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All Saints’ Day Doesn’t Include Dogs

Who wants to tell people they won’t be spending the hereafter cuddled up with Fido? But it's true—or at least likely—that our pets don't go to heaven.

Like the dyslexic atheist, I don’t believe in dog.

This can be a perilous position, for among those who expect to see their pets in heaven, few other subjects seem to arouse as much passion. I think I’d rather debate Android versus iPhone, or pitch the merits of baby formula to the La Leche League, than tell people that they won’t be spending the hereafter cuddled up with Fido.

Advocates of heavenly hounds tend to make one of two arguments:

1. Pets deserve a reward for all the love and companionship they give us on earth.

2. Reunion with our beloved pets is necessary for eternal happiness. As Will Rogers put it, “If there are no dogs in heaven, I want to go where they went.”

The first argument anthropomorphizes animals: ascribing to them rational souls and the capacity for charity. It suggests that animals, like men, can through the grace of Jesus Christ merit salvation according to their good works.

But animals aren’t able to perform moral acts. They operate according to instinct and appetite, not reason and free will. According to instinct and appetite they might exhibit pleasure in an owner’s presence; they might obey him and protect him; they might provide companionship of a sort; but only in our sentimental imaginations are these behaviors equal to human love, loyalty, and friendship.

Being incapable of moral acts means animals can’t sin, which means they don’t need a savior. Which is good, because their sensitive (as opposed to rational) souls, in St. Thomas’s more or less normative view, do not survive the death of their bodies, having no further or higher end to achieve. So to sum up: much as humans may appreciate their being around, and project onto them human qualities, animals can neither merit nor enjoy eternal life after death. They don’t deserve a reward, or indeed require one.

It’s true that the normally clear-headed C.S. Lewis once mused that some animals may “share in the immortality of their masters,” and he even illustrates the concept in The Great Divorce, but this notion isn’t grounded in any solid theology that I’m aware of. And it wouldn’t be Lewis’s only mistake.

As for the second argument: that this idea is so popular testifies to the depth of affection that people feel for their pets. How else can we account for the belief that the Beatific Vision would be diminished if Fido weren’t there to share it?

I think back to the well-known reading about love from 1 Corinthians 12-13. We tend to focus on how love is patient and kind, which is all well, but my ears prick up at the part about how the “partial” will pass away when the perfect comes; how in heaven we shall see fully, “face to face,” what on earth is visible indistinctly (or as the King James lyrically puts it, “through a glass, darkly”).

This should be a caution to any of us who try to place boundaries or conditions on heaven: whether it’s enjoying this or that earthly delight (must heaven have Mozart? Mountains? Mousse?), or being reunited with our spouse or our hamster. These things are but signs, placeholders. When we are before the real thing, we won’t need or even want them.

Let’s let Lewis rehabilitate himself with this excellent passage from Miracles:

I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer “No,” he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in heaven, will leave no room for it.

The child can’t understand how sex transcends chocolate; neither can we understand how heaven will transcend everything—including our beloved pets.

A final word, one that I hope may preserve me from nasty threats. After the Resurrection we will have bodies and will be fully human. Heaven will be a place perfectly suited to full human happiness, according to both body and soul. Now, we begin with the incontrovertible principle that God’s presence alone is eternally sufficient to satisfy every human longing, but there’s no reason to think that God could not also populate heaven with supererogatory delights—including physical things like food, music, and animals—that in some mysterious way will not compete with the beatific vision (they would lose) but join in it.

The communion of saints suggests that heaven will be a social place, that God’s face-to-face presence will not automatically make us tune out all else. If the heavenly host can commune with one another, perhaps they may also rub Fido’s belly or scratch Mittens behind the ears.

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