A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Of Popes, Pets and Paradise

pope-animals-heaven-4-1121814If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s an afterlife, you’ve probably found yourself making a mental list of the people you’d look forward to seeing there.

This may have led to thinking about the people you’d seriously want to avoid there … which may, in turn, have sparked the question of what happens if you don’t want to spend your afterlife with people who very much want to spend theirs with you.

It all gets quite complicated. And even more so when you bring nonhuman animals into the discussion, too. Many of us like to think of our deceased pets as waiting patiently for us at the proverbial Rainbow Bridge. But what does a mosquito’s paradise look like?

Even more to the point: What happens to the chicken you roasted and ate last week? Imagine having a heart attack right after dinner and being greeted, just a few moments later, by Mrs. Chicken herself, slightly the worse for having been eaten and definitely not taking too kindly to what you just did to her.

Even more embarrassing: Imagine the problem at the Pearly Gates for the high-ups at animal welfare groups who promote “happy meat” and heap praise upon the people who kill animals for profit but do it “humanely”.

Imagine being greeted at the Pearly Gates by the very animals you and your humane society served at a fundraising dinner for high donors.

What does the conversation look like when the future late director of the American Humane Association is greeted by the very scallops, chickens and cows she so eagerly served up at a fundraising dinner for high donors in New York?

What does the President of the Humane Society of the U.S. tell the sheep, pigs and bison who were part of the HSUS’s recent Hoofin’ It Up “farm-to-table guided culinary tour through four Denver neighborhoods”? Or to the millions of mice, pigs, dogs and other animals for whom he didn’t take a stand when they were spending their all-too-brief lives in vivisection laboratories?

Again, it all gets complicated. No surprise, then, that most of our religions and cultures have taken the easier path of decreeing that our fellow animals have no soul, period, and therefore no afterlife, no heaven, just their brief life on Earth. No worries, just use them as you please and make whatever compromises you like because they won’t be giving you acid reflux in paradise.

POPE-NATIVITYEqually, though, heaven just wouldn’t be heaven for many of us without Fluffy and Fido for company. Somewhat lifeless, in fact. And so it was that the whole conundrum reared its head again a couple of weeks ago with Pope Francis supposedly reopening the door to the idea of nonhuman animals going to heaven.

It began when an Italian newspaper reported that Francis had told a boy who was grieving over the death of his dog that “we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ,” and that “paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

pope-animals-heaven-1121814Within a few days, the story had gone around the world and graduated to the front page of the New York Times. Only then did the Religion News Service (God bless them) explain that Francis had never said this, nor anything like it. There wasn’t even a boy or a dead dog!

Instead, in a public address, the Pope had quoted the Apostle Paul who wrote that the End Times are about “the bringing of all things into the fullness of being.” And from there, it turned into a classic party game of Telephone: A local newspaper confused the Apostle Paul (in the Bible) with Pope Paul VI, who had, indeed, once told a boy about seeing our pets in the eternity of Christ, but it ended up in the news as Pope Francis, rather than Pope Paul who’d said it to the boy. And so on it went …

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this is how it speaks to the conflict in our own heads about life and death, Earth and Heaven, and who has a soul (and gets to transcend their physical body) and who doesn’t. That’s because the underlying issue has precious little to do with the afterlife and everything to do with this life and how we relate in this world, right now, to our fellow animals. “We’re superior, we have a soul, and this gives us the right to treat other animals as things that exist for our benefit.”

When we tell ourselves that only humans have an afterlife, we’re affirming that we’re qualitatively different from all other living beings; we’re superior and exceptional; we have a “soul” and they don’t; we’re not really even animals at all. Instead, we’re higher up on some supposed hierarchy of life, and this gives us the right to treat them as inferior things that exist fundamentally for our benefit.

pope-animals-heaven-2-121814It’s a strange kind of logic. I mean, you’d think that a truly spiritual being would treat other living beings with respect and kindness (“Do unto others” and all that good stuff), and that a truly superior life form wouldn’t be going around poisoning the planet, devouring anything on four legs that isn’t nailed down, and driving all life into mass extinction.

But that’s not what we are. And deep down we know that we are animals, just like all the others. So the whole heaven/ afterlife/ exceptionalism thing causes us a lot of cognitive dissonance (discomfort caused by holding two or more contradictory beliefs or values at the same time, or being confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs or values). So we figure that maybe just a few of the other animals (Fido and Fluffy and maybe that nice donkey you met) can come, too. But since the logic still doesn’t really hold up, we need a higher authority to eliminate the cognitive dissonance by decree. And that’s why what the Pope says can be very important.

Most popes have responded by leaving the Pearly Gates firmly closed to our fellow animals. Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 to 1878, was so against the notion of “animals” having a soul (or indeed any consciousness) that he actually fought the people who were founding a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Italy.

On the other hand, according to Religion News Service, Paul VI did say something similar to what Francis was quoted as saying.

John Paul II apparently agreed with Paul VI when he supposedly said that all animals have souls and that they are “as near to God as men are.” But, as with the Francis quote, it turns out that John Paul II didn’t quite say that either. According to Faith magazine:

Translating from the official Italian version on the Vatican website we see that the Pope actually stated: “Other texts, however, admit that animals too have a breath or vital spirit received from God. In this regard, man, coming from God’s hands, appears in solidarity with all living beings.”

… Furthermore, the sentence about animals being “as near to God as men are” simply does not appear in the Pope’s text at all.

John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, was well-known for loving his cat, but was firm in saying that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth.” (Did he perhaps leave a teeny bit of wiggle room in that phrase?)

And his successor, Pope Francis has done nothing to overturn that. What matters is not what happens to our fellow animals in the afterlife, but how we behave toward them in this one.

None of this should be a surprise. Like most other religions, the Catholic Church exists to promote human exceptionalism, which is all about denying who and what we are as mortal animals ourselves.

But living in denial is what’s gotten us all into this mess. So what should matter now is not what happens when our lives are over, but how we behave toward our fellow animals while we really are alive.

Rather than continuing to abuse and exploit them and then offering them the great favor of pretending that they, too, can be part of our immortality fantasies, we might just want to start accepting that we’re part of their world, right now, and that we can learn a lot from the way they live their lives on this one Earth that we all share.

As poet Walt Whitman put it:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they
are so placid and self-contained;

I stand and look at them long and long,
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied — not one is demented with
the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that
lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the
whole earth.
                      From “The Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman