Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ask Tony: Did Pope Francis just teach that animals go to heaven? — UPDATED

The short answer: No. The Pope didn't say anything like that; the Pope didn't say anything remotely near that.

This is possibly the most bizarre case of papal malreportage I've seen since I started writing. Somehow, Pope Francis' simple reassertion of orthodox teaching about the future renewal of creation got transmogrified into a declaration that animals go to heaven.

Let's begin with the papal general audience of November 26, as reported by Zenit. The general audience has often been an opportunity for the reigning pontiff to catechize the people directly, as well as to make remarks on current events or give a report on what he's been doing the last week.

Francis began the homily, "In presenting the Church to the men of our time, Vatican Council II was very conscious of a fundamental truth, which must never be forgotten: the Church is not a static, still reality, an end in herself, but is continually journeying in history towards the ultimate and wonderful end which is the Kingdom of Heaven, of which the Church on earth is the seed and the beginning. ... And some questions arise spontaneously in us: when will this final passage happen? What will the new dimension be like, which the Church will enter? What, then, will happen to humanity and to the creation that surrounds it?"

The end towards which the Church journeys, "Paradise", is "[m]ore than a place, it is ... a 'state' of mind in which our most profound expectations will be fulfilled overabundantly and our being, as creatures and children of God, will reach full maturity," said the Pope. "We will finally be clothed with joy, with peace and with the love of God in a complete way, no longer with any limit, and we will be face to face with Him! It is beautiful to think this, to think of Heaven. All of us find ourselves down here, all of us. It is beautiful; it gives strength to the soul."

So far, so good. Then:
At the same time, Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfilment of this wonderful plan cannot but be of interest also to all that surrounds us and that issued from the thought and heart of God. The Apostle Paul affirms it explicitly, when he says that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). Other texts use the image of a "new heaven" and a "new earth" (cf. 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1), in the sense that the whole universe will be renewed and will be freed once and for all from every trace of evil and from death itself. What is anticipated, as fulfilment of a transformation that in reality is already in act since the Death and Resurrection of Christ, is, therefore, a new creation; not, therefore, an annihilation of the cosmos and of all that surrounds us, but a bringing of everything to its fullness of being, of truth and of beauty. This is the plan that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has always willed to realize and is realizing. [Bold and italic fonts mine.—ASL]

This is hardly groundbreaking, transformative thought. The belief that the fulfillment of God's plan will see all creation changed and brought to its final, most perfect form has been present in Christian doctrine from the beginning. But this is something different and separate from the intimate union with God that is/will be the true Paradise for humans.

According to The Guardian's John Hooper, it was the Italian troublemaking journal Corriere della Sera who broached the suggestion that Francis had opened Heaven to animals. Hooper quoted the paper's "Vatican specialist" as writing, "It broadens the hope of salvation and eschatological beatitude to animals and the whole of creation."

Hooper spends the rest of his piece in quoting a theologian, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to pour cold water on the Corriere's enthusiasm, ending his piece with a gratuitous sneer about "those who get to meet St. Peter" finding "a dog ... lifting its leg on the pearly gates." One gets the feeling that Hooper isn't pleased with Christianity's speciesist orientation. It should be clear, however, that Hooper was merely reporting the manner in which Corriere della Sera interpreted Francis' audience, not putting words in Papa Francesco's mouth.

But wait! It gets better! The Italian website Resapubblica.it further embroidered on the "Francis says animals go to heaven" theme: "... Francis explains to the crowd that does not have to be afraid, because 'heaven is open to all creatures, and there we will be invested by the joy and love of God, without limits. It 's so nice to think of being face to face with him who gives strength to the soul.'" At least, this is how Google Translate reproduces the original Italian of the November 29 article, which also says that, "In this regard, Francis drew the image of the Apostle Paul that will appeal to a child in tears for the death of his dog: 'One day we will return to see our animals in the eternity of Christ.'"

Um, no. That's not what the Pope said. Rather, it's the Respubblica author projecting his/her own concerns into Francis' speech. The words the author places in quotations aren't meant to reflect direct quotation but rather the "real message" the author divined from the (presumably) coded text. The convention of casting intentions as direct speech is as old as literature — but strikingly inappropriate in reportage; the author's only excuse is if the piece were intended as commentary.

