Hot topic time.
This seems to be an issue that really really interests people. I get it; I have two dogs of my own and I love those sweet and smelly fur-babies to pieces. They are definitely a part of our family. I don’t know how people do it when they leave their pets behind in the cases of hurricanes and other natural disasters; Chris and I even got in a fight about what we would have done if we would have had to make that choice a few weeks ago. We still haven’t reached an agreement on that issue, but we do have a plan if there’s ever a fire in our apartment (we’d use the bed sheets to lower the dogs as close to the ground as possible).
During my teaching years, I had students who had been told by many former religion teachers, some of them religious sisters, that there will be no animals in heaven. This upset a lot of them, and made one of my more sensitive students extremely upset. Since she strongly believed her deceased pets were in heaven, and disagreed with what this religious sister was teaching her, she wasn’t sure if she could be Catholic anymore since she didn’t believe in all the teachings of the Church.
While I understand why these teachers took the stance they did, their approach and often their insistence on the matter led to a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, most of my students believed that this was actual Church teaching… especially since it had come to them from a religious sister. Surely she would know, right?
Here’s the thing: the Church has never made a definitive statement on this matter. Popes have stated and written their opinions, but no official doctrine has ever been declared. Among Theologians, this issue is heavily debated and almost evenly split when it comes to taking sides on the issue. There are valid points on each side of the debate and I’d like to walk through them with you now.
Do Animals Have Souls? (warning… this gets a little “nitty-gritty” with philosophy; read it slow if you have to…)
In order to answer the question, one must have an understanding of what the soul is. According to the Catechism, “…the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person…” (CCC 363) which obviously leaves some gray area. The ambiguity has lead theologians and philosophers attempting to fill in the gaps of understanding. The most accepted position (that is in congruence with the teaching of the Catechism) is that the soul is the explanation for life. In other words, things that are alive have a soul. It is the soul that animates the body, and makes a live body distinct from a corpse. The soul explains life in the same way that gravity explains falling. If this is the case, than humans are not the only creatures that God created with souls. Both plants and animals also experience the sensation of “being alive.” Thus, they must have souls.
Despite this truth, there’s no denying a difference exists between plants and animals, plants and humans, or animals and humans. Their lives are metaphysically different. If there is a diversity in the type of lives, it is only rational to conclude that there is also diversity in the types of souls.
In the realm of philosophy, it is supported that there are three different types of souls:
- The Nutritive Soul is alive, but does not have the capability to move from place to place on it’s own. This is the type of soul that plants possess.
- The Sensitive Soul has capabilities a step above the nutritive soul. The sensitive soul has the ability to “sense” things and to move about freely. This type of soul belongs to the animals.
- The Rational Soul continues the pattern, having capabilities beyond that of the sensitive soul. The rational soul, in addition to sensing and moving, also possesses an intellect and a will. All humans possess a rational soul.
Both the nutritive and the sensitive souls are material (since their mental life only involves only material realities) , while the rational soul is spiritual (since the mental life of humans extends beyond the material to immaterial realities). This is an important distinction, and it’s also the basic root of the whole argument: is a material soul eternal?
This is where many theologians will draw the line and say no.
This is also where I disagree with them.
A New Heavens and A New Earth
There’s a book entitled, A Travel Guide to Heaven that I have mentioned in a previous post. The author, Anthony DeStefano spends an entire chapter discussing this very matter. While other theologians are concerned that human existence is trivialized by the idea of animals living in heaven, DeStefano asks the question, “how so?” He points out that the Bible is full of heavenly imagery, and in those descriptions it is extremely clear that there is going to be lush vegetation. Jesus obviously didn’t die to redeem plants… yet somehow, they’re a part of heaven. If plants are there, and humans are there… why wouldn’t animals be there too?
Animals are a huge part of the story of Salvation History… think of Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Whale, The 10 Plagues, Daniel and the Lions, and the Birth of Jesus (just to name a few). Besides that, the book of Revelation is full of imagery that includes animals. Christ himself is symbolized by both a Lion and a Lamb. Thus, DeStefano poses the question, “…if animals have played such a critical role in God’s revelation up until now, why wouldn’t they continue to play some sort of a role in heaven?”
It is logical that God is going to use the same pattern for the animals that he has used for the plants and for humanity. He made all things new, restoring and glorifying his creation. At the end of times, scripture tells us there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21)… there’s no reason why this new earth could not include the animals. Philosophically, it makes more sense that they would be there.
We Won’t Known For Sure Until We Get There
As much as I hate to say it, there is no definitive answer on this matter, and there probably won’t be until the end of time. Based on the points I outlined above, I think the chances are very high that our pets will be with us in heaven.
However, if they aren’t, things will still be okay — I will still be happy. You know why? All the things I love about my dogs, are actually depictions of God’s personality, and in heaven, we’ll be spending eternity with God. The spunk, sweetness and lack of fear possessed by my little Beesly illustrates God’s ability to be firm, bold and tender all at the same time. Similarly, Monday’s obedience, protectiveness and unwavering loyalty reminds me of God’s faithfulness and devotion.
These things I love about my dogs are actually qualities that God himself possesses. So an argument could be made that I wouldn’t actually miss my dogs if it turns out that animals wont be there. That being said, God uses them to bring so much goodness into the world. They not only remind me of God’s goodness, but they challenge me to be more virtuous… to be patient, active, joyful, and accepting of others, just as they are. Their very presence brings joy to everyone they meet.
While I truly believe that I would be 1000% happy in heaven if God was the only being I interacted with for all eternity, I still think the chances are very high that animals will indeed be with us in heaven. Based on the fact that God uses them to bring so much goodness, truth and beauty into the world, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t continue to use them to do something similar in heaven.
What do you think? We’d love to hear from you!