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Barking Up the Wrong Tree

December 16, AD2014 15 Comments

First, let’s get the facts straight about the Holy Father’s comments in the Vatican, the so called “All Dogs go to Heaven” episode. Pope Francis did not console a boy about his dog — that was Pope Paul VI many years ago, and I have no idea how that ever made it past an editor. More importantly, just like Pope Paul VI before him, Pope Francis taught a perfectly orthodox lesson about the fate of our world in the afterlife from the apostle Paul. Pope Francis said, and I quote: “The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”

Radical stuff? See if you can spot the Biblical support for that comment in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:19-23

I recited this passage to my children every time we buried one of our deceased pet hamsters. I believe every word of it. Therefore, yes, it is with great joy that I propose that you could very well be reunited in some nontrivial sense with your pets in eternal life.

The latest kerfuffle involving Pope Francis was made more tedious than it had to be not just by the secular media but also the Catholic blogosphere. I think the Catholic defense in some cases went the wrong way. They “barked up the wrong tree,” the tree of the Aristotelian taxonomy of souls. This is fine, but there is a richer and theologically more satisfying answer to give to the question, “Do dogs go to heaven?”

Greek Metaphysical Immortality versus Dialogic Immortality

I will preface my comments by declaring that the distinction I am about to make is not my own, it is drawn from the work of Pope Benedict XVI, from a series of theological essays published in 2009 under the name Credo for Today: What Christians Believe.

In our Nicene Creed, we profess belief in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. How are these things comprehensible?

Greek metaphysics. These things are comprehensible by considering that a substance, i.e., a “thing,” is a fusion of form and matter. The form of a thing is that which makes it what it is. The matter is the particularity of the thing. In the case of a human being, matter is the physical stuff woven together to make him three dimensionally manifest in the world, and the form is his soul.

We separate form and matter conceptually in both common and scientific language. When you see a tornado, you see the dust of a particular farm, the wood from the fence. These are particularities. The dynamic equations that make the tornado are separable from the actual stuff flying around at your latitude and longitude. The dynamic system that governs the tornado is not the whole tornado. It is the patterned set of rational laws that order that govern the tornado.

Similarly, the rational soul of a person is separate from a person’s particularity, the human body he manifests in the three dimensional world, his encounters with other people, and other creatures.

Applying this to the idea of immortality, we Catholics maintain that at the time of death, the soul separates from the body, while the body decays as all physical things do.

Now, on the question of dogs, many able apologists, once they read the secular media misquotes about Pope Francis immediately thought of the Greek model and seized on it. The answer they gave from within this framework is wholly legitimate, “Do dogs go to heaven?” The answer is “no” because dogs do not have an intellectual soul that separates from the body at death.

Why is it so important that only intellectual souls go to heaven? It is important because only a human intellect is capable of acquiring the Beatific Vision, which is the perfect happiness of an intelligent being: to know God, and to behold God face to face in eternity.

I have left a few hints in what I have said so far to suggest that the immortality of the intellectual soul is only part of the story. When we attend seriously to the resurrection of the body, we are talking about particularity, and a new dimension is added to our discussion. This resurrection from the dead is the awakening of the whole person, his concrete, historical existence on earth. Here I will turn to Pope Benedict XVI who talks about dialogic immortality as a complementary framework for thinking about the afterlife.

Dialogic immortality. This is an academic phrase if there ever was one, but it’s really not hard to understand. A dialog implies a relationship. We stand in relationship with God, we with our desire for happiness, and He in his desire to bring us to himself. Because the drama of our life is an interpersonal relationship between persons deeply in love, the resurrection of the body after death is described, often explicitly in the Old Testament, as a lover’s defiant refusal to allow his beloved to die.

All love wants eternity, and God’s love not only wants it but effects it and is it. In fact, the biblical idea of awakening grew directly out of this dialogical theme: he who prays knows in faith that God will restore the right. (Job 19:25ff; Ps 73:23ff); faith is convinced that those who have suffered in the interests of God will also receive a share in the redemption of the promise (2 Macc 7:9ff).

Pope Benedict XVI, Credo for Today, p. 97.

We are loved so deeply that every injustice in history, and in your particular life, must be answered, and will be answered, by the even more radical love of the God of Israel. This love reaches its peak in the resurrection of the body.

What this means for our case comes clearer when Pope Benedict explains that when using the phrase, “resurrection of the body,” the word “body” in the Creed means in effect “the world of man.” Not just the man in abstract, his intellectual soul, but the whole person. Our world in its concrete particularity is redeemed. He emphasizes that the immortality of the Bible is not a restatement of Greek metaphysics.

Immortality as conceived by the Bible proceeds, not from the intrinsic power of what is in itself indestructible [the immortal rational soul, ed.], but the man physically existing in the midst of history and gives him immortality, it must be called “awakening of the dead.”

Pope Benedict XVI, Credo for Today, p. 97, emphasis added.

Let me pull this all together, cautiously, by framing it this way. If the question is literally, do dogs go to heaven, as a place where they achieve the Beatific Vision, true knowledge of God, then the answer of course is “no” because the animal soul is not an intellectual soul.

However, if the question is, does eternal life exclude the possibility of retaining some aspects of our particular existence in our world? Including all we touched and saw and loved in this beautiful place? The answer is that from what we know of salvation history, eternal life seems to demand a recapitulation of the particulars of our lives. The eternity of the intellectual soul is certainly a given, and the Beatific Vision is attainable. But something more radically personal seems to be promised. Something that would be known only by a person who is madly in love with you. I think that’s a good way to look at it, and it is what I believe to be the case.

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About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He works as a data scientist, researcher, statistician, psychometrician, and software developer. His passion is to express the tenets of Catholicism without compromise, faithful to the magisterium, in confident dialog with the modern world. In his spare time he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and teaches at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in St. Paul. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 25 years and share their home with two exceedingly accomplished children.

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