Do animals have a soul?

Jules (died 27 Sept 2021

This article was written in memory of Jules’ (Ronnie Two Scoops), best mate, loyal, brave, playful, trusting, supportive, loving and kind, who left us this morning at 10:30 am (September 27, 2021). Rest in peace within my soul my friend. In his book, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis posits that tame animals at least may make it into heaven through their relationship with humans in the same manner that humans do through their relationship with Jesus Christ.

The dog is perhaps the animal that more than any other has accompanied humanity side by side through the slow passing of the centuries as a faithful companion in both fortune and poverty precisely because of the dog being always by our side. And so the dog can be found as the protagonist in many stories, myths and legends scattered around the globe as evidence of this very strong and lasting relationship. The sense of protection, vigilance, fidelity reflected not only the practical principle of this companionship but also the high esteem that it has always enjoyed among the various peoples. Let’s briefly review some more or less known legends of the world trying to analyse the figure of the dog from a different perspective. 

For many cultures the dog has always been synonymous with a certain physical vigour linked to the fear it arouses towards a stranger; dogs were often trained to fight, just think of the great molossoid breeds such as the Adronicus Mastiff whom are still used as war dogs today, the African Boerboel  used for leopard and boar hunting or even the Staffordshire bull terrier originally a fighting dog (now a companion dog) all engaged in their own battles, these are all qualities that would be useful to react to a house intruder. The dog is the embodiment of a guardian of the flock who had to clash with and get the better of other predators and even thieves. 

In preChristian Celtic lands a madra or dog is often mentioned in legends, such as  Bran and Sceólang, loyal hounds and companions of the legendary Irish hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill of the Fianna.

Many myths place the emphasis on the dogs role as a companion at the moment of transition from this world to the next, a testament of the great consideration that was placed upon this animal at such a solemn moment and which goes to underline the dogs indisputable importance in human lives.

According to the medieval Irish Passion of St. Christopher, “There was a persecution of Christians in time of the emperor Decius, and the holy man Christopher was taken and tortured like the others. Christopher was exceedingly wise, and had observed that the Lord assisted those of the heathen who believed just as much as he assisted Christians. Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads. When he saw how much the Christians suffered he was indignant and left the city. He began to adore God and prayed. “Almighty God,” he said, “grant me the gift of speech, open my mouth, and make plain thy might that those who persecute thy people may be converted.” An angel of God came to Christopher and said: “God has heard your prayer.” The angel raised Christopher from the ground, and struck and blew upon his mouth, and the grace of eloquence was given him as he had desired.”

Vigilance, guardian, friend, defender or companion, dogs have done nothing more that develop and prosper next to us; our ancestors have done nothing more than remind us of it through all the tales  they have left for us and which have been passed down to us from every continent, passing from father to son, person to person and from book to book … Its as though an echo, has spread out throughout the centuries and which demands of us not only to be heard but in turn to hand the story down to the next generation so that they will never forget the respect and consideration that is due to one of humanities first and oldest friends throughout all time.

Whilst the legends are within our minds and a particular dog may be in your heart, we ask “do dogs go to heaven as well?” The debate on the soul of animals has been a matter for theologians for some time.

“I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity”  wonders Solomon as he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes; it is one of the most impenetrable scroll within the Bible. 

In ancient times, as I have said previously, animals have made a contribution to the progress of human activity: yet we began very early on in our journey of human history, to have dog’s at our side and some of us began to love them. But I would say that our relationship with them is vague perhaps even difficult to define in words. Let’s think for a moment about animal research: is it right to test vaccines on animals for the improvement of our health? Some time ago in Italy a long drawn out battle in the courts escalated between the anti-vivisection League and the researchers of the universities of Turin and Parma with regard to putting an end to pharmaceutical experimentation done on macaque a Cercopithecidae subfamily of Old World monkey: after two years of deliberation, the 3 judges said that it was permissible to inflict small brain lacerations on the macaque monkeys in order to forward research on blindness in human beings. Whilst at the same time, our supermarket shelves are filled with cruelty-free labelled products.

