Pope Francis declared that dogs go to heaven during a recent address. The pontiff is pictured here as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Dec. 10, 2014. Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

Pope Francis announced during a recent public appearance at the Vatican that dogs, along with “all of God’s creatures,” go to heaven. The Catholic leader, who took his papal name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, made the remarks to a young boy upset about the death of his pet dog, the New York Times reported on Friday.

"One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all God’s creatures," Francis said during the weekly address at the Vatican in St. Peter’s Square. The declaration sets the pontiff apart from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who had said during a 2008 sermon that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth,” according to Patheos, a website that hosts conversations on faith. The Catholic Church has traditionally held that humans have immortal souls, while those of animals die with their bodies. The issue, however, has been debated over the church’s history.

Francis’s statement was welcomed by animal rights groups like the Humane Society and PETA, which said that the idea that animals go to heaven could influence Catholics to move away from eating meat, according to the New York Times. “I’m not a Catholic historian, but PETA’s motto is that animals aren’t ours, and Christians agree. Animals aren’t ours, they’re God’s,” a spokesperson for the group said.

Catholic theologians, however, are cautioning against taking the pontiff’s remarks as a doctrine. One religious expert told the Times that there could also be backlash from religious conservatives in the church about the issue. Since his ascension to the papacy in March 2013, Francis has encountered stiff resistance from traditionalists within the Vatican over his efforts to reform the church. These efforts have included making the institution more welcoming to gays and divorcees.

Despite this pushback, Francis has broad favorability ratings around the world. A Pew Research Poll released on Thursday found that the Catholic leader had a median approval rating of 60 percent across 43 nations, with an 84 percent median favorability rating in Europe.