Heaven can wait. It seems Pope Francis didn’t say that animals have an after-life with the blessed, after all. On December 16, just five days after the announcement, the Times published a retraction. Though he said that God’s “wonderful design also affects everything around us,” he never said that we'll see our animals at the pearly gates “in the eternity of Christ.” Pope Paul VI made the remarks a quarter of a century ago. So Paradise remains closed to “God’s creatures.”
The Church has always had a vexed, somewhat aggrieved relation to dogs and their status as things to be blessed or sanctified. The canine presence as goad or test of faith is peculiar.
Pope Pius IX, who led the Church longer than any other pope, came down hard on animals back in the nineteenth century. Declaring that they had no consciousness, he tried to stop the founding of an Italian chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Though Pope Francis was merely talking about the change of creation in the twinkling of an eye into a “new heaven” and a “new earth,” Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978, comforted a grieving child who had just lost a dog with the words: “One day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”
In 1990, though the Vatican downplayed his words, Pope John Paul II suggested that animals might have souls since they too were created by God’s breath, the “fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit.” But animal lovers would be disappointed again in 2008 when John Paul’s successor Pope Benedict XVI said only humans were granted eternal life. When an animal dies, he said bluntly, it “just means the end of existence on earth.”
Even when a pope declares that when an animal dies, snuffed out like a candle, leaving no trace on earth and certainly no presence in heaven, there’s vehemence in the expression that should give us pause. No doubt animals, and perhaps even dogs, occupy a special place in Vatican history—something like a litmus test or proving ground for each pope in turn. What does all the reckoning with animals tell us about the unique theology of the Church? Could it be that we can learn something crucial about faith by attending to the selves dwelling in or clothed by a non-human body?
It is not just a matter of theological debate about whether or not animals have souls, but something more. Look at all the pictures of popes. You’ve got a pope with a lamb on his shoulders, though it looks more like it is wrapped around his neck; a pope greeting a circus tiger or stroking a koala bear; a pope blessing a blind man’s guide dog or accepting a gift of two donkeys. There’s as much eagerness to appeal to a popular audience of animal lovers as any real concern with animals in the afterlife.
Take the case of the greyhound Saint Guinefort. Well, he wasn’t a saint for long. Not if the Church had any say in the matter.
Here is the legend. In Lyon on the estate of the lord of Villars-en-Dombe this dog saved a baby from a snake, but died for his heroism. When the parents returned to the castle, saw the greyhound covered in blood and their baby not in the cradle, they first blamed, then killed the dog. When they found the baby alive and well, they realized their mistake, and buried Guinefort unceremoniously outside the castle walls.
In “A Faithful Hound," Colin Dickey recounts the story. Once the local peasants heard about the glorious dog and his execrable death, they began to honor him as a martyr. Not only that. They also gave him the name of a saint and brought their ailing children to the dog’s burial site, leaving them there either to be healed or die. Though the Church found ingenious ways to repress the worship of this holy greyhound, his cult survived well into the twentieth century, according to Jean Claude Schmitt who wrote what he calls an “ethno-history” or “historical anthropology” of the dog saint.
As the New York Times points out, the question whether animals go to heaven matters not only to those seeking a further boost to their faith—whether in dogs or God—but also for animal rights activists and, especially, vegetarians, as demonstrated by the response of the Humane Society of the United States and PETA to the pope’s words in the press. We might also suspect that when the Church backtracks on a pope’s message or its possible implications there are always other fish being fried, or interests indulged.
Meat slaughterers, especially the pork industry that routinely cuts off the tails of pigs, crams them into crates where they can’t stand, and kills them by the hundreds of millions, spoke up loud and clear. If pigs have souls, then they are equal to humans in God’s eyes, deserving of the same treatment as humans, which means they shouldn’t be tortured daily in unspeakable ways. But we already know that pigs think, have feelings and deep attachments. So what’s with the emphasis on their souls? When do we commit a sin in dealing with animals? It’s a slippery slope. No sin to kill, slaughter, and consume their corpses, but a sin not to be kind to them. We must kill with kindness, humanely caring for and feeding the animals destined to die horrible deaths just to satisfy our appetites.
But let’s go back to dogs. No mercenary slaughterer stands to lose money in this case—after all, most Catholics don’t eat dogs, do they? And unless you’re in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, China, dogs aren’t strung up in markets like plucked chickens or skinned beef bodies in the so-called civilized world—well, except for Switzerland. So it might still be safe to single out dogs for eternal life along with the blessed among us.
Dans l’au delà tout se touche (In the beyond, everything touches everything else). So Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote in À rebours (Against the Grain, also translated as Against Nature), the infamous “yellow book” that triggered the corruption and the ecstatic flame-out of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. (Huysmans converted to Catholicism eight years after publishing À rebours in 1892.) He knew better than most of us that once you get into the beyond, or ponder on heavenly matters, anything goes: purity and dirt, the way up and the way down, humans and animals are interchangeable, mutually adaptable, or quite simply indistinct.
But you can never be too careful (shades of Pascal), so we’re calling the parish priest for Stella’s first instruction.