Editor's note: Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Many erroneous news reports on this incident relied on an article that appeared in The New York Times.
That article alleged that the Pope, at a general audience at the Vatican, comforted a boy whose dog had died by saying: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
This was not what happened, and in a (frankly, embarrassing) correction now appended to that flawed article, the Times points out: "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."'
So: Wrong and wrong again.
But even the correction at the Times and elsewhere (including this news site) did little to stop the initial report of the story from zinging around the Internet and giving new, unfounded hope to animal lovers everywhere.
This fiasco illustrates three things:
First, while I know it's tempting to write punny headlines like "Dogs in heaven? Pope Francis leaves Pearly Gates open," news organizations that ran the erroneous account really should hold fact checking to a higher standard. Note to writers: Don't rely on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as a source for papal quotes.
Second, part of the reason this story caught fire is that it sounds like something Pope Francis would say. In his two years as the leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, Francis (who took the name of St. Francis, the church's patron saint of animals) has prioritized the lowly. By extension, he must love puppies and kitties, right?
As David Gibson of Religion News Service points out, this isn't the first time such a myth about this Pope has spread. Last year, news reports said he was sneaking out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless around Rome. A nice thought but also not true.
"The media and the public are so primed for Francis to say novel things and disregard staid customs that the story was too good to check out; it fit with the pattern," Gibson writes.
The "animals can go to heaven" meme also paints Francis as a stirrer of theological controversy, which brings me to my third point: People have strong feelings about whether they will spend the afterlife with their deceased, beloved pets.
This is where I should be honest and admit I'm not the world's biggest animal lover. A bite when I was a young child instilled a lasting fear of most dogs, especially big ones. But I have loved some animals, including my sister's dog, Buddy, who died earlier this year.
Lots of friends tried to comfort her with the "rainbow bridge" story, which says that animals wait in a heaven-like place to be reunited with their owners in the hereafter. This is definitely not Catholic teaching, but its popularity reveals the desire of people to believe that their pets' lives have meaning.
While the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains official church teaching, does not address the issue directly, it does make clear that animals do not have the same immortal souls of humans and thus would not be eligible to enter the Pearly Gates, so to speak.
The catechism says we should not mistreat animals, but points out that God made them for humans' stewardship and that we should not "spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons."
The quote that "paradise is open to all of God's creatures," which was mistakenly attributed to the current Pope, is now being attributed by the Times and others to a previous one, Paul VI, who died in 1978 -- although the attribution here is also not particularly decisive.
Even if it were, just because a pope says something doesn't mean church teaching has changed. My apologies to all the animal rights activists, vegans and everyone who has ever lost a pet who got so excited yesterday. While Catholics believe that their leader is infallible, that doctrine is a lot more complicated than meaning that everything that comes out of the Pope's mouth is the gospel truth.
Also, it's important to note that Paul VI's alleged comments apparently were in response to a young boy whose dog had recently died. In the Catholic Church, we call that being pastoral. In other words, the Pope was trying to comfort the boy and provide solace, not doctrinal instruction.
What is true is that Francis has been vocal about the importance of caring for creation. The source of this whole controversy was a late November talk about how the End Times will result in a "new creation." But neither he nor Pope Paul VI went so far as to ascribe eternal souls to animals that would be comparable to humans.
But, as this whole incident illustrates, people will believe what they want to believe.