Will I See My Pet in Heaven?
A Texan Jesuit’s View on Animal Ethics and the Cosmic Plan
Mark Poisler ’21
While stuck at home during the pandemic, many are spending more time with their dogs, cats, fish, snakes, rabbits, and other beloved pets. In this stressful time, they curl up on their owners’ side to comfort. Moreover, due to the COVID-19’s ability to spread indoors, the backyard garden, lakes, parks, and hiking trails attract tourists for the display of God’s wondrous creation: chirping birds, painted butterflies, alligators, etc. This pandemic has led many closer to God’s creatures and even ponder if they will continue on in the next life.
Although the Catholic Church has no official teaching if animals will rejoice in Heaven, Catholic thought has been traditionally influenced by the Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas. He believed that the ability of humans thinking abstractly (without our physical sense) proves the existence of a spiritual component that continues after death. Yet, since non-human creation can not think abstractly, they fully need their body to function, which means they don’t have a spiritual component that grants them access to God’s Kingdom. The implications, as one scholar, Father Christopher Steck, S.J., calls the “Thomistic Framework,” of this view are: “(1) We have no duties towards animals; (2) animals have been created to serve us; and (3) it is immoral to treat animals cruelly …because doing so violates our character” (Steck 16).
Father Christopher Steck, S.J, is an ethicist at Georgetown University, native Texan, former caretaker of the Hoyas mascot Jack the Bulldog, and author of the 2019 book All of God’s Animals: A Catholic Theological Framework for Animal Ethics, in which he departs from the Thomistic view on the question of animal immortality. The following two paragraphs offer a very brief summary of his argument for animal salvation, and there are many topics I do not cover; to dive deeper into his argument, read his book or watch this webinar.
In his book, Fr. Steck argues that some animals with cognitive capabilities (memory, self awareness, some reasoning) will continue to exist in Heaven before the Second Coming. He counter argues Aquinas’s belief by revealing that the traditional argument derives from the body-soul dualism beliefs of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle that states that humans have an innate component allowing abstract thinking and immortality. This lacks support in Scripture. Instead, a continuation of “Personhood” until the eschaton (end of time, Jesus’s Second Coming, the new creation) and immortality depends on Christ’s love for us and non-human creatures.
Fr. Steck points to evidence of God’s love and labor in the “divine economy” for creation in the Noahic Covenant with “every living creature” in Genesis 8, New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21, and creation “groaning” for freedom of the bondage of this sinful world in Romans 8. Furthermore, Fr. Steck points to evidence of several early Doctors of the Church and contemporary thinkers (the past three popes, for example) who believe that all creation (humans, animals, plants, aliens) will be transformed in the eschaton (although the same dog or cat we know in the current life earth may not be there). Ever since Vatican II, the consensus has been, as Fr. Steck states in my interview with him, that “God’s plan is cosmic. It is not oriented towards just the human person, but the whole cosmos.” To clarify from before, Fr. Steck argues further that some individual animals with high cognitive abilities can continue to exist in the current Heaven until the eschaton.
So, after hearing Fr. Steck’s argument, some may cheer that their beloved Fido will enter the pearly gates, but God’s care for the whole creation means that Catholic and Christian Mission for caring for those in the Kingdom of God extends to all creation, including the origin of that steak or chicken parm. The purpose of creation moves beyond serving us and towards building a relationship with Christ. Since, as Fr. Steck clarifies, “Humans are distinctively important to God,” they have a special role in living and sharing God’s “Cosmic Plan” to all of creation by guarding their well-being and praying for individual creatures. Nevertheless, this seems to contradict the Texan lifestyle of barbeques, Whataburger, hunting for sport, fishing, riding horses, and the rodeo. The average resident in Texas leans on animal suffering for survival and enjoyment with the average Texan consuming 222 pounds of meat in 2018. There are 1.25 million licensed hunters in Texas, and 2.5 million people attend the Houston Rodeo. How can Texans live out this likely responsibility?
When discussing the ethical implications, Fr. Steck distinguishes between the “Kingdom Now” and then “Kingdom Yet to Come” where we will live in a perfect “stewardship” with creation, acknowledging that the current world is broken. Because of the broken world, Fr. Steck accepts that it is impossible to live in perfect communion right now (everyone not eating animals and treating all animals with a special dignity, etc.). Fr. Steck himself lives a vegetarian lifestyle and tries to avoid acts that directly cause animal suffering. Nevertheless, he states in the interview that “each person is going to discern where God is calling them giving the framework that we are called to care for non-human creation.” To do this, one should reflect in Fr. Steck’s Jesuit-like examine for the treatment of creation: “Are we simply using that animal for our instrument of my pleasure and my wellbeing, or is there something else going on there where I am treating this animal loved by God and God delights him in this one way?” This examination of consciousness can help discern for the correct ethical actions in meat consumption, researching a vaccine on animals, and hunting nobly.
In the twenty-first century, many cultures and faith traditions across the globe share concerns of treating all animals, domesticated and wild, humanely. Instrumentalizing animals in horrible and very cruel processes like factory farming questions the traditional or Aquinas view of animal treatment. Although the Church has ignored concern for animal well-being in the past, the Church is adding non-human creation to the list of the voiceless deserving a dignity given by God. For example, Pope Francis released the first encyclical on the environment Laudato si’ in 2015. For all cultures, Fr. Steck thinks that in this changing time “when there is no settled opinion in what is right or wrong, it is important for each of us to dive into our own worldview or faith tradition and mine its resources for what is a good answer to our responsibility to the non-human world.” That is what his book does.
One can hope for some animals to enter the current Heaven according to Fr. Steck, but the Church does not hold an official teaching if individual animals will enter the Kingdom now. However, God does have regard for creation as seen in the Cosmic Plan including all creation. So, humans have a special responsibility to care for non-human creatures as much as possible in a broken world.