Contradicting an old belief that dogs have no souls and therefore cannot go to heaven, Pope Francis says there's room for dogs -- and all creatures -- in heaven.
According to The New York Times, the pope was recently comforting a boy who was upset that his dog had died. Speaking to the child during a public appearance on St. Peter's Square, he reportedly told the boy, "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
In less than two years as pope, Francis, 77, has broken from several conventional positions of previous Catholic leaders, making assertions that have caught many off guard, pleasantly surprising some while raising concerns among conservatives -- including statements advocating acceptance and/or compassion for gays, unmarried couples, atheists and divorced people.
His most recent comments elicited supportive responses from animal advocates. Humane Society spokesperson Christine Gutleben told the New York Times, "If the pope did mean that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals have a soul ... And if that's true, then we ought to seriously consider how we treat them. We have to admit that these are sentient beings, and they mean something to God."
Meanwhile, a Christian outreach group with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement that said, in part, "PETA Christian is deeply touched and encouraged that Pope Francis has acknowledged that other species are called along with human beings into eternal life with Christ." PETA went on to note that, "the most loving thing that we can do toward God's creatures is not to eat them."
According to the Times, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council responded that the pope's comments "certainly do not mean that slaughtering and eating animals is a sin."
The BBC reports that there are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world.