For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 April 2015.
On Good Friday, our dog, Ben, died. A sad irony, you may think, that a Catholic priest should suffer a loss on the day of the death of Christ himself.
Ben and his surviving brother, Joe, Cavalier King Charles, have been part of our household since they came to us as tiny, cute, charming puppies almost 10 years ago.
We will miss Ben very much. If you have lost a dear pet you will understand this. From a youngster with boundless energy, and appetite to match, he grew and grew and became comfortable in his easy routine of meat, treats and snoozing. Cavaliers snore very loudly, so we always knew where he was. When the Archbishop came to visit I didn’t think it would matter that the two were asleep in the room where we met - until we tried to make ourselves heard over snores more characteristic of hippopotamuses than small dogs. Whenever we called Ben’s name his tail would be heard banging loudly on the floor - no need for him to run and meet us (far too much effort). He would lie still on the floor, raising only his eyelids to spy the scene with cautious curiosity. No point in putting himself out …
Unless of course, it involved food, not just the meals which were set before him, nor the far too many snacks and treats, but also food left for his brother, scraps which had tumbled to the floor, cooked meats deep in bags of shopping and even - when young and lively enough to manage it - the leftovers in the kitchen bin.
He wasn’t the brightest dog ever. If his water bowl ran low he would turn it over and scratch at the floor to search for more. Not much a problem-solver, our Ben.
Yet of course, we loved him - especially my wife, whose dog he really was - and we remember him now with great affection, and of course sorrow.
For those who have never shared their lives with companion animals it may be hard to understand. Yet if you have had a pet, you know very well the pain of loss, which is not so very different from a human bereavement.
So what can I, as a priest, say about this?
After all, when we lose a loved one, faith provides a reassurance that there is a hope of life beyond this life, that love is greater even than death. Isn’t this message of Good Friday? And Easter Day? That however great the loss, even greater is the power of Love, the power of God?
So do dogs go to heaven? Do animals have souls?
Here is a theological controversy in which my wife and I take different sides.
With St Thomas Aquinas I say No. Only human beings have rational souls. Only human beings sin, only human beings need to be redeemed.
My wife, on the other hand says Yes. Dogs do have souls. They do go to heaven. (Of course).
Though our views aren’t so far apart.
Many people find it hard to believe in the Resurrection, which Christians celebrated on Easter Day, because they see it in much too narrow a way. A person dying and coming back to life? These things just don’t happen - or if they do there is some kind of rational explanation. How can this be the basis for a whole religion?
But the Resurrection is much more than the anniversary of an historical event. Resurrection is not just about one human being, or even every human being, but about the whole of creation. The Resurrection is Jesus “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The power of Love is so strong, that death and sickness and pain and suffering and wickedness and loss are all overcome.
So yes, for once my wife is right: you will find dogs in heaven.