Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Do Animals Go To Heaven?

The following was written by our friend, Gregory Benton, and is reprinted  from his spiritually rich and beautiful Piddingworth blog. His essay offers great comfort and hope for all those who have ever loved a pet.
 The relationship between humans & their pets.

Saint Francis of Assisi
'I'm sick and tired of people treating their pets like chldren', the talk-show host huffed, in response to a caller who spoke of taking their dog with them 'everywhere they go'; including dinners at friends. 'Dogs are not children. Leave them at home. The dog wasn't invited!
Of course, one could equally argue that people oughtn't to take their children with them to dinner parties unless they too are invited.
The confusion really is more of the nature of the relationship between the pet owner and the pet rather than of proper manners when replying to a social invitation. Of course, it would be discourteous to one's hosts and any other guests if one arrived with Fido or Pussy unannounced. Nevertheless, it's not Fido or Pussy's fault that their keepers have bad manners. And that leads to an important reality about animals that many either forget or simply do not understand: animals are innocent creatures!
It is perhaps ironic that, in a materialistic age, that in most respects does not recognise the metaphysical nature of creation, allows for things like 'animal rights' or 'pet cemeteries' with an allusion to 'pet heaven'. It is fairly common to find people who deny the nature and reality of their own souls but who 'feel' that their pets will go to 'heaven'. Indeed, it's quite possible in the Creator's scheme of things, that Fido might well be included in the beatititude of joy in heaven whilst his owner is left in the 'doghouse'.
Soul Creation

'Anima' in Latin means 'soul'. All animals are creatures with souls...including humans. This is where the animals 'rights' people find their authority toward advocating that all animals be accorded something akin to the United Nations declaration on Human Rights. Bunnies would, therefore, have a legal right to food, shelter and, one supposes, universal health care run by some union.
While the sentiment and passion of most of these advocates can be appreciated in the context against 'cruelty' or 'inhumane' treatment of animals, they too fail to recognise the distinction between animals and humans who, while both having souls, have differing natures. In the Judaeo-Christian + Hellenistic philosophical understanding of 'being', the soul of a cat, while bearing many of the characteristics by degree of the human soul, does not include the most distinguishing characteristics of human beings, namely, the capacity for reason and free will.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Genesis (1.21,24) speaks of God 'breathing' over creationand making 'living creatures'...'chay nephesh' or living souls...including birds, sea creatures and, one can assume, Fido, the wolf, and Pussy, the tiger. Further on, in the older story of creation in chapter 2, we see that human beings are 'living creatures', made, with the 'breath of life' in the 'image and likeness of God'. This does not refer to the likeness one sees in a mirror or photograph (contrary to the claims of the narcissistic set) but rather to the nature of God Himself and interpreted as a likeness of God's perfect capacity of knowledge, reason, freedom and love.
To everything there is a purpose under heaven

So, while humans and all the other animals share a commonality of 'soul' they do not share the same 'nature'. Only human beings are 'persons' marked with an immortal destiny: the beatitude of the joys of heaven. The rest of creation exists to glorify the creator in this world and to serve the advancement of life of the human beings who inhabit the earth; for human beings have 'dominion' over all the animals, birds and fish. It should be noted here that human beings are omnivores, i.e., their food consists both of veggies and flesh.

Over time, it is apparent that human beings, having both multiplied and gone forth, have along the way adapted some animals, birds and fish to serve a variety of 'domestic' purposes; including food, entertainment, security, and companions or 'pets'. Indeed, it is clear that those animals that humans have chosen to be their pets are not generally eligible for the table or barbeque.

Some sensibilities are aghast at the thought of any animal as food while others eschew the thought that only 'cute' animals are eaten. Personally, the Chinese delicacy of 'dog' and 'cat' makes me wince but perhaps that is because of the somewhat elevated place those animals have in Western societies; particularly in English culture where, for some, the Dog or Pussy is higher than humans (a somewhat neurotic distortion to say the least). All animals are worthy of due respect within creation and according to their purpose. They can be hunted and bred and used according to the just needs of humanity but, in this respect, must also not be shown cruelty or permitted neglect, suffering and undo pain at the hands of those who have dominion over them.

