Pope Francis, already hailed for progressive views about homosexuality and the origins of the universe, has contradicted his predecessor and conservative Catholic teaching by suggesting that animals may go to heaven when they die.

According to Italian media reports, Francis made the comments during an appearance in St. Peter’s Square, when trying to console a little boy who had told him that his dog had died.

“One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ,” the reports quote Francis as telling the child. “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

The comments were clearly made in private conversation with the child and were not meant as a papal decree.

And yet they are the latest in a string of more progressive statements from a Pope who has adopted a man-of-the-people persona.

In October, Francis delivered a speech in which he said the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real and God did not wave a “magic wand” to create the universe.

And earlier this year, he asked, “Who am I to judge?” when discussing homosexuality.

As for his most recent comments, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Francis chose his papal name in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, who not only left a life of wealth and excess to devote himself to a life of poverty and preaching, but also regularly preached to animals.

St. Francis of Assisi is now known as the patron saint of ecologists for his love of animals and nature.

Francis’s predecessors were divided on the issue.

Pope Benedict rejected the notion that animals might go to heaven in a sermon, suggesting that when they die it merely signals the end of their life on earth.

However, Pope John Paul II before him suggested that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.”