How Pets Can Aid Us in Becoming More Christlike and Better Serve Others
COMMENTARY: A few lessons for the feast of St. Francis, patron saint of animals
“There is no reciprocity,” wrote the Welsh Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis. “Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don’t love anyone; it is quite hopeless.” Our friendship with our pets may not be quite hopeless, but it does complicate our lives, because it’s a funny kind of relationship.
They’re not human, but they’re not things either. We do not owe them what we owe other people, but once we accept them we owe them care and kindness. People tend to get the balance wrong.
At one extreme, people treat them as if they were human. One of our daughters worked at a doggy day care. I love dogs, but in picking her up I met a lot of people weirdly overinvested in theirs. When she found out I was picking up my daughter as well as one of our dogs, one woman said with joy, “Oh, you’re picking up your baby and your fur baby!” I don’t think she saw a difference between the two.
Pope Francis warned against loving our animals too much while not helping our neighbor. We must not confuse “the compassion which we feel for the animals who live with us” with true piety. People come first, and by a long way.
At the other extreme, people treat animals like things we can use as we wish. If their pain pleases us, as in dog-fighting, we can cause them pain. The Church condemns cruelty to animals but does not ask us to give them more than they need or mandate we rescue stray puppies.
Our faith requires us to care more for people than for animals. Jesus died for us, not for our pets. I hate to say this, because I love animals (especially dogs, of whom we’ve had five, and guinea pigs, of whom we’ve had zillions). We must consider our pets in relation to other people’s needs. Every dollar spent on your dog is a dollar not given to a person in need.
I have no good answer for this, except that as with all things we have, we should choose them as aids in becoming more Christlike and in better serving others. Our pets may be very good aids in that. The love of a dog may refresh you when people have beaten you down, for example.
Curiously, the patron saint of pets didn’t have any. In his life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure wrote that when Francis thought about the Creator and creation, “he was filled with an overflowing charity. He would call the animals, however small, by the names of brother and sister, because he recognized in them the same origin as in himself.”
He saw some animals as what we might call sacramentals, because they made him think of Jesus. “He loved with an especial warmth and tenderness those creatures that do set forth by the likeness of their nature the holy gentleness of Christ,” Bonaventure wrote. He would sometimes buy lambs about to be killed for food, “in remembrance of that most gentle Lamb Who let himself be brought to the slaughter for the redemption of sinners.”
Francis banned his followers from having pets, but he seems to have done this less from a rejection of the idea of animal friends as an understanding of what the friar’s life required. Bonaventure’s stories suggest he felt real affection for animals; for example, his brief friendship with a rabbit someone gave him. He “fondled it with warm affection and seemed to pity it like a mother.”
There remains the question of whether pets go to heaven. People feel very strongly about this. To answer it is to choose in front of which firing squad you want to stand. Many people can’t bear the thought of not seeing their beloved dog or cat again, and I admit to being among them. I’ve written about the life and death of our first dog, a golden retriever mix named Ben, here and of the death of our second, an Aussie, the great Moby, here. He died three years ago, and I still can’t read the story without crying.
Other people argue that the faith either doesn’t give us any reason to believe we will see them again or actually says we won’t. They argue that animals haven’t the right kind of soul to go to heaven; they can’t enjoy the Beatific Vision that makes heaven heaven; or they haven’t sinned and therefore can’t be saved.
Some of these people take a disquieting pleasure in being hardheaded and theologically consistent and saying No to all those sentimental pet-lovers. I suspect them of not understanding the love of an animal. They lack something they should have. We should pity them the way we should pity someone who can’t enjoy Mozart or Louis Armstrong.
But do not take their word as final. Love points you beyond the easy conclusions of systems to what the systems might have missed. And what they miss is what God might do with the love we have for our animals.
Christianity gives us no definitive answer. It makes no promises. St. Paul VI told a child, “One day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ.” Benedict XVI said we wouldn’t. St. John Paul II and Pope Francis don’t say.
C.S. Lewis (who did love dogs) answered the question in one of his scholarly books, The Problem of Pain. They get a place in heaven by sharing in some way in our place, because they become something more through their friendship with us. In another place, he explains that if we need our pets to be completely happy in heaven, God will supply them.
We might hope to see our pets again, while trusting that God will give us what we most want. He promises to make us perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Maybe that perfection will include the company not only of the people we loved on earth, but the animals. Maybe it won’t; but if it doesn’t, we will understand why and rejoice in the gift those animals were to us.
Lewis said that even if we would not see our dogs in heaven, heaven itself would contain “the essence of dogness.” What would that be? Loyalty, playfulness, simplicity, joy in friendship, and whatever in heaven is the perfection of their courage, their desire to think well of others, their quickness to forgive, and their refusal to judge.
The animals loved St. Francis. St. Bonaventure suggests they came to him because he was so Christlike. A wild pheasant brought to him cuddled up to him right away. When it was put outside to go back into the wild, it wouldn’t leave and it wouldn’t eat. When brought back to the saint, it was once again happy and ate. That rabbit wouldn’t leave him. Birds would fly around him and sing. A hawk cried to tell him when it was time to pray the Hours. Even a cicada chirped at his request.
They sensed something of Christ in him. One lesson of the feast of St. Francis is this: We should strive to be worthy of our pets.