Attachment & The Family
There is, however, a rather crucial distinction to be made in the specific purpose and destiny between animals in general and animals as 'pets' that does, indeed, lead to many pet owners treating, responding-to and generally regarding their 'pets' as if they were 'children'. It is the matter of the 'attachment' of souls. This degree of attachment qualifies the relationship between humans and other animals; including pets.

Any dog or cat that does not 'know' humans but lives according to it's animal nature in the wild, while still having it's dignity of place within creation, is neither acquainted with nor the recipient of human love, kindness, communication, recreation. When an animal becomes a pet, it learns a 'higher' response to it's innate ability to live and survive and does so through the progressive and deepening attachment it shares with human beings. This attachment does not change the nature of the animal itself. A dog is still a pack animal like the wolf, it's cousin, but, as a pet, it belongs to a human pack and responds to the human pack's human sounds, food, activity, all of which becomes the context for the animal's natural inclinations and needs. It is an animal soul mingling with, not just other animal souls out on the prowl, but souls made in the image of God. It's responses, therefore, are trained according to the higher purpose into which it has found it's place in life, i.e., recreation and companionship and the security of a human family. While it cannot by it's nature give 'love', it is capable of receiving 'love' from humans who possess the capacity by their nature. As it continually engages with a loving owner or pack, the pet learns to respond in a way that reflects the choices, love, kindnesses of that owner or pack. For dogs and cats, there is a natural hierarchy into which they fit and is determined by the behaviour and response of those in their 'family'. The 'top dog' or 'Alpha' is the one that sets the course and the pet generally establishes it's 'territory' and 'behaviour' according to Alpha's lead and discipline. Of course, the obverse is also true: where, if an owner or pack family is cruel, unloving, unkind, neglectful, the animal will learn to respond, according to it's animal nature, to such an unhealthy attachment. In the latter case, the 'pet' becomes fearful, estranged, unhappy and will undoubtedly suffer considerably.

Innocency...'like children'

It is not surprising, then, that a 'loving, kind, caring, responsible' pet-owner might well communicate with and engage their pet as if they were children. Children, and I mean those generally before the age of 'reason' (between age 6-8) when they become 'conscious' of right and wrong, et al, are innocent; their capacity to think and choose is not yet developed to the extent of being 'responsible' for what they say or do. Hence the poignant teaching of Christ that 'except you become as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven' and 'let the children come to me for of such is the kingdom of heaven'. There seems to be a direct relationship between 'innocency' and 'heaven' for, with innocency, there is an absence of 'evil'....and no evil can either enter or experience the beatitude of heaven. Animals, in their own 'innocency' like human children, are, though it does not belong to them per se, 'reminders' to us of both the vocation and destiny of human beings; the call to pure joy and love and the eschewing and absence of evil. It is little wonder, then, that in a relatively healthy, happy, loving family, a pet brings joy as it responds to the pure and good desires that are shown it. Because it is an innocent creature, many owners 'speak' to them as they would an 'innocent' child with childlike language. That may be unnerving to some but there are also a lot of people who, for whatever reason, 'just don't like children' either.

A pet is not a child but, as I have illustrated, is like a child by analogy in the context of a family. A pet does not have the same 'dignity' of a child made in the image of God but it's 'dignity' as an animal, unlike the chicken destined for a plate, is enhanced through it's on-going relationship and attachment with those who are made in the image and likeness of God: namely, us.

The use of anthropomorhpisation

Outside the analogy, the anthropomorphisation of animals in popular culture, where fictional animals, like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and a whole host of other 'characters' in literature, cartoons, and film have increasingly been shown with 'human' abilities such as being able to walk upright, talk, sing, dance, and reason. In its own context, whether as entertainment or in good story-telling, it's fine, but it is just plain wrong for this kind of fantasy to be applied to one's own pets. With Fido or Pussy, it betrays an appropriate and healthy attitude, understanding and respect for animals as animals and humans as humans and can lead to a confusion in the owner-pet relationship. Certainly, many owners speak to and generally regard their pets as if they were speaking to or engaging with 'children' and this would seem to be normal within the limits of the analogy. The human abiltiy to 'bark' or 'meow' according to a particular animal's nature, is not generally very good. We communicate as humans, according to our own abilitiesand within our own cultural context not as dogs or cats or budgies. The animals respond to our sounds not our vocab...just like little children do!

