Is there a pet door on the Pearly Gates?
During his weekly address in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis comforted a young boy who was distraught over the recent death of his dog by telling him, "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ," the 77-year leader of the Roman Catholic Church said, according to Time. "Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures."
The statement by the pope was welcomed by animal rights groups and humane societies across the globe, who see it as a repudiation of traditional Catholic teaching dating back hundreds of years that holds that animals can’t go to heaven because they have no souls.
"My inbox got flooded," Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach at the Humane Society, the largest animal protection group in the United States, told the New York Times. "Almost immediately, everybody was talking about it."
Some Catholic scholars, however, have warned that the Pope’s comment was made casually and should not be taken as official Church doctrine. Others point to earlier comments that seem to suggest that Pope Francis has long held beliefs that animals can go to heaven.
"He said paradise is open to all creatures," Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of the Catholic magazine America, told the Times. "That sounds pretty clear to me."
The statement has also stirred up debate between vegan groups and their counterparts in the meat industry – with groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) saying the pope’s statement aligns with the view of heaven as a peaceful place and could convince more Catholics to avoid eating meat.
"It’s a vegan world, life over death and peace between species," said Sarah Withrow King, director of Christian outreach and engagement at PETA. "I’m not a Catholic historian, but PETA’s motto is that animals aren’t ours, and Christians agree. Animals aren’t ours, they’re God’s."
Pope Francis’ statement worried many in the multi-billion dollar meat industry, for whom the idea of Catholics not buying meat – especially those holiday hams and turkeys in the lead up to Christmas – equals a potentially large loss of revenue.
"As on quite a few other things Pope Francis has said, his recent comments on all animals going to heaven have been misinterpreted," Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, told the Times in an email. "They certainly do not mean that slaughtering and eating animals is a sin.”
Mr. Warner quoted passages from Genesis that say man is given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth."
Father Martin couldn't see how the pope's comments could be interpreted as a proclamation about vegetarianism, but, he said, "[The pope] is reminding us that all creation is holy."