The Danger of Lifting Pets to the Dignity of the Human Person.
Usually when you want to stir the pot as a priest you begin by discussing issues such as contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or any sexual and moral issue. That is what I thought, until I made mention of what I had learned about the difference between pets and human souls in my Thomistic Philosophy Class during Seminary formation. It might interest you to know that Thomistic Philosophy (the study of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought) is the only philosophy mandated by Rome to be taught to those preparing for the priesthood. According to Vatican I, Thomistic Philosophy is considered the perennial philosophy of the Church. This of course does not mean that this particular brand of philosophy is dogmatized, but rather it is your typical “go-to” place when we want to discuss the systematic nature of theology in the Church.
What I’ve noticed in our culture today is an inordinate love of pets. People gravely wounded by loneliness have turned to pets to fill the gap. But we must return to the book of Genesis to examine why this is disordered. We remember that Adam had been given all the animals on the earth as a gift, and he had the freedom to name each one. Yet, despite naming all of them, he discovered that they didn’t really fulfill him. Therefore, despite being in a good relationship with all of nature, man was still found to be alone and in isolation. Man lacked communion with another, and animals simply didn’t fill that deep gap within his own being. God had created man and woman with a degree of incompleteness. Therefore God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” So God created for Adam, woman. St. John Paul II explains that “Adam” prior to Eve represented all of humanity, and the creation of woman in Eve represents the creation of both sexes. Woman being presented as being created last also means that she is God’s master-piece.
When Adam awoke from his sleep (a sort of ‘going-out-of-being’) he found Eve and discovered her to finally fill (to some degree) that gap within his own heart and soul. “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” At last, amongst all the earth, man had found his true companion. That hunger, that desire for communion, for affection and love, was now properly ordered in human-relationships.
When Adam, then followed the command of God to “Be fruitful and multiply,” they did not bear dogs and cats as children, but rather Cain and Abel. God’s command to have children was related to the conjugal act of erotic love between man and woman. Therefore the need for communion not only extended to the spouse, but also to the creation of a community with children. It is therefore in the nature of man and woman to desire a communion of love that bears the fruit of new life.
What happens when we don’t fill our natural needs? We sometimes go about trying to fill them in an unnatural or inordinate or unreasonable manner. The sad thing about this is, this hunger is the most fundamental gift that each of us have within ourselves, and it does not merely point towards children and a spouse, but it ultimately points towards God. Married couples discover quickly that after the Honeymoon, life is not entirely fulfilled. In other words, marriage acts as a foretaste of what a relationship with God is all about. A foretaste does not entirely satisfy our longing, but gives us a preview that inflames or awakens our hunger even more.
The danger is, if our hunger is inflamed but we do not know where to order it, we will go about turning a foretaste into a gluttonous feast. Theologically speaking, we will turn an icon into an idol. Husbands and wives who possess each other without respecting each other’s freedom is precisely an example of this. It leads to a self-centred vacuum where each person becomes a black hole that seeks to suck the life and goodness out of others, and it is an infinite thing. Because man seeks God, who is infinite, as man unreasonably seeks his happiness in what is finite, it becomes addictive and never-ending. Nothing ever truly satisfies, and because man stops looking up towards heaven, he continues to search the earth to fulfill his need for infinity with what is finite. He will discover, hopefully that this is a pointless endeavour.
As a celibate male, I realize this in a more phenomenological way than merely theological and dialectical. The desire for communion is not “finally” answered through a sacred relationship with a wife. Rather, my heart is zealously pointed towards a complete and uncompromising thirst for God alone. I do not want the sign, I want the Trinity to burn within my Soul, the true spouse of my soul. It is not that I dismiss woman, but I see her as a gift who points me towards something that I hunger for even more deeply: the one to whom she was created in the Image and Likeness of: God.
