On occasion, I get asked whether animals “have souls,” though the questioner’s real meaning is almost always: “Do animals have an afterlife?”
To claim there is a de fide Church teaching about this would be untrue, as the sources don’t fully address the question. Rather there is a majority consensus among textbooks that’s taken from Greek philosophy, and a “minority” view (most likely believed by most laity), with various Popes being quoted in both directions.
I don’t claim to know the “once and for all” answer, but I do have speculations and some very strong opinions. Following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my Handbook of Exorcism and Deliverance, where I attempt to square this theological circle:
What about the Animals?
Another question one commonly encounters is whether animals have souls. And then, if an animal has a soul, which animals? If a German Shepherd has a soul, then does a housefly have a soul on equal footing? How do they relate to mankind?
One common way Catholicism explains this is that animals have an animal soul (i.e. “animal” in the sense of “giving movement” or “animation”) and an emotional nature, but only humans have a rational nature (the part of the soul capable of virtue or sin, and that receives eternal punishment or reward). Thus, when an animal dies, it is said the animal simply ceases to exist. In other words, Catholicism emphatically teaches that your dead Chihuahua will not be waiting for you in heaven.
Obviously, this is not something every individual Catholic believes, and many Catholics, including clergy, find this answer repulsive. In fact, Pope Paul VI is said once to have consoled a boy who lost his dog, telling him: “One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.”
Sadly, I do not have a source for that quotation, though it was often incorrectly attributed to Jorge Bergoglio back in 2015. The real truth is that Catholicism, in spite of maintaining that animals have souls and maintaining a set of principles about how to treat animals in this life (CCC 2415-2418), does not have an official position on what happens to their souls after they die. Just because there may be a majority position among educated Catholics, does not mean that a majority opinion – even if a Pope utters it – can be confused for an infallible dogma, and so we may as well resign ourselves to a debate between animal lovers versus non-animal lovers for the time being.
For a view of the “pro” position, I refer you to this article from US Catholic, Do Dogs Go to Heaven? https://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201605/do-dogs-go-heaven-30654
For the “con” position, the article Pets in Heaven from the EWTN website: https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/pets_in_heaven.htm
My own personal take on this is a little nuanced, and I feel it necessary to assert this is only a personal speculation, not a theological assertion. Starting from where everybody agrees (that animals have a soul), the question becomes “Do animals have a rational nature?” I then look at the rational nature in humans and find that while humans have one, each human’s rational nature has a different stage of development. Consider, for example, the infant whose rational nature is not developed at all, but who goes to heaven if dying immediately after baptism.
Consider also an adult struggling with mental handicaps or developmental issues, who is also eligible for heaven but whose rationality is not on the same footing as another adult who is “neurotypical.” We could likewise consider all sorts of human characteristics and conditions, and come away with the conclusion that while the rational nature of one person may be more or less developed than that of another, each person still has a rational nature. This also tells us the bare minimum requirement for an afterlife is that a rational nature is present, not that it be fully developed.
Now let us apply this to animals. When we look at insects, for example, we find them capable of learning but not necessarily of cognition. Generally speaking, one ant will act like another ant in a given set of circumstances, a bedbug will act like another bedbug, and a cockroach will act like another cockroach. If we do not find cognition in a species, we do not find a rational nature. Hence insects would not be candidates for the afterlife.
Birds are generally more intelligent than insects. While most species of birds are not known for cognition, there are studies showing that crows, for example, can count up to eight and reason their way around barriers to reach food. If further research holds this to be true, then the crow’s soul might have the beginnings of a rational nature and might therefore be eligible for an afterlife.
Learning has been shown in reptiles, too, though my reading makes it unclear whether their learning is a “learning of imitation,” or a “learning of color recognition,” or a true cognitive process of learning. Thus I cannot speak on reptiles with clarity.
We move onward to mammals, where we find learning and some reasoning skills in cats, dogs, apes, and the higher mammals in general. In the higher mammals at least, there does seem to be a rational nature, and therefore eligibility for an afterlife.
This is the point where we should talk about limitations to rationality. An interesting yet fictional example that’s always stuck with me would be Planet of the Apes (the novel, not the movie), where the Apes had automobiles, airplanes, television, and even space travel, but had not invented any new technology in the past 10,000 years. The novel explains this by telling us the apes are imitators but not innovators, thus everything they had, they inherited and learned to maintain from the humans who suddenly lost their speech and became barbaric – you guessed it! – 10,000 years before the story takes place.
We must ask ourselves that, if this is truly the way the ape brain operates, would this be evidence that they do not have a rational nature? I would say no, because we find plenty of humans who learn and behave this way, too.
What this means for me is that while I point out there’s no controversy that animals do have a soul, I go a little further and speculate that some species of animals may be eligible for at least a kind of afterlife. I cannot go so far as to think this afterlife will involve admission into Heaven, because Heaven is closed to the unbaptized and animals are ineligible for Baptism. However, there is nothing preventing such souls from entry into the Limbus Infantium (i.e. eternal happiness but no Beatific Vision), as the cognitive development of many animals – especially mammals – could be on par with an unbaptized infant.
In practical terms, this means that if an animal is capable of an afterlife, then that animal is (hypothetically) capable of haunting a place or staying close to the human(s) he or she once knew and loved. If animals do not have any sort of afterlife, then all this is out of the question. While it means nothing in the big scheme of things, I can say that thus far in my life, I have never encountered (or even heard of) an exorcism case where a person was possessed or a house haunted by the spirit of an animal.
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In a nutshell, that’s where my thinking is thus far. Of course you’re welcome to agree, or disagree, or flush these thoughts down the toilet if you feel they so merit. For my part, however, my mind stays open to developing these thoughts further, though I find it difficult to accept the proposition that no animal is capable of a rational nature.
What does rationality & the ability to think have to do with the possession of an immortal soul?
Personally, I don’t think one necessarily has anything to do with the other. But it’s how so-called “educated” Catholic thought attempts to frame the question, so I have to address it in order to point out bad assumptions.