Pet Idolatry

Many have swapped affection for other human beings with devotion to their dogs



I was a candidate for the Trappist monastery, back in 1968. Personal pets were not allowed—an ancient discipline to enhance the inner companionship of God. Though written rules about pets were unlikely before the 13th century, Ancrene Wisse (Rule for Anchoresses) made it clear that a religious recluse should avoid affectionate attachment to animals or, for that matter, anything of this world. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales criticized a Prioress for violating her convent’s rule by pampering her three hounds:

Her tender heart runs over with pity at the sight of dead or bleeding mice caught in a trap. She is fond of animals and feeds her three dogs with roasted meat and expensive fine bread…. The Prioress’s kindness to her pet dogs is seen as a weakness. Her charity should extend towards needy people rather than animals. (The Prioress Tale)

When I was at the Abbey, I felt pet prohibition was extreme for modern society, but the general advice stuck with me. During fifty years of living alone, I was often tempted to get a puppy, after recalling how fun our family dog had been. I found myself psychoanalyzing my impulse to adopt and raise one. The desire came upon me when I was discouraged at my job or over a failed love relationship.

I had to learn the hard way to avoid addictive vices. The monks taught me to chant the Psalms, pray the Rosary, and meditate on Scripture. More often than not, on closing my eyes and stilling a storm of nagging worries, God’s warm presence wiped away my tears.

I often visited a senior living alone, who confided that she’d rescue a hungry stray at her kitchen door but wouldn’t feed or clothe a beggar. After her pet died, she began advising me to get a dog, as if I was also experiencing her desolation.

“You should get a dog,” she told me over tea and cookies. “You won’t feel so lonely.”

“But I’m not lonely. I can chat any time with the homeless who loiter in the park near me.”

“Not the same. Without a pet to care for, you’re too self-absorbed. Get a dog.”

“You think I’m lonely because I live alone? There’s not enough time in the day to pursue all my interests.”

“They say a dog’s loyalty and affection is good for seniors…. helps us live longer.”

“Not if I have to feed, shelter, potty-train, entertain, exercise, and groom a dog, along with surprise medical expenses. All that adds up to more than $15,000 over a dog’s lifetime, not counting all the precious time and limited energy spent on its creaturely needs.”

“You can afford it and won’t regret it. Go to the animal rescue shelter and adopt a dog.”

So goes the current social argument for having a pet, affirmed by my local Catholic Church. Church-goers can now have their expensive pampered pets blessed in a special liturgy on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, supposedly the patron saint of animals. Those same pet owners likely believe their pets’ salvation takes precedence over their own.

Many Christians fail to realize they may have crossed the idolatrous line at some point by humanizing their dogs. “Pet humanization” describes the cultural trend to love and treat pets as if human, as if made in the image and likeness of God. Some people have swapped affection for other human beings with devotion to their pets. Some dress and spoon-feed their animals.

Even ancient Egyptians adored their canine gods, the most famous being Anubis, their god of the dead and the afterlife. The Jews, however, did not abide dogs, except as village scavengers prowling for food scraps or as shepherding work animals. The Bible contains over fifty verses portraying a low-esteem for them, and none are positive. Even Christ Jesus referred to outcast nonbelievers as mere dogs, unfit for the bread of the Gospel (Matt 15:21-28).

“Who needs God with my beloved dog at hand?” The pet has been substituted for God. Bumper stickers that once read, “God is my co-pilot,” now read, “Dog is my co-pilot.”

Fact check: Pets don’t go to heaven. Pope Francis’s answer to the little boy asking about his dog was misinterpreted or distorted by a media eager for a news scoop. In fact, Pope Francis has frowned on the corrupt modern tendency to favor pets over people, and the vast amounts of money spent by wealthy societies on animals, even as children and the homeless go hungry.

My next post will cover the billions in goods and services devoted to caring for pets rather than human beings.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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