Thursday, July 30, 2015

Do All Dogs Go to Heaven? How Losing a Pet Challenged My Views on the Afterlife

I love dogs. I love all animals, really, but dogs hold a special place in my heart. Anyone who grew up with a pet can easily understand why animals can hold such an important and profound place in our lives.

Pets do a tremendous service to mankind that comes in all forms. We often hear heartwarming stories of service dogs giving people with disabilities a sense of independence. Military veterans who suffer from severe PTSD are given a chance to heal through service animals. Stories about cats and dogs helping children with mental disabilities circulate through social media on a regular basis. Beyond that, every pet owner has a story about some act of joy his or her pet brought into his or her life. Many of us cannot think of our pets without smiling or remembering something they did recently. 

I often read these stories, cry for an hour, and have to tell people at work that my eyes are red from allergies and not from reading sweet animal stories when I should be answering client emails. Reading about the tremendous love our pets have for us and seeing it with my own pets proves just how much God loves us.

The Church teaches that animals do not have immortal souls, and therefore do not have a place in Heaven. It is statement that many Catholics, myself included, struggle to accept. It is not stated anywhere in the Bible that the soul of an animal goes to Heaven after its time on Earth is complete, although Scripture does make multiple references to animals, many of them metaphorical.

For the past four months, I've been thinking a lot about this topic. Back in March, I said goodbye to my little Yorkshire Terrier, Tiger. Tiger had been a huge part of my life for sixteen years. That's sixteen years of fetch, butt-wiggles, cuddles, kisses, silly antics, and so much love packed in a little, eleven-pound dog. When he was a puppy, Tiger would greet me every morning with a series of happy little sneezes and paw dance and then roll over for a belly rub. In the last two years of his life, he would weakly raise his head from his blanket and wag his tail as you came over to him to say hi. All his life, he loved to lie on my chest and tuck his little head under my chin and just sleep. I would read a book, and he would snooze on my chest. He would only do that with me. Every little glance, even when he was annoyed, was always filled with love.

How can you not see the love in his sweet eyes?
He was my first pet, and the first real loss of family that I have ever experienced. When he grew a large lump on his neck that turned out to be aggressive lymphoma, my family made the decision to not prolong his suffering. We were all broken up about it. To be honest, the weeks that followed are a complete haze. I just know that every night I watched a dog movie and I went on a first name basis with the liquor store guy.

Once the initial cloud of grief cleared, I found myself wondering if I would ever see Tiger again. It seemed cruel that God would create these amazing creatures that enrich our lives, but our time with them is so short. You can argue that my time with Tiger was the gift from God, which I can agree to, but it almost seems to fall short. Tiger was such a big part of my life; he was closer to me than anyone outside of my immediate family. How is it possible that someone I loved so much won't be there to greet me when my time to come home to the Lord comes?

Animals are different from people in the sense that they truly have nothing to hide. They run on their base emotions and don't have an ulterior motive. In the case of dogs, their entire world revolves around their family. Take one look into your dog's eyes, and you can almost physically feel the love they have for you. Honestly, that to me is as much proof of God's love as anything.

He put these amazing creatures onto His beautiful Earth and gave them the ability to love humans, His greatest creation. This is an animal that is completely different from us, but God chose to give us all the common gift of love. How incredible is that?

When I spoke about my whole dilemma with a priest at my parish, who is also an animal lover, he directed me to Ecclesiastes 3:18-21:
"I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?"
To paraphrase the priest: "We don't know what exactly waits for us after we leave this world. The only thing we know is that we will be greeted by the warmth of God's love. Who's to say for sure that the animals who taught us that love won't be there as well?"

He's absolutely right. We have no idea what exactly awaits us when our time on Earth ends. That thought is as comforting as it is frightening.

In the end, I'm going to choose to believe that I will see Tiger again. That when my time comes, I'll see him running across the Rainbow Bridge, along with any other pets that I will know and love. That belief may not make me a perfect Catholic, but I'm okay with that.

Tiger, I'll see you soon. You're a good boy.

I'll leave off with what the Catechism states about animals:
Respect for the integrity of creation
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image.
Bonus: This is a picture of Tippy, my Staffordshire Bull Dog/Pit Bull Mix. Everything she does is full of love.


  1. This is a lovely post, and I'm glad to have happened upon it through the Twitter. Let me ask about this one remark:

    The Church teaches that animals do not have immortal souls, and therefore do not have a place in Heaven.

    I'm not Catholic (I'm Orthodox). Does the Catholic Church really teach this in any explicit or authoritative way?

    1. Hey, Virgil! I'm happy you enjoyed Anna's post.

      The teaching that animals don't go to Heaven is really more implicit than anything else. There's a sort of theological arithmetic to reach this answer (i.e. "Only humans have souls" plus "Heaven is only for the non-damned souls" equals "Only humans are in Heaven").

      But as Anna recounts so well, we really don't know exactly what Heaven is, other than it is our closest reunion with God. So, the Church is officially silent on the matter, and I suspect she will remain so.

      That having been said, when the media carelessly misreport that the Holy Father did affirm that animals go to Heaven, it certainly doesn't help matters. (They were rehashing a quote from Blessed Pope Paul VI.)

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