A continuation of the Catholic 101 series
One of the first things we teach the kids is a bit of theology. I know, you're thinking that it's all theology, right? Well right, but this is a bit different.
We teach kids about the qualities of God--omnipresence (he's everywhere), omnipotence (he's all-powerful), and omniscient (he knows everything). There are other qualities of God, obviously, but this where we start.
The next thing we talk about is the hierarchy of creation. This is important, and I've found a lot of adults have missed this in their education. So, here we go!
Draw a set of stairs, or imagine one. At the top of the staircase is God. Each step up indicates that the created thing is "closer" to God, and more like him.
We start with "dead" things--things that can't grow, things that can't think, things that can't feel. My computer, for example. The table the computer is currently sitting on, or my cup of coffee, or a piece of wood.
The next step are things that are alive, but don't think. Plants, for example. The rose bush outside grows, and dies, and blooms again, but it doesn't think about this. The rose bush doesn't have higher thoughts. Roses don't have feelings. They don't get all huffy if you walk by them and don't acknowledge them. Grass doesn't have feelings when it's cut, and an ocean doesn't think about the number of people swimming in it.
The third step are things that thing and feel--but don't have free will. Animals. You can hurt an animal, for sure. Animals think. But animals also work a lot on instinct. A lioness on the savannah isn't thinking about the feelings of the animal she's hunting. She's not thinking that the wildebeest or whatever might have a family. She's thinking about feeding herself and her pride. So, she hunts. Jellyfish sting. Cats eat mice. And on and on. They do what they have to do to survive.
Now, certain animals, like cats and dogs, are domesticated (for the most part, although they are still animals). Fluffy and Fido make excellent companions for a lot of people. And the fact that they don't have free will--or that plants and other natural things don't think--doesn't mean we can abuse them. God created them, and we have to demonstrate good stewardship. As the crown of creation, we have a duty to take care of everything God has given us.
But--animals are not people. I feel the need to point this out. (Strangely, I've never had a kid ask if their dead pets are in heaven.)
Finally, we have people: we have free will, and we are created in the Image and Likeness of God. We "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). We are not angels (even when we die, guys!) , and we're not God. But we are created in his image and likeness.