In recent years, our relationship with animals has changed. The numbers say it: according to the PDSA, in 2021 there was a boom in the adoption of dogs and cats:

  • 51% of UK adults own a pet
  • 26% of UK adults have one dog or more with an estimated population (EP) of 9.6 million pet dogs
  • 24% of the UK adult population have a cat with an EP of 10.7 million pet cats
  • 2% of the UK adult population have a rabbit with an EP of 900 thousand pet rabbits

During the COVID pandemic 29%, 290,000 owners adopted or purchased a dog. The change in our habits also concerns the United Kingdom, the third largest beef producing country in the EU, last year recorded a drop in production such that, over the last decade, its production has decreased. More that ¼ of people in the UK have reduced their meat, eggs, and dairy products consumption (The Vegan Society 2021).

Our cultural and social mentality has also began to change our imagination. During the economic boom phases, Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds (1963) or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) staged a conflictual relationship between man and the animal kingdom: faithful to a boundless fable tradition, in man’s struggle with a beast, the man has always seen a part of himself with which to make peace, with the animal always having a detrimental outcome. Don’t F… With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, a popular Netflix series broadcasted in 2019, reverses this perspective: from a socially dominant orientation, a man becomes a condemned murderer through online social media after an animal loving sleuth tracked him down because he tortured and then killed a kitten. The Covid-19 pandemic has also affected our perception during its early onslaught: the transmission of the Sars-Cov2 coronavirus by zoonosis highlighted human behaviours in placing animals in inhumane conditions, such as in intensive farming or wet markets widespread throughout Asia. Its no coincidence that in some cities in China, where there are no laws for the protection of animals, have issued an ordinance in order to ban the slaughter and consumption of meat originating from dogs and cats.

For this very reason, wondering if animals have souls or not reflects the complexity of our whole society, the cries of animals population demand that we wake up because even a single disappearance of an animal species is comparable to the disappearance of an entire culture. Transgressions against animals only fractures that fundamental connection between all living beings, because as far as  God is concerned, creation, has absolutely no limits: the responsibility for their survival rest solely upon us and no one else. I’m quite happy to use a word such as “transgression or even sin,” which is standard in moral theology, and underlines the great steps humanity still needs to achieve in the field of animal ethics.

It wasn’t always like that. The first to show interest in the interconnection between humans and animals were the philosophers, who started from the point of view of the senses: if the animal suffers, then the possibility must be acknowledge that the transgression or sin inflicted must be avoided. This point of view called pathocentrism — from the Greek πάθος—pathos, pain, suffering — presupposes that a creature has its own dignity which, must be safeguarded from the experience of suffering being inflicted upon them. This is the starting point of one of the most authoritative philosophers of anti-speciesism, Leonardo Caffo, who stimulated the true revolution of stopping the suffering of animals inflicted by humans. The radical challenges to our lifestyles has been at long last aroused the interest of our theologians: if our relationship with animals has changed, shouldn’t our conscience also change?

When the first theologians became interested in the topic, they were not taking everything into consideration. For example, John R. T. Berkman, a Professor of Moral Theology at Regis College in Canada, after publishing his essay, Prophetically Pro-Life: John Paul II’s Gospel of Life and Evangelical Concern for Animals and The Consumption of Animals and the Catholic Tradition, was invited by the theological faculty to stop dealing with the subject by his previous university. In 2007, the theologian Dr Celia Deane-Drummond at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at my Alma mater Oxford, author of Animal ethics: where do we go form here? was astounded by the ignorance of fellow theologians, but also by a certain presumption among her peers whom considering the topic insignificant.

But 2014 was a pivotal year of Catholic’s paying attention to the plight of animals, both wild and domestic, so much so that many — even without making explicit declaration on the subject — believe that Laudato si’ epitomises a starting point on the theme of animal rights, at least since publishing Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975) by Peter A. Singer, professor of bioethics whom tackled the theme of the fight against speciesism. That same year, the press reported that Pope Francis had spoken of a paradise for animals to a child in tears over the death of his dog: “One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Heaven is open to all creatures,” the Corriere della Sera wrote on November 27, 2014, reporting the words of Pope Francis during the audience: in reality, the pope had mentioned his predecessor, Paul VI. Asked by the New York Times, Christine Gutleben, head of the US Humane Society — one of the largest animal defence associations in the United States — said: “If the pope meant that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals have souls. And if that’s true, then we should seriously consider how we treat them”. Shortly thereafter she echoed Sarah Withrow King, director of the Christian outreach and engagement at PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals).

