Pope Francis has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the Big Bang theory. Now, he has endeared himself to dog lovers, animal-rights activists and vegans.
Trying to console a distraught little boy whose dog had died, Francis told him in a recent public appearance on St. Peter’s Square that "paradise is open to all of God’s creatures."
While it is unclear whether the pope’s remarks helped soothe the child, they were welcomed by groups like the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who saw them as a repudiation of conservative Catholic theology that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.
"My inbox got flooded," said Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach at the Humane Society, the largest animal protection group in the United States. "Almost immediately, everybody was talking about it."
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, Camosy said, "In a word: Absolutely."
Citing biblical passages that assert that animals not only go to heaven, but get along with one another when they get there, Francis was quoted by the Italian news media as saying: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures."
Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, the Catholic magazine, said he believed that Francis was at least asserting that "God loves and Christ redeems all of creation," even though conservative theologians have said paradise is not for animals.
"He said paradise is open to all creatures," Martin said. "That sounds pretty clear to me."
Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and an expert on the history of dog-human interaction, said she believed that there would be a backlash from religious conservatives, but that it would take time.
"Historically, 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?"