Do dogs, cats and others pets go to heaven when they die? This is a question that children (as well as some adults) ask when a beloved non-human family member passes away.
The Catholic Church doesn’t actually pronounce whether pets go to heaven or not. Sometimes, though, in a moment of pastoral insensitivity or because of a lack of proper grounding, an adult – and sometimes even an authority such as a priest or a parent – incorrectly states that according to the Church, animals do not go to heaven.
My family ran into this at our parish when the associate pastor announced to a full church of families with children that his cat had died and that “we all know that pets don’t go to heaven”. I can’t imagine how much harm he did that day from the pulpit, pretending to be authoritative on an area out of his depth. If nothing else, even had he mistakenly believed this to be Catholic teaching, there was no pastoral benefit to his statement – only harm. What was he thinking?
Luckily, although my children did hear it, they knew it was lousy theology. (We can never know all theology – even the bishops have theological experts whom they consult. But we can develop a taste for good and bad theology. My young adult children do have that.) But they no longer wanted to attend Mass there very often (so we are now more involved at Mission Santa Clara instead).
But what of everyone else, sitting in the pews and thinking that this priest was espousing an official Roman Catholic position? I can only hope and pray that they thought to check it out somewhere else. Or that they weren’t listening….
Recently I spoke about this incident, and the likely fallout, with a couple of priests who have good heads on their shoulders. One said “we don’t know what happens” and the other said, “if your happiness required your pet to be in heaven with you, then your pet will be there”.
My own thinking is that our God is the God not just of “the living and the dead” as we say at Mass, but all of creation; Our God is the God of all the animals on the earth as well as of women and men. If all creation is to be Redeemed in Christ, why not also our beloved dogs, cats, bunnies, fish….?
What would Saint Francis of Assisi say?
Ask a child whose dog or pet has just died what he or she thinks is the right answer. “Will I see my dog in heaven?” “What do you think, honey?” Children often do have that taste for good theology – frequently it is simpler than we think. “You said Heaven is perfect. If Heaven is perfect then I will.”