The Catholic position on the distinction between humans and animals can be quite controversial, especially among those who love animals as pets. Debates about whether animals can go to heaven after death have been well-rehearsed, and it should suffice to say here that there can be no certainty. What is clear, however, is that Church teaching does make a distinction between people and animals, a teaching that is clearly backed by Scripture, logic, and common sense. Biologically speaking, we have some characteristics that animals also have, but we must not fail to consider the spiritual side. Spiritual speaking, we are very different from animals because we possess free will, intellect, and creative ability.
God created man in His image, and out of His infinite goodness, He gave man free will. At first glance, animals seem to have free will because they, too, can make decisions, this is an over-simplification of the definition of free will. As human beings, we use our free will to choose either good or evil, and we also use our free will to choose whether to accept or reject God Himself. Animals can choose things, but they do not have free will. They only have instinct. When we hear of a shark attack, do we blame the shark? No – in fact, sometimes it could actually be the fault of the person if he provoked the shark in some way. The shark did not attack the person out of evil intent or malice; it was simply acting from its instincts, and its instincts help it to protect itself and to survive.
Animals also do not have intellect like human beings do. This is not to say they are stupid, because many animals can be intelligent and can even help people in dire circumstances. However, animals do not, for example, gather together in groups and discuss the existence of God! Unlike humans, animals do only what their instincts tell them, or what humans have trained them to do. Much of what animals do is done in order to protect themselves or to survive. As for people, life would be very boring if we thought about nothing except how to survive. We think about topics like the meaning of life or the existence of God, while animals do not. Therefore, animals do not have intellect like humans do. Nor do animals have creative abilities like humans do. Although animals do create things, they only create things out of instinct. A certain type of bird only builds a certain type of nest. A certain type of spider only makes a certain kind of web. As people, because we have creative abilities and free will, we can create whatever kind of home we like. The creative abilities God gave us also allow us to create different kinds of art, architecture, music, or literature.
Scripture shows that human beings are more important than animals. From the very beginning of creation, we were given “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). In Matthew 10:29-31, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore have no fear: you are worth more than many sparrows.” Catholic teaching re-affirms this: Although it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly,” it is also “unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (CCC 2418). Saving human lives is, of course, more important than saving the lives of animals. Scientific experimentation, for example, on animals is morally acceptable as long as it remains within reasonable limits.
Man was created in God’s image, and this is what gives human life a certain dignity that does not pertain to animals. This is not to say, of course, that Catholics believe that animals are not important, or that they can be abused. However, in the beginning, God gave us dominion over all other creatures, and for this reason we are distinct from animals. As people, we possess free will, intellect, and creative ability, while animals do not. It should be clear now that humans are different from animals, but the question mentioned in the beginning still remains: can animals go to heaven? Many theologians have pointed out that if one really needs their pet to be happy in heaven, then one is definitely not ready for heaven! All this is true, but Matthew 6:33 states, “…seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” If we seek God first, then perhaps – someday – God will give us our pets back.