While still a seminarian, my superior demonstrated an alternative approach to the one I encountered recently at Mass, when I was confronted by an irate man who asked how it was possible that a dog was in the church. The dog was with his owner in the front row, lying down quietly as the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. I went to my superior and asked if I was correct in stating that dogs were indeed allowed into the church in question. Who, asked my superior, is giving God more reverence: the silent dog resting in front of his creator, or the man who, instead of praying, was wandering around restlessly finding someone who would hear his complaints? The answer was implied in the question.
If the Mass is a glimpse of Heaven on Earth, we must ask ourselves in what way dogs might relate to eternal blessedness
The question of whether dogs belong at Mass cannot be addressed without first reminding ourselves of theological views on the nature of animals. Moreover, if the Mass is a glimpse of Heaven on Earth, we must ask ourselves in what way dogs might relate to eternal blessedness. A classic, specifically Thomistic view, is that while dogs have souls, they do not have rational souls. This philosophical anthropology is taken from Aristotle, who made a tripartite division of souls: the nutritive soul shared by all living things, including plants; the sensitive soul shared by any living animal; and finally the rational soul reserved only to humans. It is this final and highest form of soul that can live eternally and commune with Our Lord in Heaven. Hence, no other type of soul, such as an animal soul, has this eternal trajectory.
Yet St Thomas’s very own order, the Dominican friars, are sometimes referred to jocosely as the ‘Domini Canes’ – the hounds of God. St Dominic’s mother, we are told, had a dream during her struggles with infertility, in which she saw a dog who jumped from her womb while holding a torch of fire, setting everything around her ablaze. This is why St Dominic is often depicted with a dog holding a flaming stick in his mouth. Other saints with a close relation to dogs are St Francis, who spoke to animals, and St Philip Neri who had a dog called Capriccio.
St Thomas’s very own order, the Dominican friars, are sometimes referred to jocosely as the ‘Domini Canes’ – the hounds of God
The view of animals as lacking eternal souls is perhaps the most widespread, but it is by no means the final word. Pope Paul VI famously stated that paradise is open to all creatures, which was reaffirmed, in a way, by the current Holy Father who quoted St Paul (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) saying “the whole universe will be renewed and will be freed once and for all from every trace of evil and from death itself”. There is also an argument for this position from tradition, which includes St Maximus the Confessor who in Questions and Doubts argues that the Church speaks of three restorations, the second being “that of the entire nature in the resurrection, the restoration to incorruption and immortality”. To be noted in all cases above is the idea of universal restoration of things to a perfect order, in the sense that whatever is perfect in God’s sight and worthy of abiding in an Eternal paradise will be present in Heaven. The question then becomes: don’t animals who act in accordance with their nature give glory to God, just as we humans do when we use our rational soul correctly and virtuously? If the souls differ, must not the criteria for our restoration differ also?
So, can dogs attend Mass? They are surely not capable of comprehending the actions taking place in front of them due to their lack of a rational soul. But then again, who amongst us fully comprehends the mysteries involved? And does a weeping child present an inconvenience to the assembled congregation, or do we not justly see them as participating in a loving action directed towards our Creator and Redeemer? Dogs, as the cliché states, are man’s best friend. This does not mean, as the Holy Father recently stated, pets can be equated with children. He did not, however, state that pets are unwelcome family members, only that they cannot be a substitute for offspring. Looking to the Dominicans and the greater tradition of the Church, dogs have often been around the hubs of Christianity. In Latin America, it is not an infrequent sight to see dogs wandering about in a church building. Much of this is surely cultural, but the theological question surely ought to be raised, and for my part I see no hindrance to allowing dogs at Mass and preserving the hope that our pets will one day join us in eternal beatitude.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg is a writer and philosopher based in London and Stockholm
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