Recently, when consoling a boy whose dog had died, Pope Francis publicly stated that "paradise is open to all of God's creatures." Despite the ambiguousness of the statement, many animal lovers and rights groups have interpreted it as a repudiation of Catholic theology stating animals don't have souls.

Well now, the Pope is certainly endearing himself to a widening number of groups. Early in his tenure he has given hope to gays, unmarried couples, and advocates of evolution and the Big Bang theory.

And now, as reported in the New York Times, he's endearing himself to dog lovers, animal-rights activists, and vegans:

"My inbox got flooded," said Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach at the Humane Society, the largest animal protection group in the United States. "Almost immediately, everybody was talking about it."

Charles Camosy, an author and professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, said it was difficult to know precisely what Francis meant, since he spoke "in pastoral language that is not really meant to be dissected by academics." But asked if the remarks had caused a new debate on whether animals have souls, suffer and go to heaven, Mr. Camosy said, "In a word: Absolutely."

[...] Citing biblical passages that assert that animals not only go to heaven, but get along with one another when they get there, Francis was quoted by the Italian news media as saying: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."

Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement.

Indeed, the Catholic Church has been inconsistent in this regard. Pope Pius IX said dogs and other animals have no consciousness, while John Paul II said animals have souls and are "as near to God as men are." More recently, Benedict contradicted JPII by saying an animal's death "just means the end of existence on earth."

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Pope Francis's comments aside, the Vatican has yet to make a definitive statement on this question. But don't hold your breath; a declaration that animals have souls would imply that killing animals is a sin. The Catholic Church likely won't go there.

Read the entire article at the New York Times.

Image: Tânia Rêgo/ABr - Agência Brasil/CC.