A light in the darkness of the botched pope-animal story

One erroneous news story has equaled thousands of dashed hopes on the part of animal lovers everywhere.

News media outlets around the globe, including The New York Times, published articles in recent weeks quoting Pope Francis as saying “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” The pope reportedly uttered the words during his weekly general audience on Nov. 26 to a sad little boy mourning the death of his dog.

Oops. Wrong pope. Wrong time in history.

Religion News Service reported late on Friday that it was apparently Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) who once comforted a child on the loss of his pet with the assurance, “One day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”

The mistake originated Nov. 27 in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which has a report on the previous day’s audience where Francis spoke of the transformation of all creation into a new heaven and a new earth. According to RNS, the Italian paper included Paul VI’s quote on animals and eternity, but its headline – “Paradise for animals? The Pope doesn’t rule it out” – was vague as to who said what.

The result: The story galloped off on a life of its own.

The New York Times, along with several other papers, has since apologized for inadequate fact checking.

Were you among the disappointed? I certainly was. At least initially.

After all, isn’t there something in each of us that yearns for this popular pope’s views to echo our own beliefs, to validate our deepest feelings? We love our dogs and cats and parrots, our backyard deer and raccoons and squirrels. We want them to be with us in the next realm of existence because they will always be part of our family.

Our hearts shrivel in the face of dry theological pronouncements extolling the superiority of human souls over those of the critters. But that Paul VI might have said differently is supremely good news. So let’s cheer up, shall we?

Along these lines, I also wondered if perhaps the journalistic kurfuffle was one of those quirky events created by Holy Spirit, the divine trickster. She has been known to rattle cages to get our attention. The season of Advent is a particularly opportune time, when we are surrounded in the darkness, waiting for glimmers of light. 

Author and organic farmer Kyle Kramer regards this particular season, as an “ecological Advent.” In the December edition of St. Anthony Messenger, he wrote, “On the one hand, the multitude of environmental concerns can make for some very dark thoughts about the state of the planet. Yet at the same time, deep in the heart of this darkness, a light shines. Many are awakening to the sacredness of God’s good Earth.”

Yes, this is truly an ecological Advent of consciousness. The Francis story broke around the same time that a thoughtful and comprehensive essay about animal rights appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Earth Island Journal. Taken together, the two pieces add fuel to the ages-old debate about the place of animals in human lives.

Ages-old is not an exaggeration, either.

During his October talk here in Columbus, Ohio, David Orr, the renowned environmental designer at Oberlin College, referenced a late tenth century work written in Basra by a community of philosophers called the Brethren of Sincerity and Friendship. According to TheMuslimTimes.org, the story -- translated as The Animals Lawsuit against Humanity -- tells of a harmonious island of animals invaded one day by shipwrecked people from all nations of the world. While some animals are captured, killed as food or furs or used as labor -- “all without permission” -- some escape and file suit against the humans in the king’s court.

There, the animals debated some of the same questions we face today: Do creatures have souls? Can they feel pain or joy? Are humans justified in using animals and mistreating them?

Those questions foster renewed efforts in modern times to defend the well-being and peace of our sentient brother and sister critters. Are we justified in using them for medical experiments, subjecting them to factory farm conditions so we can have our steaks, pork chops and fried chicken? Are marine animal amusement parks and circuses okay? 

If, as the prevailing thinking goes, animals have no souls, and they exist primarily for our use, it becomes full speed ahead to do anything we like with them: ruin their habitats with oil drilling, destroy precious rain forests for furniture and cattle-grazing land, and pollute waterways and poison marine wildlife with plastic and toxic poisons.

We can drive species to extinction.

In the Earth Island Journal article, Maureen Nandini Mitra wrote, “the dominant idea -- which spans, many, though not all, of the global cultures -- has been that animals live only in the moment; have little or no sense of their own self; lack morals; don’t suffer the same way as we do; and basically exist for our use. It’s an idea that has helped many of us avoid the prick of conscience that tells us we might have it all wrong. Most of us loathe cruelty to animals, yet support some of the worse forms of abuse because of the food and clothing and entertainment choices we make.”

Kudos to Mitra for her sensitivity to the animals and her bluntness to us, their oppressors. Kudos to Pope Paul VI for comforting a grieving child on the loss of his dog. Both shine like stars of consciousness and compassion in a sky that cries out for all the stars it can get.

My prayer for Advent is that the forthcoming papal encyclical on the environment remembers the animals.

Will Francis be able to envision a kindom -- not kingdom -- with pastures, jungles, rivers, oceans and mountains for all the creatures of God’s creation who suffer and have suffered so terribly throughout history at human hands? A kindom of benign-ness and peace, where words like attack, shoot, trap, fish, snare and experiment have been forgotten.

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