Only at the end of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, do we find what is perhaps his most significant theological statement about the created world. For in #243, Francis endorses the idea of the salvation, not just of humanity, but of all creatures. He writes:
Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.
Not one of the creatures of this Earth, Francis concludes in his final hymn, “is forgotten in your sight”.
In suggesting the ultimate restoration of all creatures, Francis is breaking with the weight of Western philosophical and theological tradition. Overall, this has been on the side of those who, emphasising the radical qualitative distinction between the human and animal realms, denied the immortality of animals. Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine ruled against animals having a rational soul.
The Catholic tradition has viewed the human as unique in having an immortal soul created at the time of conception – or close to it.
From ruling over nature to caring for it
This philosophical tradition of the uniqueness of the human was reinforced by a theology that saw the superiority of the human over the animal as arising at the time of the creation, when God granted to humanity dominion over every living thing on Earth. It was a dominion often read as conferring upon people a right to do to the creation whatever they liked, rather than a divinely decreed responsibility to care for it.
This perspective was reinforced in the 17th century by the French philosopher René Descartes’ view of nature as “dead”. This relegated animals to the status of nothing more than machines that were only dead matter and, unlike humans, did not consist of a mortal body and an immortal soul.
Yet it was during this same century that the developing practice of keeping animals as pets, particularly in England, led to new understandings of the connections of people and animals. As it was becoming progressively more difficult to think of happiness in Heaven without the possibility of reunion with one’s friends and family, so it was also becoming more problematic to conceive how happiness in Heaven could be complete in the absence of animals who had loved and had been loved so much.
In the 19th century, as in the 17th, faith in a just and loving God was being tested by the belief that the vast majority of humans would be consigned to an eternity of torments in Hell. But faith in the goodness of God was also being much tried by the sufferings of innocent animals in this present life. They apparently had no compensation for their current miseries in a future one.
The decline of belief in the natural immortality of the human soul in the 19th century also served to open up immortality to those who until then had never been conceived to have had a soul. Ironically, perhaps, Darwin’s account of evolution served to exacerbate the problem of animal immortality. For, granted that humans had evolved from animals, either we all had immortality or none of us did.
For those who still believed in the existence of “spirit” (and that was most), theology, science and sentimentality now combined in favour of the animals.
All this came together in the 19th-century parson-naturalist and popular science writer, J. G Wood. In his Man and Beast: Here and Hereafter, he set out to minimise the difference between the human and the animal by arguing that both the Bible and reason pointed to their continued existence. He claimed for animals “a future life in which they can be compensated for the sufferings that many of them have to undergo in this world”. He did so by decisively breaking with the mechanistic view of nature.
I do so chiefly because I am quite sure that most of the cruelties which are perpetrated on the animals are due to the habit of considering them as mere machines, without susceptibilities, without reason, and without the capacity for a future.
Eden restored at end of history
All of which leads us back to Pope Francis. In his encyclical, he too declares that human dominion over nature confers a divinely decreed responsibility to care for the world rather than accords to people the right to do to the creation whatever they like. And he decisively breaks with any mechanistic view of nature. Each creature “reflects something of God”, he declares.
As a consequence, Francis writes, humans need to nurture:
… that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied.
It is going too far to suggest that Francis is endorsing the popular Western view, in existence since the middle of the 19th century, that our deceased pets are now in Heaven awaiting us or that they will eventually join us there. Rather, he should be read not as proclaiming the survival of all creatures immediately after death so much as the ultimate restoration of all creatures at the end of history.
This is one aspect of the Platonic tradition of the divine plenitude (abundance) in which all creatures share. It is also part of a Christian tradition that sees what follows the end of the world in terms of an Eden restored, of a return to that state of purity and innocence in the garden (Paradise) that prevailed at the beginning of the world.
This is a theme that reaches back through St Augustine to the beginnings of Christianity. This is a Heaven in which animals will find a home, as they did in the original Paradise – a place where “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox”, a place where pain and sorrow are no more.
It is a time when this Earth will be no more. It is also a time which, as Francis makes perfectly clear in his encyclical, he expects sooner rather than later, especially if we don’t get our environmental act together.