Being at a parish that co-owns a Catholic School, I often get the chance to address a classroom full of young boys and girls. It’s usually some kind of Q&A session for kids to ask all the questions they’ve ever wondered about the Church and the Faith, but never had the chance to ask. I get all sorts of questions, some of them funny (do you sleep in your priest clothes?), some of what you would expect (why confess to a priest?), and some of them quite insightful (why does God judge us if he loves everyone?). A common question, especially in middle school or younger is this: will my dog be in heaven? This can be quite an emotional topic, even for some adults, but our concern is for the truth – and what is the truth? To be fair, I am unaware of any dogmatic teaching one way or the other, though we can use what we know about animals, humans, and salvation to give us the best answer.
And what is that answer? I usually don’t give it to the kids right away. Even though these children think that they are asking a simple yes or no question about their pets, I am fairly certain that its a bit deeper than that. Without realizing it, they are really questioning whether or not God, and our place with him in heaven, can make us truly happy. For a child, a pet is a source of joy, companionship, and love (adorable, right?). They are deeply invested in their pets because their pets make them happy, so when they ask whether or not their pets go to heaven, they are really asking whether or not they will be happy in heaven.
So, I first express very clearly that they will want for nothing in heaven. In the last class I spoke to, just a few days ago, my first words were: “you will have everything you need to be happy in heaven.” At first, most of the children will assume that means “yes, your dog will be in heaven because it makes you happy,” but I don’t leave it there. Generally speaking, the kids seem to realize that happiness was what they were worried about, even if it doesn’t negate the emotions they are experiencing as I explain further. Even at their young age, most kids have already had the experience of thinking they need something to be happy (like a toy or video game) only to completely forget about it later and find happiness elsewhere. Drawing on that common experience, I remind the children that growing up means we realize that we don’t always need the things we think we need. Indeed, one of the key marks of Christian maturity is detachment from worldly goods. This is not to say that the things of this world are evil – they were created by God after all – or that it is wrong to enjoy them as signs of God’s goodness. I mean only that attachment is a problem because attachment to a particular good thing can blind us to another, greater good. If we insist on believing that only our pets can make us happy, a part of our hearts will remain closed to the infinite good.
Let’s consider the question further in the light of our season of Advent. We are preparing to celebrate coming of Christ to redeem humanity. By taking on our nature and through his death and resurrection, Christ has opened the doors to heaven and provided humanity with the ability to be united to God eternally in heaven. And this brings us to the title question, did Jesus come for our dogs too? As is often the case with Catholic theology, the answer is “yes and no.” Jesus did not become incarnate as a dog or any other animal. He makes no promises to any other animal that they will share eternity with him in heaven. His focus is very clearly on saving human beings through faith in him “For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Jn 3:16. “Everyone” is clearly a reference to persons, not animals and “belief” is something only human beings can have. At the level of metaphysics and philosophy, we know that animals do not have rational souls. Neither are their souls immortal. There is no evidence and no revelation that says animal souls persist after death. Heaven is a supernatural reality and Genesis never indicates that God wants to bring all of creation into heaven, but rather that he created it as it’s own good distinct from heaven. Human beings are brought into heaven by the special intervention of Christ and the workings of grace.
But, it’s not so simple. All of creation fell with Adam and Eve and all of creation is apparently affected by Christ’s redemptive action. As St. Paul tells us “creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” On top of that, Revelation tells us that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth.” Will that new heaven and earth include new animals? Perhaps. But, that still isn’t the same thing as saying that a specific animal will be resurrected and placed in heaven with the people who knew it. If that were the case, would all animals share that fate? Even animals whose owners failed to reach heaven? What determines which animals go to heaven? Is it possible for them also to go to hell? Trying to say your pet goes to heaven starts to lead down a pretty deep rabbit hole… it’s not worth chasing and it’s certainly not worth getting upset enough to leave the Church. The safest route is one of detachment and of trust in the Lord’s ability to give us what we truly need to be happy.
So will our pets be in heaven? Probably not. And even though I can’t point to the council of Trent to say they won’t be, I can say it is important that adult Christians are willing to let go of the idea of spending eternity with their pets as if that was necessary to make them happy. Without rejecting the fact that dogs and other pets are pretty great and give us a temporary joy, we must say that they are not necessary and can even be a distraction from authentic love. So as we look forward to Christ’s return our hearts should be set on the source of Love himself and not on the dim, passing reflection of that love we can glimpse in the affectionate pet that is no longer with us.