Ridiculously pretending that our pet is human is radically different from humanly and naturally engaging our pet. If we forget that our pet is an animal, even a trained animal, it could confuse the animal and lead to trouble for anyone who tests it's nature. Letting a stranger or a child try to take away a dog's bone, for example, will usually result in an unpleasant response!

There is a mutually beneficial reality between responsible humans and pets. For them, their existence on this earth, beyond the natural struggle to survive, is much more secure, healthy, and even pleasant because of their inclusion in a human family. For humans, there is the joy, pleasure, challenge and delight that an interesting and innocent creature brings. Because they are 'souls', they do have the ability to 'attach' in a way that, contrary to some experience, an owner is to one's car. So great is the attachment for many that the owner and the pet become 'inseperable' in their identities; all through the capacity of the human and the depth of human experience that they share with the pet.

This is why the death of a pet, while not the same as the death of a child, can be, to some degree, like it. There have been stories of some owners who have leapt into freezing water and even died in an attempt to save their pet. Similar stories are told of pets that have 'saved' their owners or families from danger, like fire or drowning, through 'Lassie-like' feats. Some would argue that the situations are exactly the same; that each is an act of 'courage' and 'love' of one for the other. Again, by analogy, yes; but not in fact. Only a human being could choose to sacrifice itself out of love for a pet. For the pet attempting to save it's master, it is a matter of the natural instinct of survival for itself and the family 'pack'...wherein one finds security, food, shelter (den). A dog food company awards pets for their 'heroism' when such events have occurred and indeed it is a kind of 'heroism' but only by analogy. The true heroism comes from a conscious freedom of choice where one is aware of the consequences of that choice. This becomes blurry to many who have some need to anthropomorphise animals. The dog food company should be recognising pet owners who save their pets...or die trying to. They are real heroes.

Will my pet go to heaven?

The question often arises: 'Do animals go to heaven?' It continues to amaze me that many who ask this question are not people who are particularly 'religious' or have any conscious desire for heaven themselves. It would seem that the question finds its source more in sentiment and the fear of loss of attachment, than in any particular notion of an afterlife.

Of course, most of what I have written, based as it is, on the Judaeo-Christian, Hellenistic and perhaps especially Catholic understanding of 'souls', human and otherwise, would be considered nonsense to those who don't share that understanding. Many today have incorporated a secular, 'materialistic' view of life where the the things that are 'unseen', like souls, God, heaven, do not exist or, if they did, do not matter. Similarly for them, the characteristics of 'love', 'reason', 'free will' are materially-based evolutions and 'love', in particular, relegated to emotion.

From the Catholic Christian point of view, heaven, our beatitude (blessed joy), is the original and chosen destiny for all human beings. God does not want us to die forever but to live, now and forever, in the company of angels, saints and eternal love with Him. Somewhere along the line in human history, human beings sinned (rebelled against God), 'fell' from our natural state of grace and therefore lost our immortality. Death became our subsequent 'end'; without a 'get-out-of-jail card'. Since then, we have learned that God loved the world he created so much that He chose to become one of us, his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who sacrificed Himself for us, to the end that all who believe in Him will not perish or die forever but everlasting Life...immortality...heaven and beatitude. Any human soul that is changed by God's Spirit and therefore changed from one marked for death to one marked for life has, by God's grace alone, a hope for life and a promise of joy in heaven where all dead human beings shall be raised to a 'New Life' a 'New Creation'. We believe that comes to us through the anointing and cleansing of Baptism as Christ and living a life in communion with God.

So, the answer to the question must be qualified a bit because not every pet-owner out there has received the gift of eternal life through faith and, not being in communion with God according to the law of God, barring some miracle, will not know heaven as they should.

Animals, on the other hand, were never created for immortality. Their destiny is not, by nature, heaven or beatitude whether referring to the steer that provided last Sunday's roast beef or Fido & Pussy at home. Their destiny belongs to this world according to nature and the dominion of mankind. There is no specific teaching by the Church on animals going to heaven but, as my old friend, the late and distinguished theologian, Fr. John Hardon, SJ, has suggested, it is possible to take note of both a possibliity and probablity according to the Church's understanding of souls and of heaven itself.

