Though generally lauded by Catholics, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (henceforth, LS) was dismissed by some who saw its environmental call to arms as theological novelty. It’s no surprise then that, when a lightshow of wildlife was projected onto the façade of St. Peter’s basilica in 2015, quite a number of these same voices condemned the display as pagan, blasphemous, and even demonic. What these critics did not always recognize, however, is that a transformation in Catholic teaching about plants and animals has been underway for a while now; it did not begin with Francis. Vatican II initiated the environmental revolution, so to speak, and successive popes have furthered it. Not without reason did PETA deem Pope John Paul II a saint to animals or environmentalists nickname Pope Benedict XVI the “green pope.”
Until Vatican II, Catholic opinion about animals was decidedly influenced by Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century Dominican theologian. Aquinas believed that God had created plants and animals in order to serve humanity’s earthly needs. Humanity would not need their services in the next life and so, no longer useful, that part of creation would be eliminated. Only the heavenly spheres and the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), Aquinas maintained, would join us in the kingdom of God.
In recent decades, Catholic teachings on these issues have changed significantly, and we can understand those changes in terms of two broad shifts—the first is in regard to the purpose of creation (i.e., the reason why God created plants and animals) and the second relates to the question of whether or how these creatures will share in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive work (i.e., will they be “saved”?).
First, in a reversal of the earlier focus on creation’s service to us, recent teaching has underscored our service to creation. We are to transform the world, Pope Paul VI stated in 1972, so that it becomes “a beautiful abode where everything is respected” (Stockholm June 1). We have a “specific responsibility towards the environment,” Pope John Paul II stated, to act in ways that respect “the great good of life, of every life” (Evangelium Vitae, #42). Rather than seeing creation as something simply to be used, Pope Benedict XVI called us to cultivate creation so that its beauty is preserved as a place where the Holy Spirit “comes to meet us.” He bemoans that we have impaired creation’s sacramental luster. Instead of caring for creation as “God’s garden,” we have allowed “a thick layer of dirt” to cover it, making “it difficult if not impossible to perceive in it the Creator’s reflection” (Pentecost Homily 2006).
Pope Francis likewise appeals to these two themes—the need to care for creation (Christians are called to be “protectors of God’s handiwork,” LS, #217) and the fact that creation is a sacrament of God’s presence (all creatures “are now imbued with [Christ’s] radiant presence,” LS, #100). But he also builds on them in order to make a pointed and significant claim: “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” (LS, #83). With this simple statement, Francis fundamentally undercuts the traditional Catholic understanding of animal life. Simply put, when it comes to animals, it’s not all about us.
Given this development, the second shift is not too surprising: not only humanity, but all creation shares in Christ’s redemptive work. This cosmic understanding of salvation was adopted at Vatican II, though not without resistance. Some of the council fathers argued against it, preferring the traditional view that only creatures with immortal souls (i.e., humans, not animals) could be saved. Their arguments were rejected, and the council went on to profess its hope for the cosmos, that in the life to come, “the human race as well as the entire world . . . will be perfectly reestablished in Christ” (Lumen Gentium, #48).
Within a Catholic perspective, there can be no doubt that God’s redemptive plans include both humanity and creation; the council decided the issue and its doctrine has been repeatedly affirmed in subsequent teaching. Pope John Paul II, for example, stated that the “powers” of redemption permeate both “humanity and all creation” (Dominum et vivificantem, #52) and Pope Benedict XVI maintained that the “scope” of Jesus’s mission is “the whole of creation, the world in its entirety” (Jesus of Nazareth, p.100).
The question, however, is whether this cosmic salvation will entail something more akin to a re-creation (i.e., a new creation that replaces the old) or whether it will instead involve a renewal of the present order, one composed of the specific creatures living in the present age. To put it in more colloquial terms: will our dogs, cats, and other animals go to heaven? The Catholic Church has no official view, but Pope Francis seems to suggest that some such restoration will occur. He tells us that “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God” (LS, #83) and that “each creature”—each creature, not just creation in general—will be “resplendently transfigured” (LS, #243). Perhaps, then, the Church might one day endorse the hope of many of us, that the animals living in our present world will be welcomed into the world that is to come.
These are significant changes in Catholic views of animals. They have been decades in the making and are still unfolding. Because God treasures the creatures of our world, both human and nonhuman, Catholics must discern with new seriousness how we are to care for our fellow creatures. This heightened responsibility for animals does not diminish the unique dignity afforded to the human person. It should, however, lead us to renew and deepen our vocation as cultivators of God’s garden and to endeavor, in whatever ways grace allows, to help our world reflect God’s ultimate hope for all the creatures living within it.
Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J., is an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. Fr. Steck is an ethicist with a background in electrical engineering and a member of Georgetown’s Jesuit community.
His new book “All God’s Animals: A Catholic Theological Framework for Animal Ethics” is forthcoming in November 2019 from Georgetown University Press.