Note: Due to health challenges of a serious but not severe nature, blogging will be light this week. Here is one I composed last week:
Most of you know that I write a column for Our Sunday Visitor entitled “Pastoral Answers.” A few years ago a collection of over 500 questions and answers was complied into a Book called Catholic and Curious. Every now and again, here on the blog I like to feature an interesting question covered there. You see my weekly columns at OSV.COM
So Here is a recent question and my answer:
I am told that pets do have a soul, but not a rational souls as do we. What happens to the souls of pets when they die? Is there any divine consideration? Paul VanHoudt. Erie CO
In terms of answering your question, some definitions and distinctions should be made. You are correct in asserting that pets have a soul. The term “soul” technically understood is the animating or life-giving principle of any living thing. Hence animals have souls, even plants do, and clearly, we have souls. When the soul (or animating principle) mysteriously departs the physical aspects of the living thing cease to function and fall into decay and disintegration. What makes the human soul unique is, as you also point out, we have rational souls. It is that part of our soul we often call our spirit. The spirit is not a third aspect of our being. It is part of our soul.
Having rational souls distinguishes us dramatically from animals such as mammals and primates. Some today assert that we are not very different at all from the animals. But this is demonstrably untrue. Physically we have many similarities with other mammals: lungs, eyes, heart, limbs, etc. But the similarities stop there. You will know something by its fruits and it is clear that animals lack a rational soul while we have one. We are highly organized and have made vast technological progress over the centuries. We have governments, universities, libraries, hospitals, courts, cathedrals and endless technologies. We debate justice, hold each other accountable, reward good and punish wrong-doing and mourn our dead. We are innovative and always asking “why?” We have been to the moon and back and search the stars. The list could go on, but animals, even the highest primates do none of this and have shown no progress toward such things. This demonstrates that they do not have rational souls whereas we humans do.
As to your question, it is revealed to us by God that we have immortal souls and further, that our bodies too will rise in a perfected and glorified state. This is not said of the animals, at least not every individual animal. So the most common and “safe” answer is that when animals die they just cease to exist.
However, this is not definitively taught and there are indications that animals, at least in some general way will partake of the new creation at the Second Coming. For example, Isaiah described the Messianic age as a time when The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the nest of the cobra… (Isaiah 11:6-9). St Paul also writes that Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21). And finally St. John in his vision of the New Creation saw Christ seated in glory and Christ said to him: “See I make all things new.” (Rev 21:5)
This does not necessarily mean that every cow or hyena that ever lived will come back to life but only that animals, as a group and in varied species will partake of the New Creation after the Second Coming.
Therefore I think our pets will, as you state, receive a special “divine consideration” since they were part of our lives. I cannot know this for certain, but I think the argument can be made. Further, in heaven, we will live in eternity, in the fullness of time. And while we may not experience the comprehensive now that God does, it would seem we do have some access to our past which includes our pets. How we will experience all this is mysterious and so I pose this whole answer as speculative theology.
There is however, one danger to avoid. We must not reduce heaven’s joys to having earthly things. Heaven is far greater than any thing we can imagine, be it pets or any earthly joy.