Dear Father:I am perplexed by the recent talk about dogs going to heaven. I watch the morning shows from New York while drinking my coffee, and everyone this morning seemed happy and excited by what the Pope had apparently said, whether it was accurately reported or not. I must confess that I am getting exhausted trying to keep up with all the new things coming out of Rome. Can you help me understand what is going on? Can I tell my daughter that her goldfish will go to heaven and be with her?Dog-tired in Dodge City
Dear Dog-tired in Dodge City,
I will try my best to answer your questions and help relieve your tired state of mind. I, too, was surprised to see an article on the Pope’s supposed statement about dogs going to heaven on the front page of the New York Times, a newspaper certainly of record and influence but not known to care too much about papal statements.
No less than the editor of America, Father James Martin, a Jesuit and therefore having a special relationship to the Pope, seemed unconcerned with the reality or not of what the Pope said or not, and took the opportunity to understand the statement as saying that “God loves and Christ redeems all of creation.” Therefore, according to Fr. Martin, unconcerned with accuracy but interested in spreading out the new doctrine, “He said paradise is open to all creatures. That sounds pretty clear to me.”
Not to be outdone, the Times quotes Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., and “an expert on the history of dog-human interaction”, as saying that she believed that there would be a backlash from religious conservatives, but that it would take time. “The Catholic Church has never been clear on this question; it’s all over the place, because it begs so many other questions,” she said. “Where do mosquitoes go, for God’s sake?” As another response, animal rights activists are heralding the advent of a “vegan world”.
Dear Dog-tired, bear with me if I seem to meander about the topic, but we are dealing with complex issues here. What do Catholics believe about animals having souls? At the risk of being simplistic I think we can say that all life comes from and is dependent on the life-giving Spirit of God. When we talk about animals, we remember that the very word “animal” comes from the Latin word, anima, which means “soul”. So that in a sense animals like dogs and cats, even fish, have souls, but they are not rational souls and are not immortal. This is what Pope John Paul II was talking about when he said in a weekly audience in 1990 that the animal kingdom participates in the breath of life that comes from God, and that therefore animals must be loved and respected as God’s creatures. But it is man alone who is made in the image and likeness of God and who is destined to that immortality that will be a participation in the joys of heaven or the pains of hell.
Now I must return to the “praxis of mercy”. It would seem that this is how dogma will develop in the future. In the past, dogma developed as an ever- deeper understanding of the Faith delivered once and for all to the Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way the Church’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity developed during the centuries of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Recent definitions of dogma like the Assumption of Mary were always understood as what the Church always believed even if not explicitly, and Pope Pius XII’s definition of that dogma in 1950 was the formal recognition of that truth that was “ripe” for definition. The Pope cannot create new dogmas. He can only define what is the faith of the Church to be believed by all. I hope that makes sense to you.
But now it seems that new dogmas will come from things said to people by clerics in the context of pastoral responses to pastoral situations. When I read the Lineamenta for the Synod on the Family in October 2015 (that is the official document that summarized the last Synod and is the working document for the full Synod) that was published by the Vatican just a few days ago, I was struck and mystified by the following statement with reference to the appended questions addressed to the Bishops’ Conferences. Please know that this is my own translation from the Italian, that beautiful (but not understood by many) language now being the official language of the Catholic Church.
“The proposed questions that follow, which have an express reference to the point of view of the Relatio of the Synod, are intended to facilitate that realism that is necessary in the reflection process of each bishop, thereby avoiding responses that can be produced by a framework and perspective that leads to a pastoral praxis that is merely an application of doctrine.”
Now for most priests pastoral praxis, the response to a pastoral situation of any type, is based on the teaching of the Church. To a family grieving over the death of a loved one, the priest offers words of solace and comfort based on what the Church believes about death: our sure hope that in faith in Jesus Christ that we too will rise with him to eternal life. To a teenager confused by the atmosphere of sexual promiscuity that surrounds him or herself, the priest offers counsel based on the Christian understanding of human sexuality and why purity and continence are virtues. And he does this in the context of being a pastor, always willing to understand where this person is in relationship to his faith, the Church, to his understanding of the issues.
The Relatio and other Synod related documents seem to think that “meeting people where they are” and “walking with them on the road” is a new way of being pastoral. Perhaps the priests and bishops who write these things have little pastoral experience, being occupied with writing documents. But for most priests I know this is the norm in pastoral praxis. There seems to be a straw demon invoked in these documents and in Synod chatter: that of the “traditional” priest who just reads the teaching of the Church to those suffering sinners to whom he ministers and shows no pity and offers no mercy. There may be some of these, as well as priests who spend most of their time in the Confessional telling people that they have not sinned, but many priests have a good pastoral sense of where people are and their obligation to walk with them in the hope of bringing them closer to Christ and His Church.
Dear Dog-tired-- by this time you must be tired of reading this, but the conclusion is near! The heart of the matter is this: the problem is that of pastoral praxis in which the cleric says silly things to people in order to make them feel better at that moment. By silly I mean things that have no basis in Church teaching: like priests who tell the family of someone who has died that he or she is in heaven right now; like priests who tell an anguished teenager confessing a problem with masturbation that it’s a normal part of growing up and don’t worry about it; like priests who get annoyed at those who confess missing Mass on Sunday because that is “legalism” and the “God of love” would never see that as a sin.
This is the problem, and apparently there are those who took part in the Synod who want to sunder the intrinsic relationship between doctrine and pastoral praxis. And the result of this will be, as I said earlier: the development of dogma from a pastoral praxis in which “mercy” triumphs over Church teaching, especially when that teaching is “hard”. The Church “going outside herself”, the “peripheries”, “merciful love”, “the attitude of Christ”: this is all part of the New-speak of the moment. And please note that the example the Lineamenta gives as the “attitude of Christ” is when our Lord says to the woman caught in adultery: “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). But in quoting this they forget Who said it: the Divine Redeemer of the world. And only He could say this. Not a priest, not a bishop, and yes, not even the Pope.
Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla