Informed Catholics are likely to dismiss the animal rights protesters who stormed a church in Italy earlier this year, demanding that the Church recognise that animals have souls and should be treated like Christians. Of course animals don’t have souls, we might respond, and of course they cannot be Christians. The shrill manner of the protest, and the lack of thoughtful theological justification, suggests that this was a lunatic fringe deserving no serious attention.

But it would be a pity if we neglected the issues that the protesters raised because of the silliness of their methods: bursting into a Mass, dogs in arms. Sadly, the use of the term “soul” in which they framed their protest pretty much guaranteed that they were not going to get a hearing. Catholics are generally conditioned to frame all talk about what is of enduring importance in terms of the soul, defined as that which will survive physical dissolution. Either animals have souls and are morally equivalent to humans, or they do not and so do not matter at all.

The media commentary on the protest implicitly accepted these reductive options, limiting the possibility of a more nuanced response. But it should be obvious to anyone even vaguely acquainted with animals that neither of these alternatives can be correct. Animals are not the same as human beings; but neither are they nothing.

“Soul” is not the only – or even the most dominant – language of the New Testament in framing God’s salvific purposes. The biblical imagination is not restricted in this way: it employs the language of creation and re-creation, of cosmic renewal. It was this that Pope Francis was referring to when he was misreported as saying that pets go to heaven. He was drawing much-needed attention, as he did in his encyclical Laudato Si’, to the scriptural testimony that God’s purposes embrace everything he has made.

Biblical Christology is universal in scale: everything comes into being through Christ and is reconciled to God in Christ. If we say that dogs, cats or horses have no moral or spiritual significance, we are, in effect, saying that they are outside of Christ. And that is pure heterodoxy.

The protesters were offering a salutary summons to Christians to articulate what it could mean for a dog – or, indeed, a whale or worm – to be “in Christ”. To refuse this challenge is to fall into gnosticism: the heresy of regarding this material world as without inherent value, as outside God’s design of love. That is the first step towards denying the Incarnation altogether. It is no accident that the early campaigns for animal welfare arose in Christian cultures.

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