Bishop Flores and the Theology of Pets
The dog owner and Thomist theologian reflects on the goodness of pets and how to love them well.
Bishop Daniel Flores, head of the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has a reputation as a thoroughgoing Thomist. He also is the owner of Curiosa, a 1-year-old Siberian Husky. Both commitments are reflected on the Diocese of Brownsville bishop’s social-media output, which includes excerpts from the Summa as well as the occasional picture of his dog.
So when Pope Francis ignited a bit of a controversy at the start of the year after stating that choosing to have pets over children is selfish, few people in the Church seemed as well-qualified to provide a reflection not only on the Pope’s words, but also on the deeper theological and moral significance of pets and pet ownership. The following are some highlights from the Register’s conversation with Bishop Flores.
Regarding Pope Francis’ Remarks
When he first heard Pope Francis’ comments, Bishop Flores says he didn’t think the Holy Father was focusing on pets so much as he was expressing a concern about disordered priorities in modern Western culture.
“He was making the point that sometimes [pets] are used as a replacement for human relations with children, for example. There’s a danger in modern Western society, which is very economically successful, that we have the power to choose our relations and that sometimes we would prefer a pet to other people, especially people who in the Church’s tradition are higher in the order of love.”
Although Pope Francis made his comments in the context of a discussion on adoption, Bishop Flores says the kind of neglect the Pope pointed to can apply to the way we treat other groups, like the elderly.
“We live in a society that tends to relegate the elderly to a side where they suffer from a certain kind of loneliness. Yet we lavish an awful lot of time on pets.”
The Brownsville bishop said the Holy Father’s comments point to a broader and richer sense of human responsibility, which “extends first to our fellow human beings, especially to the poor and those who are our neighbor, in the Gospel sense of the term.” Bishop Flores interprets Pope Francis’ remarks regarding pet ownership as an attempt to “jolt us into rethinking how it is that we’ve strayed from a basic sense of care for those who are our brothers and sisters,” including our parents and children.
How Substituting a Pet for Human Relations Can Be Bad for the Pet
Bishop Flores is quick to point out that animals, like his dog Curiosa, are a gift. But he also adds that there is a danger of substituting a pet for human relations “in a way that is unfair to the pet,” because it asks them to fulfill a need they’re not meant to meet.
Bishop Flores pointed to the fact that pet adoption numbers reached record highs during the worst of the COVID lockdowns; pet abandonment has skyrocketed since the circumstances have changed and people have been able to reengage in human relations.
“They no longer fill a need for me. I have no responsibility for this animal,” said Bishop Flores of the logic on display, which leads people to abandon dogs and cats. “After all, it’s just an animal, so you think you can leave it at a ranch or something and it’s on its own.”
The dog owner and Thomistic theologian made it clear that, because “we’re powerful creatures,” humans have the capacity to exercise a kind of dominance over animal life — a capacity that doesn’t necessarily mean our decisions will be just “or even fair to the animal.”
“Pet ownership can’t be something that we just turn on and off because we think we don’t have a responsibility to the animal either, which substituting a pet for a human relation can encourage.”
The Good of Pet Ownership
Bishop Flores noted the obvious vice of being “excessively doting over an animal, in a way that is disproportionate in comparison to how we treat one another as human beings.”
But he also was clear in his affirmation of the goodness of pet ownership as a form of closeness between humanity and the natural order — with dogs and cats, in particular. Stories in the tradition, such as “il Grigio,” the dog that accompanied St. John Bosco and protected him from criminals, affirm this connection.
“There’s a sense in which a pet can be a sign of a wider sort of relationship that we have with nature. It’s not a human relationship, but it is a real one. And that’s why people can be genuinely devastated by the loss of a lifelong pet.”
On Not ‘Over-Personifying’ Animals
Bishop Flores said he doesn’t see a problem with naming pets — although his 1-year-old Husky tends to ignore him when he calls her name (but comes running when he says “ball”).
