Cats, dogs, contraception and Rick Warren

Do all dogs go to heaven? Rick Warren thinks so, and he believes cats will enter paradise too according to an interview the mega-church pastor gave to ABC's Jake Tapper for This Week on Easter Sunday. The influential pastor of Southern California's Saddleback Church offered his views on the immortality of animal souls as well as comments on a wide range of issues including the implications of the Obama Administration's HHS mandate. While the 'doggies in heaven' angle provided a light touch to the interview, it also opened the door to a potential discussion of the theological and moral questions animating the contraception fight waged by the Catholic Church against the Obama Administration HHS mandate. However, the opportunity was lost to push Rick Warren on the coherency of his theological and political arguments as ABC treated the issue as a joke.

Yes, you heard me right -- all 'dogs go to heaven' has a bearing on the question of the morality of artificial contraception. But ABC missed it.

Which leads me to ask two questions. Why did they miss it? And even if they were aware of the issue, where they wise to let it go?

Why did they miss it? One reason might be that given by New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer. In a recent GetReligion post by my colleague Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Oppenheimer responded to a question about media coverage of religion by saying in part:

It’s not skeptical enough. ... We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity ... the truth is that the mainstream media is not critical enough. It misunderstands religion, sure — but is still oddly hands-off and reverent.

Oppenheimer is right about the media's treatment of religion as being too soft and too reverent. But it is not for the reason he suggests. Most reporters do not know what questions to ask when speaking to faith leaders, and when they do hear something they often as not do not appreciate its importance.

We can see this in the This Week interview. In a segment entitled "Rick Warren: Contraception Debate About 'Greater Principle' of Religious Freedom" Tapper asked Warren several strong questions about his advocacy against the mandate. Warren encapsulated his opposition to the mandate stating that while he had no objections to contraception, he did believe:

There is a greater principle, and that is do you have a right to decide what your faith practices? I would be just as opposed to someone making a law that says every Jewish deli now has to serve pork. Well, I would be — I would protest that. Why? There are 100 other delis  you can get pork at. Why do I have to insist that the Jewish delis also serve pork? There’s plenty of places to get contraceptives.

Tapper's political radar, skills and experience were evident when he questioned Warren. At one point Warren stated:

... Most or many religious organizations insure themselves. We insure ourselves here at Saddleback Church. I have 350 staff. We have a self-insurance program, where we do our own insurance. So we’re basically robbing from ourselves to pay for ourselves.

TAPPER: But weren’t you already required to do this under California law?

WARREN: That’s not the issue. The issue is on a national level, on a national level, to start limiting churches and their organizations, the church and organizations — or any organizations, whether it’s Christian or not, in what they believe that that limits what they do with their school or their health care, that is a violation of the First Amendment, in my opinion.

Let me say I am not examining the merits of Warren's answers, but applauding Tapper's skill in asking the right questions that served to draw out the implications of Warren's thinking.

But a second segment, where Tapper asked questions of Warren submitted by audience members, showed the Oppenheimer effect in action. In her blog, USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman commented on the theological exchange between Tapper and Warren. She wrote:

Early on in the interview, ABC invited folks to raise questions on social media and one viewer tweeted a query: if "faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven."

Warren, a Southern Baptist, keyed in on the essentials of salvation -- a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ. He told the tweeter, "I do believe that. And I believe that because Jesus said it... Jesus said 'I am the way.'.. I'm betting my life that Jesus wasn't a liar."

Warren explained that God's grace is the only ticket, that our works on earth cannot earn heavenly passage, although, he joked, "Most of us want to have enough.. good works to get into heaven, but enough bad works to be fun."

Bottom line, says Warren, "I'm not getting to heaven on my integrity. I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace..."

Grossman then stated these words were:

"evangelical gospel. But where Warren goes next may not be. Tapper relays a Facebook question: Do dogs go to heaven?

Said Warren, "Absolutely yes. I can't imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven."

Cats, too, Warren added. "Why not."

The "Why not" answer Warren gave to cats in heaven could also have served as a great link back to the issue of the HHS mandate. For the theology that animates Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that sets forth the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception, is informed by the same issue that is involved in the question about animals in heaven. While I think it safe to say that all traditional Christians, not just Evangelicals, believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, I would disagree with the contention that Evangelicals on the whole object to the proposition that animals go to heaven.

Critics such as Peter Singer have held that Christianity has no moral regard for the welfare of animals. Singer prefaced his account of Christian thought regarding animals with the statement: “To end tyranny we must first understand it.”

But as Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey has noted, 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.

That may be all well and good, you say, but what has any of this to do with the healthcare debate?

As Janet Smith notes in her book, Humanae Vitae: a generation later, in Catholic moral teachings one of the differences between humans and animals is that while animals engage in reproductive sexual congress to create another member of the species, humans engage in procreative sexual intercourse "wherein they cooperate with God to bring into existence a new immortal being."

The soul of Man is immortal while the soul of an animal is mortal. Thomistic theology holds that animals possess sensate souls that can respond effectively to the environment around them. However, animals do not possess rational souls -- being able to reason about reality. The sensate soul is mortal while the rational soul, created in the image of God, is immortal. And it is this distinction between mortal and immortal souls that prevents animals from going to heaven, and prohibits contraception in Catholic moral teaching.

For the Catholic Church, Dr. Smith notes:

sterlization, abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and production of animals for "farming" of organs for transplantation are all permissible for animals. Yet the Church finds none 0f these actions permissible for Man. Again it is because of the nature of Man, not the nature of the  biological processes per se, that Man must not interfere with these processes.

When Rick Warren responded "why not" when asked whether there are cats in heaven, it prompted the question of what was distinctive about mankind, and closer to home, what was immoral about contraception. Why privilege one theological view of humanity or of the soul (one Warren admits not sharing) over against another?

Which leads into my second question. Had the reporter recognized the theological linkage between the two issues would it have served any useful purpose to ask this question? On a secular news show should all questions come back to a secular base? Or when interviewing a religious figure, should theological questions be asked that draw out the thinking and beliefs of the subject?

Is the Oppenheimer effect at work here? Is Rick Warren a political leader or a religious leader? Is his theology or methodology coherent? Is that even important? Am I aiming a bazooka at a fly? Should we give religious leaders a pass on their theology and hold them accountable only on their secular beliefs?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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