Doggie Masses down under

Can a dog be a good Catholic? Must a dog be baptized before it receives Holy Communion? For that matter, can a dog be saved? Will all dogs go to heaven, or does Laika’s 1957 launch mark the apogee of canine celestial progress?

Must a commitment to inclusivity by a liberal Catholic mandate the rejection of speciesism?

Religion reporter Barney Zwarts writing in The Age — one of Australia’s great national newspapers — has an article that brought these questions to my mind. But I am not sure whether he meant to do this. Is he playing it straight or writing with tongue in cheek in this article about inclusive Catholics in Australia?.

The 6 August article entitled “Dissidents preach a new breed of Catholicism” begins:

FATHER Greg Reynolds wants his church of dissident Catholics to welcome all – ”every man and his dog”, one might say, risking the non-inclusive language he deplores – but even he was taken aback when that was put to the test during Mass yesterday.

A first-time visitor arrived late at the Inclusive Catholics service in South Yarra with a large and well-trained German shepherd. When the consecrated bread and wine were passed around, the visitor took some bread and fed it to his dog.

Apart from one stifled gasp, those present showed admirable presence of mind – but the dog was not offered the cup!

Father Reynolds, a Melbourne priest for 32 years, launched Inclusive Catholics earlier this year. He now ministers to up to 40 people at fortnightly services alternating between two inner-suburban Protestant churches.

The congregation includes gay men, former priests, abuse victims and many women who feel disenfranchised, but it is optimistic rather than bitter.

A few details of the service are offered, with the article stressing that the lector and homilist were women as were the lay eucharistic ministers who distributed the elements consecrated by Fr. Reynolds. The shift from narrative to analysis comes with this paragraph:

Inclusive Catholics is part of a small but growing trend in the West of disaffiliated Catholics forming their own communities and offering ”illicit” Masses, yet are slightly uncertain of their identities. The question was posed during the service: ”Are we part of the church or are we a breakaway movement?”

The article does not seek to answer this question, but returns to narrative by providing biographical details of Fr. Reynolds, whom it describes as “still a priest, though now on the dole.” Some rather predictable, but still crisp quotes are offered by participants. To whit: “This is inclusive and welcoming.” and “Intelligent, educated, adult Catholics have had enough.”

The article closes with this encomium for the inclusive Catholic movement:

But if there’s one thing that unites Inclusive Catholics and the mainstream church, it’s their reliance on hard-working women behind the scenes. The volunteer who made the name tags given out yesterday turned 88 during the week.

I am undecided as to the author’s editorial voice. Is he playing it straight yet allowing the subjects of the story to make fools of themselves, or does the pro-inclusive church framing of the story represent the author’s editorial voice? Let’s lay out the evidence for either proposition.

In favor of the ridiculous theme, we have the juxtaposition of the articles beginning and ending with its pivot paragraph. At the head of the story is a photograph of the congregation, Fr. Reynolds and the dog. A quick scan indicates that save for the dog, no one appears to be under 65 years of age. The closing sentence mentions the industrious work of the volunteer who writes out the name tags — noting her 88th birthday. Against this we have the “small but growing trend” argument put forward in the middle of the story. Are the photo and birthday greetings for this aging crowd to be set against the claim of a new movement in the church meant to ridicule Fr. Reynolds and his congregation, or demonstrate its strength?

The selection of quotes is also telling. We have two cliched quotes in support of Fr. Reynolds’ work, but nothing from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne about the activities of this unlicensed, yet still in good standing Catholic priest. Did the author choose to leave the story unbalanced to allow the comments made by the subject to impeach their cause? Or, were the comments so self-evidently true that there was no need to balance them with a contrary view?

The shaggy dog story at the start of the article might also lend support to the ridicule thesis. The article starts with a joke about “inclusive” language, relates the story of the dog receiving the host, and then makes a joke about Fido not receiving the wine — here we can tell this is a Roman Catholic not Anglo-Catholic mass as the Anglicans would doubtless have required the dog to receive the elements in both kinds.

