My grandmother lived to the age of 96, spending her last few years in bed.

This gave her time to wonder about what lay ahead after this life was over. She was very confident that she would be together with her husband, parents, brothers and sisters, but there was one detail that bothered her. What about her dogs?

“If there are no dogs in heaven, it won’t be heaven for me,” she reasoned. “But if there are dogs, it won’t be heaven for Mrs. So-and-so” (referring to a friend whose name I have since forgotten).

Twenty-two years ago next spring, my grandmother died and presumably learned the answer to her question. But for those of us who were left behind, it still remains a matter of debate. Do dogs go to heaven or not?

It appeared for a moment last week that the issue had been resolved by Pope Francis, who reportedly consoled a little boy whose dog had died with the promise that someday he would be together with his pet in paradise.

Later, Vatican news officials said the pontiff had been misquoted. What he really said was: “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us,” which does not even come close to answering the whole dogs-in-or-out question.


The story about the little boy was something an Italian reporter remembered Pope Paul VI saying, and it was accidentally attributed to Pope Francis in the English translation. So theologically, it’s still unresolved.

My grandmother was religious, in her way. She had been a New England-style Unitarian until the church got too open-minded in the 1960s.

Then she started going to the Episcopal Church, where she liked the music but found certain articles of faith hard to swallow. She would stand to say the Nicene Creed, but when they got to the part about the virgin birth or the resurrection of the body, she just moved her lips.

She believed in heaven, however. She can’t have thought admission was merit-based if she believed her standard poodles had any chance of making it. My grandparents had very low expectations for their dogs’ behavior, possibly reflected in the choice of names they gave them, like “Rascal” and “Barky.”

The dogs slept on the furniture and begged at the table. They barked ferociously at anybody who delivered anything, especially, I’ve heard, the ice man, who approached defenseless with a giant cold block on his shoulder.

But as St. James wrote in his Epistle, we will be judged for our faith as well as our works, and while those dogs were pretty low in the works department, they were faithful, especially to my grandfather, whom they adored.


The dog/afterlife issue continued to be a topic of conversation in my home as I was growing up. My mother married a theologian in an Eastern Orthodox seminary – a man who came from a part of the world where dogs rarely got into the house, let alone heaven – and we got to know some of the students.

One told my sister that her dog would not go to heaven because animals are part of nature, which is fallen. That was all she needed to hear, and she informed my mother that she would no longer be going to church.

Like a lot of things we said, this really bugged my mother, and she complained about it bitterly one night at dinner when the guests were a French student visiting from Paris and Father Nicholai, a Russian Orthodox priest with wild gray hair and an unruly beard that covered his clerical collar.

The student was clear on the matter: “Zair will nut be dugs as we know zem,” he said. “Zair maybe somesing of dugs collectively, but zair will not be dugs as individuals.”

“Why not?” Father Nicholai demanded.

“Because zay have no souls.”


Father Nicholai grabbed my Jack Russell terrier puppy Dinah by the scruff of her neck, and held her in his student’s face.

“Look into her eyes,” he thundered. “Can’t you see she has a soul?”

I wish Pope Francis could have been that clear.

I know he’s busy making peace with Cuba and reminding Christians what Jesus said about the poor, but there are millions of dog owners who want to know if they’ll ever get to see their best friends again, and if the answer is “yes,” how that will work for the dog haters.

And if there are dogs in heaven, there are some other members of my family who want to know what that would mean for cats.

“They’d better let cats in, too,” my Aunt Emily posted on Facebook. “Just don’t expect them to be grateful.”


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