Do dogs (and cats and hamsters and fish) go to heaven? The Pope says yes

Do pets go to heaven? It’s a question that has dogged (ahem) theologians in the Catholic Church for years. But Pope Francis, during a recent public appearance, weighed in with his thoughts.

While comforting a little boy whose dog had died, the Pope told him that he might one day be reunited with his beloved pooch. “One day, we will see out animals again in the eternity of Christ,” the Pope stated. “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

This might not sound like a radical assertion (after all, there was a whole movie named All Dogs Go To Heaven), but it set off a storm of controversy. Conservative Catholic theologians have long asserted that animals have no souls, and therefore wouldn’t go to heaven.

Past popes have gone both ways with their verdict. Pope Pius IX, who served from 1846 to 1878 as the church’s leader, asserted that dogs and cats have no consciousness, but in 1990, Pope John Paul II declared that animals do have souls. Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in 2013, indicated in a lecture in 2008 that animals did not have consciousness.

So now theologians are scrambling to interpret Pope Francis’ remarks in the context of past statements. And it’s more complicated than you might think. After all, if animals have souls, why should those animals be limited to dogs, cats, hamsters, and goldfish? Would that mean that eating meat is a sin? How about wearing leather or killing mosquitos? You can see how it becomes thorny.

Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin doesn’t think that the Pope’s remarks should affect Catholic eating habits. “He’s reminding us that all creation is holy and that in his mind, paradise is open to all creatures,” Martin told the New York Times. “And frankly, I agree with him.”

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