“It sort of personalizes the relationship from our end of things.” He also added that although pets don’t technically have a personality, which formally refers to an individual intellectual substance [i.e., human person, angelic person, divine persons], they do have what can be called “particular naturalities,” a concept that Blessed John Dun Scotus helped to articulate, which means “that we can identify with a particular animal.”
At the same time, the South Texas bishop cautions against projecting human modes of thinking and acting onto pets.
“It’s an illusion to think that we know how creatures respond the way they do. I think it’s probably presumptuous on our part.”
How Pet Ownership Fits Into Catholic Teaching on Dominion Over Creation
Bishop Flores says we need to recover a sense of humanity’s communion with the natural order, perhaps most profoundly captured in the mystical theology of St. Francis of Assisi.
Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si critiqued the tendency of modern, industrialized society to “basically look at nature as something that is within our power to be used for our purposes” in a purely utilitarian, materialistic way — with no concern for the good of nature or even the rest of the human race.
In contrast, Bishop Flores says the sense of “dominion” expressed in Genesis doesn’t mean you can use nature “according to your whim.” It means having a “certain respect and care for nature,” something he says is present in certain Native American traditions but is sanctified and elevated in St. Francis’ mystical account of nature.
Bishop Flores says pets can be a helpful way of rediscovering nature as a gift, toward which we have responsibilities. In fact, he points to his own experience growing up with a dog and his parents’ insistence that he and his siblings take care of it.
“Perhaps the dog is the closest way that we can experience that nature accompanies us and we have to take care of it, as best you can.”
How Pet Ownership Might Be an Instance of Elevating Nature and Offering It to God
Bishop Flores describes the human being as “the voice of nature to God,” a theme expressed by St. John Paul II in Ecclesia de Eucharista, when the saintly Pope wrote that the Eucharistic sacrifice and the voice of the human being sanctified in Christ “is able to put words on the praise of all of creation.”
Because humanity is linked both to creation through our shared materiality but also to God through our immateriality, Bishop Flores says “we have a pivotal role to play in the cosmos, because we express what nature itself has not the voice to express on its behalf.”
“That’s part of the vocation of the Christian and of the Church: to voice what voiceless nature cannot say.”
If man is a link in “the great chain of being” between creation and Creator, the USCCB doctrine head says that it might be worth speculating on how pets and other animals that can “in some way reciprocate our care for them” serve as a link between humanity and the rest of creation. He contrasts dogs and their disposition to form relationships with human beings to animals like earthworms or mosquitoes, which “we don’t have much affection for, even though they’re part of the way God made things.”
“[Pet ownership] is almost like material creation manifesting a certain kind of attachment to us, a movement towards us that we take up as human beings and in the name of all creation take it to God. … On nature’s behalf, they became an expression of connectedness to us.”
What It Means to ‘Love’ Your Pet
Bishop Flores notes that affections we form for anything are drawn out by a perceived goodness in the object. Pets have a goodness to them, and so there is an appropriate kind of affection that can form for them.
But the Brownsville bishop points out that we can make distinctions between different kinds of “love” that refer to different kinds of goodness, something he would do when he was a young priest speaking to high schoolers or CCD classes.
“I would say we need to think about this word ‘love.’ And I would give examples, and say, ‘Well, I love my dog,’ ‘I love peanut butter,’ ‘I love coffee in the morning,’ ‘I love my mom,’ and ‘I love God.’”
Bishop Flores points out that we all know that we’re talking about different kinds of loves when we apply the term to such a variety of things, which is perhaps a limitation of the English language, which doesn’t have as many ways of expressing distinctive kinds of love as a language like Spanish, which distinguishes between querer and amar.
“We kind of know the difference between ‘I love peanut butter’ and ‘I love my mom.’ So it’s within that scale that we can say, ‘I love this dog.’ I thank God that it’s here in creation, and I happen to share a planet with it, and not just a planet, but a backyard.”
As such, crying after a beloved pet dies can be a perfectly appropriate human response.
“A loss is a loss. But getting back to the order of things, most people would say the loss of a pet is not the same as the loss of a loved one. And even though the tears may look the same, they’re not the same.”
