In this photo provided by Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets members of the Italian national council for the blind and visually impaired, at the Vatican on Saturday. (AP)

It was a heartwarming story for legions of pet owners and animal lovers around the world: Pope Francis, talking to a distraught boy whose pet had died, declared there was a place in heaven for the creatures with which we share our lives.

The comment was reported last week by news media around the world. It was veritable catnip to social media.

However, it turns out the pope didn’t say that. The news stories were apparently based on a misreading of remarks Francis made at his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Nov. 26 and on a comment that Pope Paul VI made several decades ago. Paul, who died in 1978, once said, reportedly while comforting a child whose dog had died, “One day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”

“There is a fundamental rule in journalism,” the Vatican’s deputy spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Saturday. “That is double-checking, and in this case it was not done.”

Benedettini said he received a number of calls about the story from outside Italy on Friday and was taken by surprise because he did not recall the pope saying anything like that.

Religion News Service was among the first media to put the record straight. It said in an article published late Friday that the error appeared to have stemmed from a piece in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Nov. 27. The article recounted Francis’s words from his general audience on Nov. 26, when the topic was the transformation of all creation into a new heaven and a new earth. The story cited the remark about animals and attributed it to Paul VI, but its headline said “The pope and animals: ‘Paradise is open to all creatures.’ ”

The New York Times, which ran a story Thursday about the purported comment by Francis, acknowledged its mistake, saying in a correction Friday that it had misattributed the remark by Paul to the current pope.

On its Web site, CNN also corrected its story, noting the misattribution and saying it was unclear what Francis believes about pets going to heaven. A spokeswoman for CNN had no immediate comment.

What does Francis think about animals? He has not spoken much about them in public, but Benedettini said that from the general tone of his speeches and gestures, “it is clear that he is in spiritual harmony with all of creation.”

Benedettini said the pope was preparing an encyclical that will deal in part with the environment. And Benedettini recalled that Francis was pleased when a group that looks after stray dogs once brought some animals to his general audience.

When he made a Christmas season visit to a parish in Rome last year, Francis let a young girl place a lamb on his shoulders as a shepherd would carry it. The pope once told priests that a good pastor should know not only the names of his parishioners but also the names of their dogs, Benedettini said.

Recent popes have said different things about the possible spiritual side of animals. In 1990, Pope John Paul II implied that animals had souls because they were created from the breath of God. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI upset some animal lovers when he said only humans were “called to eternity.”

— Reuters