This ambivalence in the pope’s words reflects the same ambivalence that emerges when, speaking of the soul of an animals, we are faced with two opposite tendencies: those who consider the animal a part of creation, functional to the development of humanity, and those who tend to humanise the animal. Trying to clarify the issue is a German monk, Father Martin Lintner OSM Professor for Moral and Spiritual Theology, who tells us ‘My love of nature, especially my interest in animals, is something I was almost born with.’ His contribution is one of the most interesting, because it is an attempt to answer questions on which the Christian perspective has fallen behind. In his book, Animal Ethics A Christian perspective, (Queriniana April 27, 2020), Lintner does not give us any definitive answers, but he does manage to act as the stimulus to ask new questions.

Why does animal ethics have a moral implication? The reasons tend to vary. First of all, its the conditions on farms and slaughterhouses that require ethical reflection on how we treat animals. I would like to remind you that 360 million pigs, sheep, goats and cows are slaughtered every year in Europe for meat production, plus a couple of billion poultry… There are no official figures, but it is estimated that around 3.8 million animals are transported throughout European Union countries every single day, this is equivalent to around 1.4 billion animals per year: a recent article in The Guardian revealed that the EU is responsible for up to 80% of the global trade in live farm animals, which continues to be linked to gross animal welfare failings. We know that many animals, especially sheep and cattle, are also transported to non-EU countries, such as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. On these modes of transport, moreover, there is often a greater lack of comparisons of their compliance to EU laws relating to the protection of animals”.

The interest of the theologians on this subject, is nothing but a “black hole.” Why is that? “In books on the theology of creation and in the treatises on theological ethics, the question of the man-animal relationship and the ethical implications are simply absent or they are to all intents and purposes sketchy and inadequate. Surely on this lacuna influences the traditional doctrine on animals as living beings without which there had been no reason to attribute an immortal soul to an animal and therefore was never recognised. From a philosophical point of view, there is the argument that animals, not being able to act morally, are not part of the ‘moral community’ and that therefore the moral duties of men towards animals would be only indirect or in the second degree. In our modern era, the Cartesian dualism which distinguished between res cogitans and res extensa, that is, between beings capable of reasoning on the one hand and physical realities on the other, has resulted in a mechanistic view of animals. The ability to suffer and feel emotions was not seen as being morally relevant. Today we find that the sensitivities  on these aspects are growing.”

So what has changed in theology today? On a theological level we are asking ourselves why, in the Christian tradition, we have almost forgotten about animals. Characters who represent an exception such as Saint Anthony Abbot followed by a pig he had cured, Saint Ciaran and his influence on wild animals, Saint Cuthbert shepherd boy who made friends with birds and is patron saint of otters, Saint Melangell patron saint of hares, Saint Petroc whom in the IV century became the first hunt saboteur, Saint Columba whose loyal horse began to cry when the saint died, Saint Neot who rescued a deer, Saint Gertrude of Nivelles who is the patron saint of cats, Saint Francis of Assisi,  and of course Saint Roche the patron saint of dogs, Saint Philip Neri — of whom it is said that, because of his love for animals, he refused to eat meat — are very rare. We must also rediscover the biblical foundations according to which the closeness between man and animals is greater than the differences. In the Bible we find many rules which require us to respect and treat all animals with the appropriate behaviour: in Genesis, after the flood, God extended his covenant not only to Noah, but to all of us. In Christian tradition, then, the saving event of Christ includes all of creation, every animal animals. I truly believe that as Christians we have given far too little thought too this subject matter so far. We must certainly also reflect on what distinguishes the human species from the animal species. I consider the so-called “specistic — human belief that all other species of creatures are inferior to them” — philosophical approaches to be somewhat problematic. We have to also vanquish and eradicate our anthropocentrism which just reduces animals to a creature useful to us humans but fails to recognize that they have value in their own right, and this is something that must be recognized and respected independently.