It is not unreasonable to find some comfort and conclude a hope that our pets, by their attachment to an immortal soul, will have a share in eternity with that soul according to the grace of God bestowed. Animals themselves are innocent and their souls therefore not corrupted by evil as humans are. It is certainly possible that such innocence, embraced in joy by the spiritual love of a human being destined for heaven, will contribute to and become one with the 'joys of heaven'. God may well bring animals to the New Creation where they may be with all our creaturely joys to...enjoy! Our happiness begins in this life but finds its fulfilment in the next. It is certainly not improbable that the true happiness we now know, including that with our pets, will be known in even greater light and understanding in the life of the world to come.

Rev. Gregory Benton
from an original article published in 1998
 1996 - 2010
The following was written by Greg Benton for his book about The Vicar, his black lab.
'The Vicar', a black Lab, started his life out as a mascot and therapy dog at a boarding school, but played his most important role as 'full-time companion' and inspiration to Greg Benton, his Master. He and The Vicar were best pals for nearly fourteen years.
The Vicar is now gone from sight. His dog's life on earth brought happiness to many and even more to me. His body has been cremated and the ashes put into an oak urn with instructions that they are to be buried with me when my own time comes. We remain inseparable.

It is very often asked if pets, like The Vicar, have souls and if they will 'go to heaven'. The Church says very little about this specifically but there is a positive view, including my own, that is consistent with the doctrine of the Catholic Church and which I also share with the great C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). Holy Scripture, in the book of Genesis, reveals that God made animals and humans with a 'living spirit' (in Hebrew, nephesh); the breath of life itself. This is the soul, (in Latin 'anima'). It refers to the very nature of a living creature. In the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and his philosophy of 'being' called metaphysics, we know that, whilst animals and humans are both souls, they are of a different nature. Even trees and plants have vegetative souls; as the Prince of Wales, who talks to his plants, would undoubtedly remind us. Not all of these souls, however, share the same destiny.

An animal's soul is sentient; capable of consciously responding to external sensations and able to perceive, learn and communicate. It is, however, a mortal soul and, as St. Thomas taught, not created for any world beyond this earthly one. The human soul, on the other hand, is unique. Of all earthly creatures, only humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Like God, we are persons, our soul is fully rational (able to reason), and with free will, able to know and choose between good or evil. God is pure love and only we humans are truly able to love like Him for the sake of the highest good; even to willingly sacrifice ourselves for another (caritas). Like God, we too can remember by freely recalling the past into the present (anamnesis).

Humans can know and love God in a way that no other earthly creature can. Our soul is immortal. We were meant, from the very beginning, to live forever in union with God in the life of the world to come; Heaven.

This is the deepest joy and hope for a Christian. It is the destiny for those faithful who choose, in this life, to live in communion with God. Through sanctifying grace, God promises us life eternal in company with the angels, the saints and all of those dear departed souls to whom we ourselves are joined in love; for as St. Paul says, 'nothing (not even death) can separate us from the love of God' in Christ.

It is because heaven is what it is and we humans are what we are, that our pets may well have a share in our immortality. Even though most animals do not come into contact with human beings, our pet's whole life is shaped by us, the persons with whom they live. We become truly attached and their souls are indelibly marked within our living memory.

C.S. Lewis said that, in this life, our pets can become almost an extension of who we are. Their mortal souls' association with our immortal souls elevate them to a higher kind of life than they would have had on their own. Recent studies in canine behaviour do lend some scientific support to this idea; especially concerning the depth of the conscious sensitivity and awareness in dogs 'In this way,' Lewis concluded, 'it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.'

That's rather brilliant.

My old friend, the late Fr. John Hardon, SJ, has answered that it is indeed possible and even probable that our pets, who are pure and innocent, and a part of our happiness in this life, will share with us the joy of eternal life if only because that is part of God's plan for the whole of his creation.

These are all comforting thoughts.

Gregory Benton
from ‘The Vicar of Piddingworth’

1 comment:

kkollwitz said...

A gracious, thoughtful, and mercifully unsentimental essay.

You'd be surprised at how often I must answer these questions in my 6th grade class; but then again, every sincere question is a great teaching opportunity.