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(NEWSER) – Pope Francis continues to show he's anything but traditional. During a recent public appearance, Francis comforted a boy whose dog had died, noting, "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."

Theologians say Francis—who took his papal name from the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi—was only speaking conversationally.

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But the remark is being seen by some as a reversal of conservative Catholic theology which states that because they are soulless, animals can't go to heaven, the New York Times reports.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II said animals have souls, but his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, gave a 2008 sermon that seemed to say the opposite.

Francis' comment has now sparked a new debate on the subject, and the Humane Society says it has been flooded with emails. If Francis does in fact believe animals have souls, "then we ought to seriously consider how we treat them," a rep says. "We have to admit that these are sentient beings, and they mean something to God."

PETA is also running with Francis' remark, suggesting Catholics should move toward a vegan lifestyle. Animal souls aside, a recent Pew survey finds Francis has a 60% approval rating worldwide and 78% approval in the US, the Washington Post reports.

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China may be growing fond of the pontiff, too, considering he reportedly refused a meeting with the Dalai Lama because, as the Dalai Lama reportedly said, "it might create inconveniences," the Times reports.

Newser is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the Web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

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