When Pope Francis recently told a child grieving over the loss of his dog, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ," and that "Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures," even a strident atheist such as myself could give the pope a pass in that moment for giving the child a hope that is ultimately false. Unfortunately, Francis' words did not stay in St. Peter's Square where they were uttered and perhaps intended to remain. Rather, they proliferated apace through the media, which since Francis' papal inauguration, has made him the world's first viral pontiff.
The assurance that all dogs do indeed go to heaven prompted one of the more absurd news items the The New York Times has published in this century, as exemplified by this excerpt:
Charles Camosy, an author and professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, said it was difficult to know precisely what Francis meant, since he spoke “in pastoral language that is not really meant to be dissected by academics.” But asked if the remarks had caused a new debate on whether animals have souls, suffer and go to heaven, Mr. Camosy said, “In a word: absolutely.”
Several other opinions were solicited for this article, lest the Times be accused of not getting "the whole story." Among those consulted were representatives from the Humane Society, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Jesuit priest, a professor who's "an expert on the history of dog-human interaction," and, for the contrarian view, the National Pork Producers Council -- the spokesman of which assured the Times that the pope's "recent comments on all animals going to heaven have been misinterpreted."
Clearly though, the Council has not thought through the implications of the pope's remarks, which if true, would mean that pork producers could plausibly claim that slaughtering pigs is a simply the benevolent act of sending them directly to that big sty in the sky. (No doubt, Muslims and orthodox Jews will object to the presence of swine in the afterlife.)
Of course, all of this raises the question: If animals can go to heaven, can they also go to hell? Surely there are any number of creatures out there who have committed unspeakable acts, even excepting those carnivores who must savagely kill those lower on the food chain to survive. I would like to think a healthy number of felines are destined for the hell-fire due to their incessant need to slowly kill mice, birds, and other small creatures seemingly out of sheer sadism, to say nothing of the senseless scratches and bites they administer to their human caretakers. I imagine the afterlife doesn't bode well for the stingray that killed Steve Irwin, or the monkey whose bite ultimately killed Alexander of Greece. And if these animals do go to heaven, by what means are they absolved of their evil deeds?
If these seem like strange questions to entertain, they are only a logical outgrowth of the matter at hand. Positing the existence of souls and an afterlife inevitably results in such absurdities because of their completely unprovable nature. Everyone -- and I do mean everyone -- on planet Earth is equally qualified to render an opinion on what "the afterlife" looks like.
Including this guy: