You may have encountered childless people, both married and single, who refer to their pets as their “children” and to themselves, in turn, as the animals’ “mommy and daddy.” Often such people will pamper their dog or cat as if it really were a child, even dressing it up in shirts, and hats, and shoes. Misguided as this most assuredly is, we wouldn’t call these people insane. Their affection is misplaced, but we assume that when push comes to shove, most of them understand that Fido and Whiskers aren’t quite the same as Philip and Wilma.
Even New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, who recently granted a writ of habeas corpus to two chimpanzees in order to protect their “rights” against unjust imprisonment in a medical experimentation facility, will have a hard time convincing me she believes Hercules and Leo (the chimps) have human rights until she invites them to her next cocktail party. To put it simply, aside from poor souls suffering from real mental illness, men and women understand that animals aren’t persons. They may not be able to give Boethius’ definition of what a person is – an individual substance of a rational nature – but they know that when they ask the dog, “Are you hungry,” he may run to his bowl, but he isn’t going to answer, “Yes, mommy.”
Let’s drive the point home further. When I was little my father would sometimes take me to the office with him where his secretary would keep me entertained while he worked. I would fool around on her typewriter and play with the figurines she had decorating her desk. One item on her desk was that great cultural contribution of the 1970s known as the Pet Rock. If you have never heard of the Pet Rock, don’t waste your time on a Google search. It was a short-lived novelty item that jokingly purported to be the perfect pet because, as a rock with a face painted on, it need not be fed, washed, or walked. I venture to guess that my father’s secretary was in even less danger of thinking that her Pet Rock was a real animal than the overly attentive dog owner was in thinking that his dog was a person.
There is a basic ontological framework in which we exist that we can observe rather easily in our daily lives. It does not take much to grasp that by their nature lower creatures are incapable of attaining an existence proper to beings higher in the order of creation.
To illustrate this point let us consider our Pet Rock. A rock is made of matter and form, but that form is not a soul, which only animate creatures possess. Rocks may change through chemical interactions and outside forces of heat and pressure, but not from any interior mechanism; they have no life processes. A tree does have life processes, an interior dynamism that enables growth and seasonal renewal, but no more than that. So while it has a vegetative soul, it does not have a sensitive soul, which explains why despite being a living creature, it does not recoil from the lumberjack’s ax. The dog, with its sensitive soul, will recoil from a swift kick, but it won’t ask its master what it did to deserve the kick, because it does not have a rational soul. Man alone in the material order of creation has a rational soul with its powers of the intellect and will. No rock, no tree, or even dog can know and love.
Even if they have never pondered these realities, I think most people understand the truth of them. With minimal instruction they can be shown that the inanimate creature is incapable of vegetative life; the merely vegetative creature is incapable of sensitive life; and the merely sensitive creature is incapable of rational life… but that is where most people stop. Somehow it would never occur to them to take the final step and acknowledge that the merely rational creature, like a man, is incapable of divine life by his own power.
If you were to strike up a conversation with a grieving family member at their grandmother’s funeral regarding the eternal state of her soul – and I am not recommending you do so — you would almost certainly hear them assert that grandma is in heaven as a matter of course. Even people who would maintain the possibility of eternal damnation are likely to miss the reality that those who do attain heaven don’t do so by their own power.
A “good man” no more deserves the gift of divine life than the Kentucky Derby winner merits a rational soul. Being a good man is its own reward; being a son of God is a superadded gift of the Father. God owes us nothing. He need not have created us; when He created us, He need not have given us the gift of His friendship; when we forfeited that friendship through sin, He need not have redeemed us by his Son’s Incarnation and Passion. There is nothing in our human nature that can demand the divine life of sanctifying grace as a matter of justice, either in this life or the next.
Yet our merciful and loving God makes His divine life available to us anyway, but on His terms, not ours. So how does God make His sanctifying grace available to us?
The only sure answer we have is the Seven Sacraments, as instituted by Christ, safeguarded by the Church, and administered by her priests. God has bound His power to the Sacraments making them efficacious signs of his grace which transform the properly disposed recipient simply by the work being worked – ex opere operato.
We must admit that God is free to work outside of the Sacraments for the salvation of men, but it remains an unsure hope that he actually does so. It is unsure because, while we can trust in God’s infinite mercy, nowhere in the Gospels does Christ say there is salvation apart from the Sacraments. To the contrary, we read such statements as that found in John’s Gospel: “Jesus answered: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5),” which explains the urgency of the Resurrected Christ’s commissioning the Apostles to make disciples of all nations through Trinitarian Baptism.
Likewise, regarding the Eucharist: “Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day (John 6:54-55).”
The other Sacraments fall into their respective places, with Christ giving the power of forgiving and retaining sins to the Apostles for the sake of restoring Baptismal innocence, Confirmation to seal us with the gifts of the Spirit for the sake of giving public witness to the Faith, the establishment of Holy Orders to ensure there will always be priests to mediate these sacramental graces, the raising of marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament for the procreation of new persons made for beatitude, and the Anointing of the Sick in order to transform death itself into the passage to new life.
God wills to be with his beloved sons and daughters throughout their pilgrimage on earth so that we might be happy with him forever in heaven. In the Sacraments we encounter the crucified and risen Lord who became man so that man might share in his life divine.
That is our sure hope.