This is, finally, why there is no marriage (human-marriage) in heaven, as Jesus explains. For each soul is married to God, who is capable of giving each of us the fullness of His attention. Some married couples have a difficult time with this, because they claim that their human spouse will be the most important relationship they have in heaven. But I have to remind them, their spouse on earth, while a gift from God, is merely a foretaste of the husband you will have for your own soul in heaven. Who would dare to replace God as husband? Can they outdo Him in love? We the Church, His Bride, are engaged at Baptism to God in heaven, and we hope our death is our wedding day and consummation with Him.
What happens, though when we fall into darkness about God and the hunger within ourselves? That hunger is so profound it motivates all of our actions. And this must be the reason why topics pertaining to sex often bring out all the world’s venom. Reconsider St. John the Baptist who had his head chopped off because of the Gospel he preached. Consider St. Thomas More! Don’t we get it? If our happiness and desire for total fulfillment is challenged, the spirit of murder rises up within ourselves to meet what is preventing us from filling that vacuum within ourselves.
Another way of putting it is, when we seek finite realities as our fulfillment: both humans and creatures and things, to fill our wounded, hungering heart as the ultimate fulfillment we seek, we become competitive with each other. With finite-resources being limited, it is impossible for us not to become competitive. If God, however is our resource/source of happiness, then there is no need for competition, because there is enough of Him to go around to everyone. God therefore finally resolves the reason for all conflict, when He is placed as our ultimate goal and the food that we truly hunger for: for man does not hunger for bread alone.
What I have witnessed in people who call pets their children is a desire to create a fantasy that numbs the very real pain of loneliness that comes natural to them. Those who love their pets inordinately will actually say, (and I have witnessed it first hand) that if their pets are not in heaven, they do not want to go there. They have traded in God for a pet. But what they loved in their Pet is already in God, infinitely, and thus fail to realize that the pet is an even smaller foretaste, but still nonetheless a foretaste of God’s good nature.
Whether or not pets are in heaven, along with their tapeworms, it should be a trivial question if our hunger is rightly ordered. Do not get me wrong: I love animals. I am a dog-person. I will get down on my knees and play with a dog, howl with the dog, and let the dog lick my face for hours. In fact, I even had a mystical experience with a dog – as weird as that sounds. I remember a time when I was very broken as a teen during a retreat. I left the prayer group in sobbing tears, and sat outside. Randomly a dog came up to me, and sat beside me. God gave me the supernatural grace to realize that it was not the dog who was loving me, but God was loving me, symbolically through the dog. It was a type of knowledge you receive by grace, not by mere reasoning. If this is the type of relationship we have with nature, then it is healthy. But if it is perverted by the idea that the actual pet is our happiness and necessary for our happiness, then we might consider going to adoration more.
Today we confuse the affection that exists in animals for love, they lift dogs and cats, therefore to the dignity of the human person. Please: don’t buy into the notion that the Church hasn’t dogmatically claimed whether or not animals have the same type of soul as humans. The practice of the Church to baptize only human beings speaks for itself, and not once has any theological statement claimed that Christ died for the sins of Pepper, my deceased childhood dog. People want to believe their pets love them, because they are too burdened by the fact that their non-existent spouse doesn’t love them, because he or she doesn’t exist. The illusion of love in a pet makes the pain go away. But it’s an illusion. And one that I have witnessed will be defended at the cost of ostracizing a priest on Facebook. Feeling that hunger is really what makes us good Christians if we allow it to become zeal for God.
What needs to happen, and this is coming from a man burning with desire for communion, is to learn to live in the pain of “waiting” for that infinite love of God to be received. If our call is the single life, we should look at this as a gift that sets us on fire like a rocket towards heaven. Order your desire for love, your feelings of loneliness towards your ultimate end: God. Do not look at marriage as your ultimate fulfillment, but a means to arrive at your ultimate destination: marriage with God.
Love Your Pets
Love your pets, but love them not as a human being: love them as a very small picture of what God is like infinitely. Love humans even more, but again, don’t love them as you would Love God. Don’t make pets or humans into an idol: make God your object of worship.