The bishop adds that although affection for a pet can be well-ordered, there can be a danger of these emotions distorting our moral responsibilities to other people, which is based in rationality, not feelings.
“A dog gives us a lot of time and affection, which is why we respond to it so well. But there are people in the world who are never going to say thank you. That doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility of doing good for them, because if you can’t will good for somebody who is a stranger to you or even somebody who’s been mean to you, it’s an indication that there’s a problem in the soul.”
That Classic Question: Do All Dogs Go to Heaven?
Classical Thomism indicates that because pets lack a rational soul, they will not participate in the Beatific Vision, which is what heaven consists of. But Bishop Flores thinks that limited presentations of this view fail to “properly amplify” St. Thomas’ full teaching. Thomas, for instance, says that it is more perfect to see something in God than to see God in something. So although material things like a pet or an oak tree won’t “go to heaven,” it can be appropriate to speak of their presence in the mind of God.
“When you look at God, which is what the Beatific Vision will be, you see all that he thought and all the goodness and love that he made in every particular thing he created.”
Bishop Flores recalls an old professor of his who would say that you will see Fido in the divine essence, and you will see him much more clearly and beautifully than if you had him in front of you.
“You will actually take great delight in seeing everything made in God, should we, by his grace, get to the Beatific Vision. It’s not like he files that away somewhere. God is eternally instant. Yes, the dog had a life and the life ended, but God did not forget. God does not forget anything he has made. To the extent that we see God in the face, we shall see all that he has made in its pristine glory, as he intended it.”
His Response to Criticisms That Priests and Celibates Shouldn’t Have Pets
Bishop Flores says that he has told priests in his diocese that their pets cannot become “an impediment to their complete disposition to the service of the Church.” In other words, if a pet won’t be possible at a required assignment, “we’ll have to find a different home for it, because the mission takes precedence,” a standard the Brownsville bishop says he applies to himself.
Bishop Flores notes that there is the possibility of a priest becoming overly attached to an animal. But he doesn’t place much stock in critiques that a celibate shouldn’t have a pet because they inherently get in the way of their relationship with God.
Instead of such an exclusivist approach to celibacy, he says the key is to integrate whatever relations a priest might have within the framework of his relationship with God and his vocational commitments and responsibilities. For instance, Bishop Flores points out that it’s unhealthy to view celibacy as cutting oneself off from human relations; rather, celibacy characterizes the way someone living that state of life relates to others. In a similar way, celibacy need not mean that pets become a “rival” to intimacy with God.
“There are a lot of things that a celibate has to worry about becoming ‘substitutionary supports,’” said the bishop. “Alcohol can do that. I would think having a dog is probably one of the last ones that I would worry about. So the question of equilibrium cuts all the way across, in terms of how we relate to the material things around us.”
Practical Tips for Discerning Whether You Should Get a Pet
When it comes to discerning whether one should get a pet or not, Bishop Flores says the first question should be whether you actually like having a dog or another pet. If you’ve never had one, maybe spend some time with other people’s pets or at a shelter before making the commitment.
But he says another serious question to ask is whether one is pursuing pet ownership as a way of avoid openness to wider human relations.
“In the world today, we have commodified human relationships, such that we choose or do not choose to open ourselves up to the rest of the world, like the neighbor across the street or the little old lady who lives down the hallway.”
“So ask yourself, is this creature going to be a reason for me that justifies not being open to the people around me? Because we have to have that openness. That’s the first responsibility, in terms of our human relations. And in some ways, a pet can just be another way of getting wrapped up in ourselves, and that’s what we have to worry about.”
Whether the USCCB’s Top Priority for the Next Teaching Document Should Be the Theology of Pets
Bishop Flores laughed when he was asked, somewhat facetiously, if a document on the theology of pets was forthcoming from the bishops.
“Well, there’s a few other things going on in terms of what we need to work on. But maybe a little primer for appropriately loving your dog, something like that.”