Did the pope just say that animals have souls?

In comforting a child grieving his dog, Pope Francis implied that the child would reunite with his pet in heaven. Does this signal a doctrinal shift?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor.
A labradoodle plays with a ball on the lawn of his home.

When a grieving little boy looked up at Pope Francis with puppy dog eyes and told the pontiff he was sad over his dog dying, father of the Roman Catholic Church didn’t hesitate to tell the child his companion would be awaiting him in heaven.

“One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures,” the Pope said, according to Italian news sources.

The pontiff was speaking pastorally, not doctrinally, but almost immediately the faithful went into a worldwide ecclesiological tailspin. The Catholic Church has historically treated nonhuman animals as having instrumental - not an intrinsic - good. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas writes, "He that kills another's ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property."

This view continued through Catholic thinkers such as Descartes, who regarded animals as a kind of automata, to the 19th-century pope Pius IX, whose belief that animals lacked consciousness prompted him to prevent the establishment of an Italian chapter of the SPCA.

Still, the Catholic Church by no means condones casual cruelty to animals. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while allowing for animals to be put to use for food, clothing, work, and medical research, says that, "Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness."

Having been thrown such a massive bone by the Supreme Pontiff, animal groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Humane Society gleefully issued statements to bolster the pontiff’s pronouncement.

In fact, in a phone conversation PETA Director of Christian Outreach and Engagement Sarah King chose to announce the group’s new Christmas initiative Jesus People for Animals.

“Heaven for PETA is definitely vegan,” Ms. King said in a phone interview.

The new Jesus People for Animals initiative seeks to engage Christians in exploring the relationships they have with animals through testimonies and quotations from Scripture.

“On earth as it is in Heaven,” quoth Ms. King. “I was thrilled about the Pope’s support of the belief that animals have souls and it couldn’t have possibly come at a more divine moment as we are launching Jesus People for Animals!”

Earlier in the day King released the following statement to the media, “PETA Christian is deeply touched and encouraged that Pope Francis has acknowledged that other species are called along with human beings into eternal life with Christ. We hope that this papal announcement will encourage all followers of Jesus to remember that although their afterlife will be paradise, animals raised and killed for food endure hell on Earth and also to rethink our duty of merciful stewardship and realize that the most loving thing that we can do toward God's creatures is not to eat them.”

Because Italian media reports that the Pope told the child his dog would be reunited with him in body and spirit in heaven, King added that Romans 8:22 is further basis for Christians to believe that they will one day be reunited with all animals that have lived on earth. 

Although, since that particular passage refers to the redemption of every animal that has ever existed on Earth, such a belief could make for some awkward reunions between boy and burger taking place in the hereafter.

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