This must be, then, the source for the Express.co.uk iteration written by Hannah Roberts after Francis was given a gift of two donkeys:

In his weekly audience in St Peter’s Francis quoted the apostle Paul who comforted a child who was crying after his dog died.
"One day we will see our animals again in eternity of Christ", Francis quoted Paul as saying. The Pope added: "Paradise is open to all God’s creatures."

Not only did Roberts not get the original audience remarks right, she screwed up Resapubblica's interpolations. As far as I can discern or substantiate, the only thing that she did get right was the gift of the donkeys; the rest of it is so divorced from reality it could be considered alternate-universe fantasy.

The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named has entirely too much fun tearing Hooper's reportage apart; although I believe he's putting a little more into Hooper's piece than Hooper intended to convey, it's still worth reading. (Friend and fellow blogger Scott Eric Alt remarked a little enviously, "It's so funny that I should have written it.") For our purposes, though, The Blogger makes the only point that needs to be made: Salvation obtains only to those creatures who are capable of sin; and sin obtains only to creatures capable of both abstract knowlege and free will.

Animals occasionally do things which cause us to wonder if they are to some extent capable of reason; certainly, cats give the impression that they're capable not only of deliberation but of malice aforethought. Nevertheless, sin presupposes the capability to distinguish between good and evil, which we can't directly know any animal besides us possesses; a creature incapable of sin is a creature which needs no salvation.

This isn't to say that, when dogs and cats die, such souls as they have are annihilated; the Church makes no such positive statement. In fact, the gospel message is concerned solely with humans, and has absolutely nothing to say about non-humans beyond the assertion that "all things will be made new". The best explanation, I find, comes from the Anglican C. S. Lewis:

It is, of course, the essence of Christianity that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. But that does not prove that man is the sole end of nature. ... The doctrine of the Incarnation would conflict with what we know of this vast universe only if we knew also that there were other rational species in it who had, like us, fallen, and who needed redemption in the same mode, and that they had not been vouchsafed it. But we know none of these things. It may be full of life that needs no redemption. It may be full of life that has been redeemed. It may be full of things quite other than life which satisfy the Divine Wisdom in fashions one cannot conceive. We are in no position to draw up maps of God's psychology, and prescribe limits to His interests. ... The doctrines that God is love and that He delights in men, are positive doctrines, not limiting doctrines. He is not less than this. What more He may be, we do not know; we only know that He must be more than we can conceive. It is to be expected that His creation should be, in the main, unintelligible to us. ("Dogma and the Universe", The Grand Miracle and Other Selected Essays on Theology and Ethics from God in the Dock, pp. 18-19; bold font mine)

Speculative eschatology is fun, if you're given to such pursuits, so long as it's clear you're engaging in speculation rather than positive affirmations. But even the Catholic Church doesn't presume to know the full mind of God or the entirety of His plans for the universe; nor is it necessary for the Church's mission that she know. All we know is that "every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for [Jesus'] sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life;" (Matthew 19:29) and that "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 64:4).

Beyond this, we must trust in the benevolent providence of God, and not make our own salvation contingent on the speculative future of anyone — or anything — else.

So no, Pope Francis did not say that Paradise is "open to all creatures". I can't say it often enough: the mainstream media is completely untrustworthy when it comes to reporting on religion, let alone the Catholic Church. In fact, the mainstream media can barely be trusted to report whether the sun rises in the morning. As nice as it may be to think that our beloved animal companions will meet us again in Heaven when they die, the gospel is only concerned with whether we get to Heaven ourselves.

Furthermore the deponent saith not.

Update: Saturday, December 13, 2014

The always superinformative Jimmy Akin has just posted his own commentary on this particular issue on the National Catholic Register website. Turns out the Paul who comforted the boy whose dog had died was Ven. Paul VI, not the Apostle Paul (really? At this point, I'm skeptical, as is Akin, about the whole "boy and dog" angle; but if it's the case, it may be a point against his cause for canonization). Akin also notes that both NYT and CNN have published their own shamefaced retractions.

Remember, though — you read it here first! (Actually, I'm glad Jimmy posted on the subject, since he has a larger readership than I do, and therefore a larger reach. When combatting misinformation, you need all the help you can get.)

In other news, Eye of the Tiber ("Breaking Catholic news so you don't have to") reports, "Pope Francis Confirms Cats Still Going to Hell".