Joe-PisaniI recently had a chance to see “Marnie the Dog,” the celebrity Shih Tzu who has become an Internet sensation since she was rescued from the streets of Connecticut, matted and smelly with a mouth of decaying teeth. She wasn’t expected to live beyond a few months. Today, she’s 12. Her tongue hangs out and her head tilts to the side, but she evokes something in humans. Call it love. Call it compassion.

This dog got me thinking about a deeper theological issue. I usually don’t get involved in those discussions because, as my mother once warned me, polite people avoid topics like religion, politics and sex. Well, the only thing people talk about nowadays is sex and politics, so I guess I can break the final taboo.

Even the pope has commented on this topic, along with Billy Graham and Rick Warren. The big question is: Do pets go to heaven?

It may not be as important as a) Will I get a tax refund this year? b) Never mind heaven, will my daughter get into Dartmouth? and c) How the heck will I ever pay for Dartmouth?

Animal lovers often wonder about the afterlife and their pets. An estimated 62 percent of households own at least one pet, 47 percent of all households have dogs and 37 percent have cats. There are 83.3 million dogs and possibly up to 90 million cats in our care.

Nationwide, there are some 600 pet cemeteries, and many gravestones are adorned with religious symbols, including the Star of David and crosses, which says a lot about the spiritual dimension of having a pet.

Pope Francis ignited the debate about heaven when he reportedly comforted a little boy whose dog died by saying, “One day we will see our animals again in eternity with Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” Actually, it may have been Pope Paul VI who offered that view, which prompted conservatives and animal lovers to start arguing over how pets can get into heaven if they don’t have souls.

Even popes don’t seem to agree. Benedict XVI said animals aren’t meant for eternal life, although Pope John Paul II reportedly felt differently. Protestants are more inclusive. Evangelist Billy Graham 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.” And evangelical pastor Rick Warren believes that dogs and cats “absolutely” go to heaven: “I can’t imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven. Cats too. Why not?”

For many, pets are the truest of friends. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain speculates that such deep relationships with humans grants them immortality.  “It seems to me,” he said, “that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

We’ve come a long way since Descartes considered dogs to be automatons. We know now they can grieve, suffer and feel compassion. I’ve seen our dog, Bella, comfort my wife while she was crying over the illness of a friend. She’d jump on her lap and start licking her face and snuggle close to her.

I’ve seen animals change people’s lives for the better, spiritually and emotionally. In her book, Pack of Two, the late author Caroline Knapp, whose life was coming unraveled by alcoholism, the death of her parents, and a failed relationship, found redemption in a rescue dog. She wrote, “I have fallen in love with my dog. … I’m thirty-eight and I’m single, and I’m having my most intense and gratifying relationship with a dog. But we all learn about love in different ways, and this way happens to be mine, through a two-year-old, forty-five-pound shepherd mix named Lucille.”

Death can’t be the end for any creature that provides so much love and joy in our lives, here and hereafter. I’m not sure I’ll get to heaven, but I’m trying. I’m sure, though, Bella will, and I like to think we’ll be there together so I can let her run off leash and not have to worry about picking up after her. They tell me in heaven anything is possible

Joe Pisani may be reached at [email protected]