With all this in mind do we really believe that we can make ethical choices in our daily life? I believe we can, from the very moment we begin to think of ourselves as creatures, we have to critically ask ourselves how we treat other creatures and if we are respecting their needs. At the same time, we must be careful not to “humanise” them, without projecting into them expectations that they cannot respond to. Additionally, the majority of us consume farm products: meat, milk, cheese, eggs, butter and also hygiene products and other items into which products derived from animals are used. In my opinion, we should ask ourselves what kind of a farm are these products coming from? In many cases it is possible to choose vegan products without problems, in others we have to decide on products whose origin is presented in a transparent manner. In addition to the question of animal ethics, the consumption of farm products also exacts an environmental price. We know that industrialised agriculture and mass farming have played a significant role in climate change. From this point of view, too, a systemic change in agricultural methods is very urgently required. The reduction of meat consumption and attention to its origin through ecologically sustainable agriculture is, for example, a choice that each of us can make right now, the next time we shop, and we do this to respect all life on this planet and for all of humanity.”

For me the answer is quite simple, my companion dog Jules for the past 9 years has spent every moment of his life at my side. This morning 27 September at 10:30 am, he sadly said his last goodbye with lots of licks. He was loving, caring, playful dog; he absolutely loved my nephews, and he had also been good friends with my brother Justin († August 9, 2021). Jules was a friend to the hermitage cats with whom he had a very close bond often playing chase me with them with them or letting them eat out of his food bowl. He loved the sheep in our field with whom he often rubbed heads, and the horse whom he watched with great interest. Jules would always welcome any visitors with a big welcome, wagging tail and tongue out of the side of his mouth. He filled a space inside of me that I never knew was empty, and throughout his life he has been a great support to me as my companion animal, I have Aspergers syndrome and Jules helped me navigate life outdoors, he watched over me. And I know without a shadow of a doubt that if the opportunity arose he would have given his life to protect me. At the age of four he began to have epileptic seizures. The first seizure caused a flurry of panic because we thought he was choking. Eventually he started having 8 to 9 seizures a day; it broke my heart, as the pain of any friend would elicit from me. We changed veterinarian, medication and routines and diet, the seizures stopped. But the side effects of the new medication were far too grave and Jules never recovered his spark or health. Then two months ago he lost his gait, could not walk properly without wobbling, kept loosing his footing, and falling over all the time, he could not hold his head up properly, and stopped welcoming people when they visited. Jules’ typical Staffie grin had gone for good. I had to feed him some days, help him to toilet, wash him when he soiled himself and comfort him when he was fed up. I didn’t mind in the slightest. As I write this I am heart broken at the loss of my companion. I prayed, that he would recover, or at least not be in pain, but the Lord wanted him back. I finally made the call and the date was set. It upset me greatly because I feel I betrayed him and I’m finding it very hard not to shed tears, it broke my heart, you see, that my friend and constant companion was going to leave me before I was ready for him to do so. My nephew asked me ‘so what happens? They don’t sin. So do they go straight to heaven without passing go and collecting £200?’ The Catholic answer was no. Saint Francis of Assisi would probably have said yes. The Celtic Christian answer is a definitive, yes, of course Jules  will go to heaven. Whenever the answer may be, for no theologian or religious really knows anything about God our creator for sure, I answered my nephew ‘Jules having been at my side for 9 years has become a part of me, he is engraved in both my soul and my mind, that being so, wherever my soul goes, Jules will accompany me too, and whilst he may not be with me physically he will always be in my heart and soul. He spent his time at my side whilst at prayer for many years, so God knows him. And as Ben Solo says in the last Jedi ‘No one is ever really gone!’ And are we not told that “… with God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)” For the fate of men and beasts is identical: as the one dies, so does the other. They all have the same life-breath, and man has no advantage over the beast in this regard, so you tell me, do animals go to heaven? Only a spirit can know and love; the spirit’s two chief faculties being intellect (understanding) and the will (which loves). We know human souls are spiritual since humans can know and love, “intimacy, passion and commitment” of which Jules had heaps, happen to be core components of love. 

Just consider this story of the elderly widow whose beloved little dog died after fifteen faithful years. Distraught, she went to her pastor. “Parson,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “The vicar said animals have no souls. My darling dog has died. Does that mean I won’t see her again in heaven?” “Madam,” said the old priest, God, in His great love and wisdom created heaven to be a place of perfect happiness. I am sure that if you need your little dog to complete your happiness, you will find her there.”