And without seeking to explain why someone in this congregation would gasp at the dog’s reception of the sacraments, we move into a litany of the sorts of persons who attend this service.

My vote is for satire. A crowd of aging hipsters celebrating a mass that is in bad taste and theologically and sacramentally scandalous with no comment, context or correction seems likely to be a way for the author to hold this group up to ridicule. Or, the author of this story is playing it straight and declines to offer context, contrary voices, or to develop the shaggy dog story at the start of his narrative because he does not believe it necessary.

Last month I reported on the discussion held by the bishops of the Episcopal Church on the appropriateness of prayers for animals. A proposed prayer put forward by the church’s liturgy committee was vetoed, the Bishop of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith reported and an alternate prayer provided by the Prayer Book committee “no longer express the desire for our animals to be part of the resurrection.”

The question of the place of animals in heaven is of real pastoral concern and the Christian tradition is divided on this point. I’ve touched on this issue at GetReligion in the past, noting that according to Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey there is “an ambiguous tradition” about animals in Christianity. Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Fenelon, and Kant and have held that animals do not have rational, hence immortal souls. Descartes defended a distinction between humans and animals based on the belief that language is a necessary condition for mind and as such animals were soulless machines (Descartes, Discourse on the Method)

Others theologians, philosophers and writers as diverse as Goethe, St John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Bishop Butler, and John Wesley held the opposite view and believed that animals will find a place in heaven. Billy Graham is purported to have said:

I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness’ in heaven. If it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.

The Episcopal Bishop of North Dakota, Michael Smith made this same point when asked by the press at the General Convention if animals went to heaven.

These are “theological issues not many of us have thought through,” he said, “but if a little girl needs Fluffy the cat to see the beatific vision, then Fluffy will be in heaven,” Bishop Smith said.

But lets come back down to earth and return to Melbourne — is this Inclusive Catholic Church pressing the theological envelope on these issues? Or has the author structured his story to expose a group of wayward elderly Catholics doing silly things and playing at church? What say you GetReligion readers? Serious or satire?

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  • Ed Mechmann

    He’s not a “still in good standing Catholic priest”. He has had his faculties suspended, which means that he may not celebrate Mass publicly, may not preach, may not hear Confessions, may not witness marriages. In effect, he has lost his license to function publicly as a Catholic priest.

    For this act of blasphemy and disobedience, he also incurred a whole host of canonical penalties, some of them automatic. Hardly a priest “in good standing”.

    Perhaps there was a canon lawyer somewhere in Australia who could have explained this to the reporter. Hint: there’s at least one at every seminary and chancery.

  • The Old Bill

    Serious or satire?

    George, what you’re really saying is that this story is such a train wreck that you can’t even tell if the locomotive was steam or diesel.

    I say it’s serious, and written by someone who doesn’t take religion seriously.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The question of the place of animals in heaven is of real pastoral concern and the Christian tradition is divided on this point.

    The question of what happens to our furry and feathered friends may be an open one in Christian history; as pointed out, it is something on which reasonable theologians can differ. Certainly, there is no ‘dog’-matic (hey-oh) answer to it. That said, there is absolutely no precedent whatsoever for funeral prayers for animals, and certainly nothing even related to communion for animals. It is so far off the beaten path that even that great bastion of theological conservatism the Anglican Church of Canada had to condemn it.

    I sense a dose of satire in the article, largely because the author appears to hint that he knows how scandalous it is for an animal to be fed communion. This indicates that the author does get religion at a basic level. This satire may be very gentle, but I have a hard time taking the article completely seriously.

  • Julia

    The reporter seems to be one of those brights who think religion of any kind is funny – and he has found an example of a particularly hilarious example of religious people doing their thing.

    It’s like a young alternative rock musician – it wouldn’t matter which opera he attended, he’d consider them all hysterically funny, but maybe The Magic Flute a little stranger than most.

  • Jerry

    What is really too bad is that the story totally ignored the stories of St. Francis and the modern Blessing of the Animals which is part of an annual tradition at Franciscan-led Catholic churches.

