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July 27, 2011

Will I See My Dog in Heaven?

Friar Jack Wintz explores what may become of animals after death in this thought-provoking book

  • Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M and a friend. Paraclete Press

  • Will I See My Dog in Heaven? Paraclete Press

  • The cat and dog lover's gift editions of Fr. Jack's book. Paraclete Press

by Bernard Unti

Like the debate over their treatment by humankind, the catalogue of books, essays, and other musings on the immortality of animals is a long one, stretching back hundreds of years.

The question of a future life for animals—the immortality of animal souls—is an enduring emotional and theological concern for millions of faithful persons throughout the world.

It has been that way for a long while. Wesley, Luther, Chalmers, Kingsley, Butler, Stanley, Taylor, and other theologians all registered their views in the affirmative.

Notwithstanding the attention the topic has received, there is room for another good treatment, and that’s what Father Jack Wintz has produced. Will I See My Dog in Heaven? (Paraclete Press, 2011) is a succinct and clear discussion, serious in its scholarship, yet direct in its appeal to the layperson.

It is no surprise that Wintz, a Franciscan, sees St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment as a bridge or a unifier, a lens for his own understanding and concern for animals as our fellow travelers in creation, and a source of special insight and inspiration. But Wintz also finds strength for his beliefs concerning the human-animal bond from the Old Testament, in the stories of Noah and Jonah as evidence of God’s inclusive love.

Wintz also goes a little further than many who have written on the topic in pressing the case for the primacy of Christ in such debates, drawing for example upon St. Paul’s teachings in Colossians that Christ is present in all creatures and that all creatures are present in Christ.

One of the singular attributes of Will I See My Dog in Heaven? is Wintz’s sympathetic engagement with the position of skeptics, who might feel, for whatever reason, that there is no place in heaven for non-human creatures. His basic response relies on the evidence from Genesis that animals found happiness in the garden of Eden, and from Isaiah that animals (lambs and lions, in any event) were peace-blessed in the final paradise.

“There are a lot of things we just don’t know about life with God,” Wintz admits, “and one of those things is how nonhumans participate in that life.” At heart, however, “we know that there is a principle of life at play in them as in us,” he observes. Animals “found happiness in the first Paradise. Why then would God—or anyone else—want to exclude them from the paradise that is yet to come?,” and “Wouldn’t it seem strange if our sister and brother creatures—who have been invited in each of these songs—to praise God with us here in this life, are not welcome to praise God with us in heaven?” In such gentle but wise observations, Wintz makes a quiet and beautiful case.

Wintz’s book is a celebration of “creature to creature” connection, and the idea that “the whole family of creation is meant to walk together in peace and harmony on this earth as they journey to God.” But it is not really prescriptive as to the broader set of responsibilities that humans may have toward non-human animals.

It is sad enough to consider that there may be millions of Christians who do not believe that nonhumans have a place in heaven. But it is probably worse that there are many millions more who do not do much to act upon Christian ethics or other humane principles when it comes to the treatment of animals in the temporal world, the one we know.

Wintz says less about this subject than could be desired, but he does give voice on the matter to another admirer of St. Francis, The Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, quoted on the occasion of the Blessing of the Animals Service in New York in 2002: “It would be sad to sentimentalize St. Francis, instead of seeing that one major healing is needed on this planet, our fragile island home. What needs healing most urgently is our relationship to creation.”

One might also put it this way. St. Francis is one of the most popular saints in human history. His feast day is celebrated world-wide, often with pet blessings. What can those who celebrate and wish to advance his legacy do to move beyond the “pet blessing” and continue thinking, and encouraging others to think, about animal protection issues throughout the year?

In the minds of animal advocates, for several centuries now, the question of animals’ immortality has been deeply interconnected with the question of their treatment on earth. If their souls are immortal, they deserve our concern, our protection, and our love and will share in the joys of the hereafter. If not, it increases the burden upon us to ensure their safety, security, and happiness in this one life they do enjoy.

As a whole, the idea of the sacramentality of animals, the idea that, in Wintz’s words, “every created thing can be a sign or a sacrament or reflection of the divine,” is a powerful one, and it helps to account for why the question of their immortality remains such a rich and deep vein of Christian faith and practice. And it can and should do more to inspire a greater care and regard for animals in the here and now.

A special gift versions of the book, I Will See You in Heaven, cat lover’s and dog lover’s editions, are now available in hardback by Paraclete Press.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D. is senior policy advisor and special assistant to the president of The Humane Society of the United States

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