Friday, January 2, 2015

An Inordinate Fondness for Flesh-Eating Bacteria

A friend of mine posted these remarks --
Several people I know have had to say goodbye to their pets recently or having to face the prospect of doing so. I'm not a believer, but it seems to me that if God does exist, S/He wouldn't be so petty as to deny happiness to all of creation. So good on Pope Francis.
-- with a link to this article about everybody's favorite Bishop of Rome.  Since President Obama has proven to be a disappointment, many liberals and progressives are evidently looking for a New Hope, and they've found one in Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  They never seem to see the irony in this.  They're quite ready to dismiss with scorn those Christians and Christian leaders who appeal to imaginary beings to say things they dislike, but they seem sure that Pope Francis is a true Christian who's getting the Church back to the real, original teachings of Christ, risking his life to speak truth to power and preach the real will of God.  This is true even for some who present themselves as atheists; I must say I doubt that someone who appeals to the real will of God is really an atheist.  But leaving that aside, how do they know what God really wants?  How does Francis know what God really wants, or will do?

My friend's comment on the meme is a case in point.  Why does he take for granted that the creator of supernovae, mass extinctions, plagues, cancer, flesh-eating bacteria, birth defects lethal and merely disabling, predators, and human beings -- with all our unlovely traits and practices -- gives a rat's ass about "the happiness of all creation"?  Why would he suppose that such a being cares whether human beings see their pets in the afterlife?  (Except for cats, of course. That's why I'm a cat person, so I'll have a companion animal in Hell.)  The prevalence of suffering in the world is, at the very least, evidence against any claim that its creator is concerned with "the happiness of all creation."

I'd also say it's going too far to take for granted that these humans will go to Heaven.  Will Fido look down on his Mommy's torment in Hell, as Lazarus did on Dives from the bosom of Abraham?  And that's assuming that there is an afterlife, which is a big assumption.

The linked article, from the New York Times, is thoroughly fatuous and sloppy.  As so often has happened, it involves a wild explication of a stray remark by the Pontiff.  The writer begins by declaring that Francis "has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the Big Bang Theory."  I'm certainly gratified to know that I can hope to be reunited with the Big Bang Theory in Heaven; surely the creator of the universe wouldn't be so petty as to deny me that.

Anyway, here's what happened:
During a weekly general audience at the Vatican last month, the pope, speaking of the afterlife, appeared to suggest that animals could go to heaven, asserting, “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”

Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, analyzing the pope’s remarks, concluded he believed animals have a place in the afterlife. It drew an analogy to comforting words that Pope Paul VI was said to have once told a distraught boy whose dog had died: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

The news accounts of Francis’ remarks were welcomed by groups like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who saw them as a repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.
"Appeared to suggest"!  "Was said to have once told"!  With support like that, who needs an actual declaration from the papal throne?  You can hope for anything you like, regardless of what the Vatican says, and you can make up whatever fanciful tales you like about what the pope says or believes, but that doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want.

For what little it's worth, the Christian Bible doesn't have any clear account of the afterlife or of the "soul."  (I'm frequently surprised by people who talk confidently about souls, though they have no idea what a soul is, even if it exists; no one does.  I don't see how you can have a "new debate" on whether animals have souls when you don't know whether human beings have them.)  It doesn't, as far as I know, say anything about the status of non-human animals in the heavens or after death.  The "conservative Roman Catholic theology" is constructed of later extrapolations from the Bible, Aristotelian and Platonist philosophy, and theologians' prejudices and fantasies.  I don't see why the Humane Society or PETA, unless they are affiliated with and subordinate to the Roman Catholic Church, should care much what the pope has to say on this or any subject.  From the Times article I conclude that their spokespeople simply took the opportunity to expound their favorite talking points.

Maybe Francis does believe that animals will go to heaven; that's more than can be said for most human beings, since Jesus said explicitly that only a few would find eternal life salvation compared to the many would be lost.  But unless you're a conservative Catholic who believes that the pope has the keys to the gates of heaven, transmitted by apostolic succession from Simon Peter -- unless, that is, you accept Catholic mythology -- I see no reason to believe that Francis knows any more about this than anyone else does.