  • Julia

    There’s a difference between praying for your dog to be well or having somebody bless your dog and praying for your dog’s soul. Praying for or blessing an animal doesn’t, by itself, imply that a person thinks the animal has an immortal soul.

    In my region there is an annual blessing of boats on the Mississippi. Nobody thinks the boats are going to heaven.
    Note the name of the priest’s parish on the river.

    The Rev. Robert Banken, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi at Portage Des Sioux, sprinkles holy water toward passing boats during the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony at Our Lady of the Rivers Shrine [near the confluence of the Mississippi, the Illinois and the Missouri Rivers]

    The locals make a huge party of the boats parading to get blessed.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    It’s not just Franciscan parishes that have blessing of the pets. My diocesan priest does it every year around St. Francis day. He also does a blessing of cars some years.

    As to parties for boat blessings, there’s not much that Catholics can’t turn into a party.

  • Karen

    Now I heard that dogs- and only dogs alongside humans- will merit a place in the world to come, as a reward for barking when the Egyptians were coming for the first born sons. The source was Jewish but I don’t recall if it was Talmud or Midrash. (Sarai?) Since most observant Jews don’t have dogs at this point in history, it rarely comes up. Dogs don’t get kiddush either-it would be equally scandalous.

  • Reformed Catholic

    I don’t think the reporter did his due diligence. As mentioned, there was no comments from the local Diocese, nor is it evidenced that the reporter tried to elicit comments.

    Coming from the Cathoic tradition, now in a Protestant denomination, even I winced when I read that someone fed communion to the dog. In Roman Catholicism, the Eucharist is transubstantiated into the Body of Christ. In other words, this was a sacrilege of the worst kind, feeding your Savior to the dogs.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I think the article is both satirical and serious. I think it is seriously on the side of the Inclusive (so-called) Catholic Church. But the satire is directed to orthodox Catholicism. In other words, the article uses the event to satirize the (real) Catholic Church.

    And I do believe that there should be scare quotes around “Inclusive,” and their absence is telling. They claim it to be inclusive — which only means they cater to those who do not actually believe in the Catholic faith — but they are exclusive, too, and exclude everyone who is actually Catholic. (By “exclude” I do not mean “bar at the door” or “do not invite,” but in a practical way drive certain people away by virtue of what they do and stand for.)

    Also, the article lacks balance. Without commentary from the actual Catholic Church, it only supports the ICC.

    ”Intelligent, educated, adult Catholics have had enough.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And that is why this priest has been suspended and has to do what he does away from Catholic parishes.

  • Martha

    Luckily, St. Thomas Aquinas has covered this:

    Article 3. Whether the just man alone may eat Christ sacramentally?

    Objection 3. Further, the sinner is more abominable before God than the irrational creature: for it is said of the sinner (Psalm 48:21): “Man when he was in honor did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them.” But an irrational animal, such as a mouse or a dog, cannot receive this sacrament, just as it cannot receive the sacrament of Baptism. Therefore it seems that for the like reason neither may sinners eat this sacrament.

    Reply to Objection 3. Even though a mouse or a dog were to eat the consecrated host, the substance of Christ’s body would not cease to be under the species, so long as those species remain, and that is, so long as the substance of bread would have remained; just as if it were to be cast into the mire. Nor does this turn to any indignity regarding Christ’s body, since He willed to be crucified by sinners without detracting from His dignity; especially since the mouse or dog does not touch Christ’s body in its proper species, but only as to its sacramental species. Some, however, have said that Christ’s body would cease to be there, directly it were touched by a mouse or a dog; but this again detracts from the truth of the sacrament, as stated above. None the less it must not be said that the irrational animal eats the body of Christ sacramentally; since it is incapable of using it as a sacrament. Hence it eats Christ’s body “accidentally,” and not sacramentally, just as if anyone not knowing a host to be consecrated were to consume it. And since no genus is divided by an accidental difference, therefore this manner of eating Christ’s body is not set down as a third way besides sacramental and spiritual eating.

    So the dog is off the hook; the priest, though, is in trouble here.