At first, word seeped out quietly and gradually. Then a firestorm of headlines emerged. It appeared that Pope Francis, through various statements, had essentially guaranteed tickets to heaven for all animals. The world was abuzz with delight. Major media outlets reported variations of, "Pope Says All Animal Really Do Go to Heaven!" and "Dogs Now Welcome Into the Pearly Gates!" Even as a Catholic friend and animal advocate challenged the authenticity of these headlines, I too succumbed. It now appears that no such statements were actually made. Yet, as animal-loving Christians experience another season of Advent and Christmas, traditionally marked with hope, joy, and anticipation, many will simultaneously have more questions than answers when it comes to the subject of animals and an afterlife.
Why was this story such a big one?
The majority of American households have companion animals. Many consider them part of the family. The majority of Americans also believe in heaven. Thus, it isn't surprising that many of us would hope to be reunited with our beloved animals after death. Whether there is a place for non-human animals in heaven has been debated in theological circles, however. So last week's headlines may have been a sigh of relief, to confirm what people (especially Catholics) already believe in their hearts, or a glimmer of hope for anyone who had doubts.
Should the faithful dismiss the possibility of animals in heaven?
Countless people of all ages experience grief with the loss or impending loss of an animal. Catholics and other Christians who grew up with an understanding that animals lack an immortal soul, may feel at a particular loss at the thought of being forever separated from the animals that have so deeply touched their lives. They may also feel hesitant to discuss these feelings with clergy. Yet, in his book, Will I See My Dog in Heaven, Franciscan friar Jack Wintz presents a strong case for encouragement. He admits that no one really knows what plans God has in store for any of us in the afterlife, but outlines scriptural, liturgical, and other evidence from the Christian tradition that gives every indication that there may be a place for all creatures in it. It would seem strange, after all, to think that animals, which God took the time to create and give names to, create covenants with, and deem as as "very good," would be excluded in the most perfect goodness in heaven. Father Jack isn't the only Christian leader to address this issue in a hopeful way.
Rick Warren, Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and countless other theologians have reportedly agreed on the strong possibility of some place for our animals in heaven. In an address at Westminster Abbey, the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, posed the most pointed possibility, "That animals will be redeemed strikes me as rather obvious – after all they are morally innocent or blameless, not sinful, violent and wicked like human beings. The real question is not whether animals will be in heaven, but whether any humans will be there as well."
Should the presence or absence of an afterlife for animals impact how we treat animals living among us today? Whether animals go to heaven will always be debated. What is clear, however, is that human beings ultimately control the quality of life for billions of animals in the world we currently know. If Christians can hold steadfast to the belief that animals are not suited for an afterlife, we ought to give every urgent consideration to extending Christ-like treatment to all animals in this life. Consider these sobering realities:
- Millions of animals will be euthanized in shelters this year. The reasons for this are many. However, it is too common for owners to discard healthy and loving animals simply because they are not convenient to have anymore.
- The average male chick's life is ended before it even begins. In commercial hatcheries, which produce the vast majority of our eggs, male chicks are of no value. According the Humane Society of the United States, hundreds of millions of these chicks are killed in U.S. operations each year-often through the most gruesome of methods. Sadly, these animals are only symbols of the billions of other factory-farmed animals who do survive- but only for a slightly larger fraction of their natural lifespans, and often in miserable (yet legal) conditions. Their rate of slaughter and suffering only intensifies with our increased demand for their products.
- Over half of the world's wildlife has vanished. According to World Wildlife Fund, in the past 40 years, destructive human consumption patterns and pollution have accounted for the loss of more than half of the world's wild animals. We are essentially playing God with these creatures.
Christians can and must do better for God's animals. We must always ask if our momentary pleasure is worth their immense suffering. Fortunately, in this most joyous season there is some good news. There are things that we can all do starting today. We can choose to adopt a shelter animal. We can eat with compassion. We can advocate for stronger laws, and we can live more simply and mindfully.
Even more good news exists at the highest levels, as faith leaders are beginning to acknowledge that man's relationship with creation is sorrowfully damaged. With climate change looming, the World Council of Churches, which represents half a billion of the world's Christians, pulled its investments from fossil fuels earlier this year. And in the past several days, Catholic bishops from across the globe called for an end to fossil fuel use. Considering that the world's factory farms rely on massive amounts of fossil fuel energy, it begins to become clear that suffering for some of God's creatures is inevitably connected to the suffering of us all. Many are hopeful that Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on ecology will help Catholics move toward a truly compassionate and respectful relationship with all living beings in creation. But people from all walks of life must act to make a meaningful difference.
As I celebrate the joy of Christ this Advent, I have every hope that all God's creatures will one day live together harmoniously in an eternal world. For now, I keep the words of a friend of mine close at heart, "There is a good reason why animals don't live as long as we do-they get to see God in heaven first. And they provide a firsthand testament of the kind of life we led on earth."