Contrary to earlier media reports from several sources, Pope Francis did not comfort a disconsolate little boy at a Vatican audience by saying the child's deceased puppy would be awaiting him in heaven.
In fact, Francis, one of the most wildly popular pontiffs in decades, appears to have said nothing about animals and the afterlife. Instead, it was Pope Paul VI, four popes back, who made the declaration, "One day we will see our animals again in eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures."
According to a Reuters news agency account in the Taipei Times, the media blitz of all-dogs-and-pets-go-to-heaven accounts "were apparently based on a misreading of remarks Francis made at his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Nov. 26," specifically in a report that appeared in the respected Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Serra (Evening Courier).
Reuters noted the Italian account "cited the (older) remark about animals and rightly attributed it to Paul VI, but its headline said: 'The pope and animals: "Paradise is open to all creatures.’ ”
The principal pet party-pooper was David Gibson, a veteran Catholic observer and a reporter for Religion News Service. Published on USAToday.com, Gibson wrote, "If true, the story … would only have burnished Francis' reputation as a kindly 'people's pope.’ ” Gibson noted the tale "naturally lit up social media" and "became instant promotional material for vegetarians and animal rights groups."
Reuters quoted a Vatican spokesman who suggested more dogged fact-checking by reporters could've avoided the embarassment.
"There is a fundamental rule in journalism. That is double-checking, and in this case it was not done," Vatican deputy spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini said.
Benedettini said he was surprised by calls he received from outside Italy on Friday because he did not recall the pope making such a statement.
The turnabout caused what some called a "massive retraction" by The New York Times, which read, in part, "An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances of Pope Francis’ remarks. He made them in a general audience at the Vatican, not in consoling a distraught boy whose dog had died. The article also misstated what Francis is known to have said. According to Vatican Radio, Francis said: 'The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us,' which was interpreted to mean he believes animals go to heaven."
Reuters added that Michael Slackman, international news managing editor at The New York Times, stated, "The correction in the Times notes that the specific content and wording were wrong in the article. However, the pope did in fact make comments suggesting heaven is open to animals." The wire service quoted Francis as saying on Nov. 26, "The Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but affect all that which surrounds us and which emerged from the thought and the heart of God," adding the pope "did not refer specifically to animals in the address."
The global excitement over the comments incorrectly attributed to Francis reflect something observers have noted since the electric excitment that marked the beginning of his papcy: the former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is often viewed as a reflection of what a hearer thinks.
Chicago Tribune reporter Manya Brachear Pashman, in October, captured the thoughts of retiring Cardinal Francis George: "They've got the pope in a box now. … The danger of that is he's like a Rorschach test, sort of. … People project onto him their own desires, and so you've got people who are expecting all kinds of things."