Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

15 December 2014

On Animals in Heaven and The Insufficiency of God

For several reasons I stepped aside from The Shipwrack-Harvest, but knowing that this medium has brought some satisfaction to me and to a few readers, I am picking up the pen once again. No promises of frequency, however. As with everything, I will enjoy what happens while it lasts as God's gift.

In the past week we have witnessed a stir over the subject of Pope Francis reportedly saying that animals will be in heaven. This USA Today article describes how the whole tale swung so swiftly, with misquotations aplenty. How writers could pick up on false leads (or even true ones) and craft sizable articles bolstered with commentary, and do it all so quickly, and do it amid other responsibilities, stymies me. It's one reason I stopped writing for so long.

It seems undeniably true that the mainstream news media have found in Pope Francis a favored son, someone whose gentle appearance and easy manner they can unfairly (and inaccurately) contrast with his mean, doctrinaire predecessor, Father Benedict. I'm afraid this trope won't go away. We'll be seeing media conflations, inflations, and speculations for the remainder of Francis' papacy.

To return to the subject of this recent beef: the possibility, indeed necessity, of animals in heaven.

The following is not relevant to the discussion, but I suspect that people may wonder where I stand with respect to having animals and with animal owners. While I love animals, I won't likely ever have one as a pet (especially a cat, which will probably end up in hell anyhow). I respect people who do. I want to appreciate the profound attachment that pet caregivers can develop. It's an attachment that I don't want to develop, because I am unduly attached to many things as it is. Moreover, the care that pets need exceeds what I am willing and able to provide.

Along with Pope Francis, however, I do share the concern that people may divert undue attention, funds, etc. to pets. Cohabiting and married couples can have "fur babies" instead of human ones. Unwilled infertility is another matter, of course--that is a real cross, sadly downplayed in a material,  insecure world. Every couple must strive to be conscious of the choices they make and the fears that may inhibit them from making other choices (e.g. adoption of children). Openness to children, however God sends them, remains a constitutive element of marital love.

But what a risk is a child! Someone who may not cuddle up to you when you need him, someone who will eventually snub you, loudly shut her door, and exclaim, "You don't understand!" when you are the one who wants to be understood. Someone who will "cost" you, and the government, lots of money over the years, who will be considered a burden from the beginning. Someone you won't be able to put down once she's gotten too least for now.

Scholastic theology has affirmed that animals do have souls. Every living reality has a soul--the tailor-made principle that informs and enlivens the body and distinguishes it from all others of its type. There are three levels of soul: the vegetative (found in plants), the sentient (non-human animals), and the rational (human persons). The vegetative soul can take in nourishment and give off waste products. The sentient can do what the vegetative does, but also feel and communicate with its surroundings. It operates according to instinct, and can seem to be motivated even by care and altruism. The rational can do what the sentient and vegetative does, but also can think and choose freely.

The powers of the rational soul are precisely what constitute man and woman as "in the image of God"--and this before the Son forever assumed human nature. As the inspired author of Hebrews reminds us, God did not become an angel (a purely spiritual creature). Nor did God become an purely instinct-driven animal. God took on the form of the very kind of creature who could (and did) reject Him. The human ability to choose for the good of another for the other's sake is, in a word, love. Regarding the expressions of affection and heroic displays of care that animals have shown toward their own and even toward human beings, I will call that love, but only in a derivative sense. (Basta così.)

Rather than speculate on the eternal fate of the animals, I would rather direct my attention to the eternal fate of human persons. While God's love extends to all creation, I do not consider arrogant the unique and profound claim that human persons--free and rational beings--exert upon that love. We are as undeserving of that love as the rest of creation, but we are most apt for that love because we alone are made in God's image.

Then there are our human, inadequate-by-definition concepts of heaven, marred by sentimentalism and other wounds of our fallen nature. Since earth (our fallen condition) is our current reference point, we base our ideas of heaven on it. Our concepts of heaven can be as self-centered--certainly as inadequate--as we are here on earth.

I can understand people imagining a life with perfect freedom from all adverse situations and consequences. Given our earthly trials, there is merit to such an image; but at its worst it expresses longing for the kind of free-for-all that we can't seem to get away with here on earth. A huge bash, promising eternal satisfaction to the point of surfeit, servants peeling us grapes and so forth. Calories mean nothing, so we can eat and eat and eat! But where is love in that? Where is sacrificial giving, caring for the other "just because"? It sounds like the kind of theological conclusion that follows from a model of prayer as making nice with God, trying to placate Him or stroke His ego--working to end up with the best possible retirement policy.

I have wondered why God's own Life, God's own Presence, wouldn't be enough for people in heaven. Why all the extras? What, you may ask, do I consider an "extra"? Anything that is not God. I do not have to know what the specifics of heaven include, except that God is. If animals and trees and music (even Sinatra's!) are there, fine; if not, that's fine too. I'm happy to note, however, that prophetic presentations of the worship around God's throne include singing...a new hymn, commissioned for a new heavens and a new earth. If other creatures happen to be there, they will be as rapt as we before the Heavenly Throne. Sure, we may be happy to see them, but we'll be infinitely happier to see God.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! So many good points validated here and so many things to contemplate. Very good article.