what Andrew Bernstein said in an article about the uselessness of religion during the Dark Ages (a quote that I reproduce in The Albatross; reference below):
Here is the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction—studying nothing. In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; and so, for most of a millennium, as human beings screamed in agony—decaying from starvation, eaten by leprosy and plague, dying in droves in their twenties—the men of the mind, who could have provided their earthly salvation, abandoned them for otherworldly fantasies.
Bernstein, A. A. 2006. “The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages.” Objective Standard 1:11–37.
*Pope Paul VI’s statement, made to a child distraught over the loss of his dog: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.’’
As an update, reader Pliny the In Between contributed a cartoon: