We all know that Pope Francis cares deeply for the marginalized, but did you realize that his compassion bridges the species barrier? He suggests that animals will go to heaven and that the Virgin Mary “grieves for the sufferings” even of mistreated livestock.
“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place,” he has written.
I share his conviction that dogs go to heaven – indeed, heaven would be diminished if there were no dogs. And it’s exhilarating to see a spiritual leader whose empathy goes beyond the widow and orphan to, say, the parrot (Francis once blessed a parrot belonging to a former male stripper).
More on Francis’ empathy for animals in a moment. In a larger sense, it is this boundless compassion that has made him such a popular figure, even among non-Catholics.
Indeed, here’s the delicious irony: Francis is revered even by many atheists.
The backdrop is that the Christian “brand” has suffered from culture wars, hypocritical televangelist blowhards and the sense that Christian leaders have spent more time condemning gays (whom Jesus never mentions) than helping the needy (Jesus’ passion). Some young people have gone so far as to avoid the label “Christian,” calling themselves followers of Jesus instead. It carries less baggage.
Yet I wonder if that taint isn’t beginning to fade. In the Protestant world, the baton has passed to evangelical leaders who are less interested in culture wars, and under Francis the same may increasingly be true of Roman Catholicism. In his remarks during his White House visit on Wednesday, Francis focused once again on climate change, the environment and immigrants.
Our public figures are often narcissists, utterly self-absorbed in their quest for power. And into this mix strides Francis, drawn to the powerless, focused on issues like climate change and human trafficking, declaring, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined.”
Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, the evangelical aid group, cites that passage and says Francis’ writing should be required reading across denominations.
“I have been deeply grieved by the damage done to the reputation of Christianity in recent years by Christians shaking their fists at the culture,” Stearns says. “Perhaps the shortest definition of God in Scripture is from 1 John 4:8, ‘God is love.’ Pope Francis is trying to show the world the simplicity of that revolutionary idea.”
Deborah Fikes, of the World Evangelical Alliance, puts it this way: “As a U.S. evangelical who has been so disappointed in how leaders from my own faith tradition have lost sight of what an authentic Christian witness really looks like, Pope Francis is nailing it, and this is resonating with Catholics and Protestants, including evangelicals.”
The excitement about Francis is about his tone as much as his substance, and he shares many of the conservative social values of his predecessors. To me, one of the most striking shifts that go beyond tone is one that has commanded almost no notice: his calls for animal rights.
“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures,” he declared in his encyclical on the environment. “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.”
There are many such passages, including a warning against unnecessary experiments on animals.
It would be a mistake to say, as one animal rights group did, that the pope’s message is “go vegan,” and it’s unclear what the practical implications are. Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary has called on the pope to match his words by making the Vatican cafeteria vegetarian – but I wouldn’t bet on that happening soon.
Still, Francis is relentlessly shining his spotlight on the voiceless, whether two-legged or four-legged, and that is new.
Pope Paul VI is said to have once comforted a boy by saying that he could see his dog again in heaven, but Pope Benedict XVI contradicted that.
Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University who has written a book about the theology of animal protection, says that Francis’ carefully reviewed encyclical this year constitutes the first authoritative Catholic statements that animals enjoy eternal life. Camosy says this is a milestone, although he says he would have also welcomed Francis’ clarifying our moral obligations to, say, pigs versus mosquitoes.
The pope’s sweeping empathy will benefit the poor, the refugees and, perhaps gradually, animals we abuse in factory farms. But it does more; his humility and compassion also benefit the reputation of Christianity itself, by helping to recast it from pointing fingers to helping hands.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.