VATICAN CITY — Whether animals go to heaven or not has been an eternal question.
And a supposedly definitive answer was reported to have come from Pope Francis.
But it turns out the pope-quote [“One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.”] was something Pope Paul VI reportedly said decades ago, and that the major mix-up in the English press the past week was a classic case of what happens when a whole story is just based on someone else’s headline. This story tracks how the confusion came about.
But people still want to know: What does the church teach about paradise for pets?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that animals are destined for the common good of humanity and give glory to God by their mere existence.
Pope Benedict XVI, who is considered an animal lover, was clear. He talked about baptism as a form of “new life” that is snuffed out in a “second death” by the uniquely human capacity to sin:
Whereas for other creatures who are not called to eternity, death means solely the end of existence on earth, in us sin creates an abyss in which we risk being engulfed forever unless the Father who is in Heaven stretches out his hand to us.
The church teaches that unlike human beings, animals lack rational souls and free will. Free will is the capacity human beings have to cooperate with God’s grace and join in the eternal joy of heaven.
However, and this was Pope Francis’ larger point Nov. 26, because all of creation is loved by God, the day of resurrection means people will be part of a whole resurrected universe, which suggests there may be animals in heaven.
In a column for CNS a few years ago, Father Ken Doyle answered a reader’s question about pets in heaven:
The most honest answer is that we do not know. What our faith does tell us, though, is that the joys of heaven are beyond compare, beyond our poor power even to imagine them. So, it’s safe to say that if in heaven you need your pets to be happy, they’ll be right there with you.
Father John Dietzen gave a thorough response in a CNS column back in 1998 (hat-tip to an attentive reader with an awesome memory):
No one matches St Augustine, however, in the assumption that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature, plants, animals, food, the skies, all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next.
Others have pointed to Noah’s ark as a sign that God intends to save all of creation and the Book of Revelation describes four (strange) animals around the throne of God.