How great was that? About 50 members of God’s creation and their all-too-human handlers huddled in the shadow of Trinity Church on a rainswept Sunday afternoon for the annual Blessing of the Animals.
Even before the Rev. William Rich incanted a brief prayer over Nikka, our Airedale, I knew she was in heaven. What company; well-behaved dogs and cats abounding! What smells! Two week’s worth of sidewalk socializing collapsed into one half-hour ritual.
The blessing celebrates the Feast of St. Francis, who is regarded by some Christians as the greatest of saints and by some others — heretically — as equal to Jesus Christ. Francis, the name chosen by the newly installed pope, famously preached to the birds and pacified a ravening wolf. His mediation on behalf of animals poses the important question: Do all doggies go to heaven?
Before addressing the question of animals’ souls, we should think about their sentience, meaning do animals think and feel as we do? It’s a fascinating question, posed by the novelist David Foster Wallace in his memorable Gourmet magazine essay, “Consider the Lobster” (“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”), and by philosophers and scientists through the millennia.
Just last week, Emory University neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns published an essay in The New York Times, “Dogs Are People, Too.” Working with a magnetic resonance imaging machine and a remarkably small sample group of canines, Berns cut quickly to his grandiose conclusions: “Dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” he wrote. “We can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals . . . seem to have emotions just like us.”
OK, that is one scientist’s view. What does the church say about animal salvation?
As it so often does, scripture speaks with many voices where animals are concerned. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve enjoy a superior status to the animals; they “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air.” A rather hopeful reading of Genesis infers that the First Couple were vegetarians before the fall, and started feasting on animals only after Eve’s unfortunate encounter with the apple.
In Psalm 104, man and beast seem to enjoy parity in the eyes of God, who “givest [animals what] they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.”
In our time, two popes have spoken to the animals, as it were. In 1990, John Paul II relied on Psalm 104 to note that “animals, too, have a breath or vital spirit received from God. In this regard, man, coming from God’s hands, appears in solidarity with all living beings.” Some interpreters felt that John Paul declared that animal have human-like souls, but he seems to have stopped short of saying that.
In 2002, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, condemned the torment of God’s creatures in industrial farming: Animals “are given into our care, and we cannot just do whatever we want with them,” he said. “This degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Now for the bad news. The Catholic Church teaches that humans have immortal souls, while the souls of animals perish with their bodies. “So far as we understand,” according to Italian theologian Carlo Molari, “now there is no possibility that we will find other creatures in the hereafter.”
Molari, who was commenting on John Paul’s 1990 pronouncement, did hold out hope for the future: “It’s one thing to expound according to the theology and philosophy we have studied, and quite another for us to comprehend divine reality — both future and distant — which remains mysterious and difficult to grasp within our limited capabilities.”
So that’s the bottom line, for now. Doggies won’t be going to heaven. But then again, neither will I.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.