Does Fido have a soul?
That's the question dividing the congregation of the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, a North Beach church that is building a resting place for the ashes of dearly departed pets. But for the church itself, the debate is less spiritual and more financial.
The property houses a replica of an Italian shrine built by San Francisco's namesake, St. Francis, called the Porziuncola. Church leader the Rev. Harold Snider said that since St. Francis also is the patron saint of animals, it makes sense that the new columbarium would house pet ashes. No human remains would be kept there.
Members of the Knights of St. Francis, a volunteer organization that guards the shrine and does community outreach, have said the proposal is offensive to Catholicism.
"When you talk about burying pets, you talk about them having souls," said member Elizabeth Dunn. "I don't want to seem like I'm in conflict with [Snider], but this is wrong."
Others congregants agree with Dunn. In a letter to the community newspaper Catholic San Francisco, congregation member Tony Hartmann wrote that allowing pet ashes in a columbarium is close to "idolatry."
That argument finds support from Pope Francis, who decried idolizing animals six months ago in an interview with Catholic radio station EWLN.
"The most unnecessary spending is made on pets," the pope said. "It is a caricature of love."
Snider said taking offense to the proposal is an individual choice but that it ignores a larger issue at play: the need for income.
"It's a very fluid congregation here; we don't have stable support," he said.
More than $2.8 million was spent over almost two decades to build the Porzuincola, said Angela Alioto, a longtime local politician and the main supporter of the shrine. She has spent the past 17 years raising money and helping facilitate the shrine build-out, much of which is hand-crafted. A kickoff party is slated in November.
Alioto said that while frescoes in the Porzuincola depict St. Francis preaching to animals, she does not like the idea of treating a pet's death like that of a human.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said there's a fine line when dealing with human and animal burial rituals.
"If you think of the soul as a life principle, [animals] have a soul but not a rational soul," he said. "St. Thomas of Aquinas said that there is a vegetable soul, an animal soul and a rational soul that we have as people."
Cordileone also said that since the columbarium is under the church "its not like sacred ground."
Alioto does not see it that way. "This is a sacred place," she said. "Call it a columbarium, call it what you want, it's where you bury dead animals. A columbarium is a cemetery."
The question of how much love to show pets is not limited to this small battle in San Francisco, and the Catholic church itself picked up on it as a problem. In an interview with Catholic radio station EWLN six months ago, while he was still a cardinal, Pope Francis decried idolizing animals.