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April 25, 2010

Do dogs go to heaven? Following the death of his beloved Labrador, writer ponders afterlife

By Robert P. Lockwood

CONTRIBUTOR

The last refuge of a scoundrel — at least a scoundrel who takes pen in hand — is to pull the old dog out of the hat. As soon as somebody starts writing about his personal Lassie, head for the hills. That is a writer whose well went dry.

But there is one dog topic worthy of consideration. It is that eternal question: “Do dogs go to heaven?”

On the surface, the theological question seems pretty simple. A dog by its very nature doesn’t have an immortal soul, does not have a conscience and does not have free will.

Rather, a dog is a heady brew of instinct and passions modified by a carrot-and-stick discipline. Granted, that sounds like a male high school sophomore but it does appear to rule out an eternity based on a life well-lived.

A dog has no sense of God, no sense of worship, no sense of prayer, no sense of sacrament. While we might bless a dog, we would never think to baptize one.

The debate

Protestant theology would have even greater trouble with the idea of dogs in heaven, even though John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was fairly certain that he would be reunited in the afterlife with his favorite horse. With salvation rooted in Protestant theology on a conscious decision to acknowledge Christ as the Lord, Lassie would seem to strike out again.

Which leads to an interesting — if apocryphal — exchange that was said to have taken place between a Catholic and Presbyterian church with dueling outdoor signs. It began when the Catholic parish posted: “All dogs go to heaven.”

The Presbyterian church then posted its own message: “Only humans go to heaven. Read the Bible.”

The exchange then went:

Catholic: “God loves all his creation. Dogs included.”

Presbyterian: “Dogs don’t have souls. This is not open to debate.”

Catholic: “Catholic dogs go to heaven. Presbyterian dogs can talk to their pastor.”

Presbyterian: “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.”

Catholic: “Free dog souls with conversion.”

Presbyterian: “Dogs are animals. There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.”

Catholic: “All rocks go to heaven.”

Which, of course, like John Wesley’s horse, brings up the great conundrum. Just where does it end? If a dog is granted the Beatific Vision does that mean that cats can go to heaven? That’s a thought too horrible to imagine.

About 20 years ago, an animal rights activist taped a 10-point petition to St. Peter’s Basilica demanding that Pope John Paul II declare that animals have immortal souls — any animal above the mollusk on the evolutionary scale, he said. And, yes, he was from Berkeley, Calif.

But if you are going to say that a mouse has a soul, does that mean you rule out clams and giant squids? It can get a little confusing trying to establishing a cut-off line for the afterlife once you let in the dogs.

Straight-forward

The fundamental Catholic teaching on the question is straight forward. Animals, while certainly creatures of God, lack an immortal soul and are on a lower moral scale than human beings. Which seems to say that our Presbyterian brother is right: there are no dogs in heaven.

But then again, other Catholic principles could apply. The question is really the essence of humanity, rather than the nature of the dog. Heaven is the realm of eternal happiness. God, in his infinite wisdom, will certainly grant humans the company of their loved ones, even if one of those loved ones is a dog.

Like the nuns told us, God can do anything when it involves the peace and serenity of his greatest creation, a human life. That’s probably why he gave us dogs in the first place.

As you may have guessed, my dog of more than 13 years died in my lap the other day. That can wear this old softie down.

But I promised never to write a column on my dog. I may be a softie. But I’m not a scoundrel.

Lockwood is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor.