Another week, another story about Pope Francis saying something a little weird and a little cool. News reports suggested that Francis told a boy that dogs go to heaven.
As it turned out, the current pope was misquoted. But popes in the past have weighed in on whether our pets will go to heaven.
Let's break down what happened.
Did Pope Francis say animals go to heaven?
No, this appears to be based on a misunderstanding.
The New York Times and other outlets originally reported that during a weekly address in St. Peter's Square, Francis, comforting a young boy who'd recently lost his dog, said this: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
But, as David Gibson explains at Religion News Service, this isn't what happened at Francis' November 26 talk. Gibson says a version of the animals-in-Heaven quote was uttered by a pope — but not by Francis, by Pope Paul VI (who died in 1978). CNN explains the confusion.
The confusion may have begun when Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera referred to Paul's quote in a story that carried the headline, "The pope and animals: 'Heaven is open to all creatures.'"
The story itself does not indicate Francis said that. Instead, it refers back to Paul VI.
According to Gibson, part of the confusion might be owed to the fact that Francis was discussing themes related to the environment. In other words, the context of what he was preaching about lent itself well to a discussion of animals.
What about other popes? Have they talked about animals going to heaven?
Absolutely. In fact, Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, already tackled this topic — and reached a conclusion that might anger some dog lovers. For the now-retired Pope Emeritus, an animal's death simply "means the end of their existence on earth," and that they "are not called to eternal life."
The Times points out two other popes who have dealt with this issue.
Pope Pius IX, who led the church from 1846 to 1878, longer than any other pope, strongly supported the doctrine that dogs and other animals have no consciousness. ... Pope John Paul II appeared to reverse Pius in 1990 when he proclaimed that animals do have souls and are "as near to God as men are."
Are the popes allowed to disagree about Catholic doctrine?
Hold your Heaven-bound horses. This is not doctrine, nor is it official teaching of the Catholic Church. If the pope were to speak directly to a young boy in the hopes of comforting him, his statements would need to be seen for what they are, as theologian Charles Camosy told the Times. Francis' pastoral language isn't "really meant to be dissected by academics," he said.
Have other theologians weighed in on this?
According to Brandon Withrow, a religious studies scholar and author, this question has a long trajectory within Christian history. Irenaeus, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis — all of them have taken on the issue in various ways.
Those debates continue today. In this Christianity Today article, three Protestant thinkers tackle the question of whether or not pets will be in Heaven.
What does any of this have to do with the name Francis?
Believe it or not, the two things are somewhat connected.
Since 533, it's been customary for each newly appointed pope to choose his own papal name. The pope's name carries a great deal of significance since it signifies the kind of pope he will be, and what kinds of passions, interests, theologies, etc. will come to define his reign.
The name Francis hearkens to St. Francis — the patron saint of animals. According to legend, the saint had a profound love both for animals and the environment. His fondness for animals is recalled in an anonymous 14th-century text called The Little Flowers of St. Francis. In one passage, he is shown taming a wild wolf that was terrorizing an Italian village, calling it "Brother Wolf." In other passages, he's shown preaching to birds.
What's the bigger story here?
That probably has something to do with reporting in the age of Pope Francis, who is considered to be somewhat of a media darling. As Gibson says, the story about the unconventional Pope comforting a young child with off-the-cuff comments about dogs and paradise "had so much going for it." Not the least of which was Francis' blatant disagreement with his predecessor. "That apparent contrast fits a common narrative pitting the more conservative Benedict against the ostensibly liberal Francis," notes Gibson.
Fascination with a global leader who condemns systemic injustice and corporate greed is not necessarily a bad thing. But, as this episode reminds us, the first priority of journalists needs to be getting the story right.
C'mon, just tell me: is my beloved childhood dog in Heaven?
As Jesuit priest and author Jim Martin told me in an email, to speak about heaven is to speculate. "The only person who can speak about heaven with direct experience would be Jesus, and he didn't say anything about animals," he wrote in an email. "So this falls under the general theological category of 'Who knows?'"
Fortunately, Hollywood just might have the answer: