Pope Francis set off a fascinating debate about whether animals have souls when he offered consolation earlier this week to a boy whose dog had died.
"One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ," the pope said during a public appearance in St. Peter's Square, according to Italian media. "Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
[Updated 8:36 p.m. PST Dec. 15: According to Religion News Service, the quote attributed to Pope Francis was uttered decades ago by Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978. The widespread misreporting of the pope's remarks was sparked by an ambiguous headline in the Italian daily Corriere Della Serra: "Paradise for animals? The Pope doesn't rule it out." Pope Francis made a much more opaque remark about the afterlife that was misconstrued in reports.]
Having lost my two dogs within three weeks earlier this year, I would love nothing more than to think of them romping around some Elysian field, chasing balls and stinking up the place the way Boston terriers always do. Unfortunately, I don't believe in heaven. Or hell, unless you count the economy sections of most commercial airlines.
So the pope's words, while appreciated, don't shake my world.
And yet, I do take comfort in the humanity of his intermittent, headline-generating pronouncements. Often they seem like rocks dropped unexpectedly into still waters; the ripples go much further than you might expect.
In his short tenure, Pope Francis has called for greater acceptance of gays, unmarried couples and people who have divorced; he's urged compassion for women who have had abortions (though he hasn't budged on abortion itself); he's endorsed the Big Bang theory and evolution; and he has suggested that atheists do not have to believe in God to get into heaven. They just have to obey their consciences.
His latest remarks, which contradict his predecessor's comments on whether animals have souls (Pope Benedict XVI said they did not), set off a theological debate, which in turn has sparked what I find to be a much more interesting philosophical and moral debate about animal rights.
The pope's comments were a hit among groups like the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. For these activists, the New York Times reported, the pope's remarks are "a repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls."
Some of the activists even speculated that the comments could be a boost for vegetarianism. Which, of course, made pork producers squeal.
A spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council told the Times: "As on quite a few other things Pope Francis has said his recent comments on all animals going to heaven have been misinterpreted. They certainly don't mean that slaughtering and eating animals is a sin." All farmers who raise animals, said the spokesman (preposterously in my view), practice "humane care and feeding."
Well, how could your thoughts not wander toward New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the state of his soul?
Last month, Christie vetoed a bill, supported overwhelmingly by the New Jersey Legislature and the public, that would have prohibited farmers from confining pregnant sows in crates that prevent the animals from freely turning around, lying down or standing up.
Few New Jersey farmers raise pigs, and from what I've read the ones who do don't even use the crates. So it would have cost Christie nothing politically in New Jersey to sign the bill, and it would have been a powerful symbolic victory for the humane treatment of animals.
Unfortunately, Christie was playing to a different audience — Republican voters in Iowa, the country's largest pork-producing state. The gestation crates are widely used in Iowa, whose voters will cast the first votes in the 2016 presidential nominating contest. The latest state polls — not that they mean much at this point — show Christie at the back of the pack among potential GOP presidential candidates. Vetoing that bill was a cynical move, and, if I may say so, not very Christian.
Nor do I think Iowa's pig farmers, who immobilize their pregnant sows, should be let off the hook.
And maybe, in the very, very long run, they won't be.
For if the pope is right that people will be reunited with their animals "in the eternity of Christ," then for some callous souls, there might be hell to pay. Eventually.