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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