Monday, May 20, 2024

Animals and Catholicism

We interviewed long-time vegan and doctoral thesis undergraduate Kay Beely and asked her if she thought the Catholic Church was beginning to change in its attitude to animals.

VSM:  Can you tell us a bit about your Doctoral Degree?

KB:   The topic of my doctoral thesis is about how the Catholic pro (human) life ethic needs to be extended to include animals under its umbrella of protection of life, since both humans and animals are sentient life.  The Church has a very strong pro (human) life ethic, which means that it recognizes the need to care for, speak up for, and protect, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless, those who cannot speak for themselves and those who cannot defend themselves.  And yet, though animals are some of the most vulnerable among us, animals have long (and wrongly) been denied consideration in the Church in any significant way.  In order to be consistent, the church really needs to adapt its view and be pro-life across the board.

Catholic pro-life banner

The lynchpin for denying concern to animals is that of the claim that it is “rationality” or “reason” that distinguishes humans from other animals, and that the only beings entitled to protection of life and keeping their lives are beings who have this “rationality.”  This term is actually vague and elusive anyway and when you call someone claiming it out on the fact and ask them to give a definition…well it’s something that even they have difficulty pinning down, and with what we now know about some animals, even the proposed definitions of rationality may be argued to no longer be limited to just human beings.

Thus animals are excluded from consideration for protection of life because it is denied that they have rationality.

Yet, this is incredibly flawed because it is very clear that it is not rationality (whatever that even means, as it is so vaguely and inconclusively defined, in my opinion) that is a relevant criterion for protection of life, but sentience.  Thus, the focus of my dissertation is to argue that sentience (or potential sentience / capacity for sentience / sentience-in-development), not rationality, should be the determining factor, as it is a more appropriate determining factor for deciding who is entitled to protection of their lives, ie. who gets to keep their lives.  

The essence of my claim is also that, in the interest of both justice and compassion, a non-essential need of a human being (i.e. the desire to eat flesh or animal products) should not override or take precedence over the essential need of an animal (ie. the need of the animal to keep their life).

I just want to be clear though—none of this is original thought on my part, these ideas have been proposed before by various other Christian theologians, though there seems to be a lack of abolitionist theologians within Catholicism (and they are not abun[catposts name=”Spirituality”]dant in other Christian denominations either, though there are more than in Catholicism).  But I feel it needs to be emphasized and really brought to the forefront in ways that it previously has not.

There are several premises that underlie this denial to give consideration for protection of life to animals.

The main one is what I have just described – ie.“rationality” being the criterion the church has decided upon as the determining factor.  But this has its basis in several other ideas.

Perhaps at the forefront of this idea is the premise that man is more special than, and superior to, all other earthly beings, which usually goes on to be translated as man is entitled to use all other earthly beings for whatever purposes he wishes.

This idea of man being superior is often based on the Church’s claim that only man is “made” for and has the capacity for life with God, for a relationship with God, and for a sharing in eternal life—which the church holds is only possible when one possess—“rationality”.

Animals are usually considered “resources” by the Church and there is a disregard for the fact that they are sentient and that their sentience should hold weight and entitle them to consideration for keeping their lives.

Tied to this idea of animals not having rationality is this idea that because they don’t have rationality, they aren’t to be considered our neighbors, since they can’t do anything for us – ie. they can’t make contracts.  And thus we have no “duties” to them and don’t owe them anything.  They are not considered part of our community, and thus are not entitled to protection of life.

There is some movement towards claiming we owe them kindness in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a tiny inching towards recognizing that they have lives of their own that matter to them and that we should treat them with “respect” in the recent Church encyclical Laudato Si, but in the end the conclusion is still that man is priority and his desires or needs override any and all of animals’.

It is critical to note that though enthroned in Catholic and Christian theology for centuries, this idea of animals being here for man’s use is not a Christian idea.  It’s actually from Aristotle, or perhaps even earlier, and belonged to the set of propositions that ran along the lines that “everything is here for the sake (use) of something else”, the “lesser” being here for the sake of the “greater”.  These premises held not only that the rest of creation is here for the sake or use of human beings, but also that  woman is here for the sake (use) of man, and the slave here for the sake (use) of the free.  These are clearly not Christian ideas, nor are they in line with an authentic Christian ethos of compassion and love.  We (and the Church) generally now recognize that the latter are not sound attitudes, but the view regarding animals being here for human use is still clung onto tightly, and it really needs to be done away with.

I suspect that this premise is still tightly clung to because man is afraid of losing the teaching of man being superior to other creatures, unique, and the center of the universe.  Human beings (those who write church doctrine) are afraid of human beings getting knocked off their pedestals.  So they continue to exploit and oppress other animals instead of offering consideration and compassion and recognizing other animals’ right to keep their lives.

There is a more benign reading that can be given to the human uniqueness premise, if it is formulated as the idea that the human uniqueness is that humans are called to be a “servant-species,” and to care for non-human creatures (see Andrew Linzey for more).  This reading often doesn’t sit well with many animal activists, because it still insists that there is something particularly unique and special about human beings that other animals don’t have, and also because it presumes that animals need our care and interference, but it might be the best we can hope for within Christianity.  If Catholicism/Christianity were to broadly adopt this view, what it would mean in practicality is a greatly improved situation for animals where they were given consideration and care, though it would probably not satisfy many activists’ desire for animals to be seen as equals, since it is more along the lines of compassion and pity than equality.  However, on a practical level animals would get to keep their lives, which is the most important thing (so far as I’m concerned).  A change to this point of view would in fact protect animals, so I would support this rather than nothing, and would have a positive impact in practical terms, even if imperfect.  Honestly, I don’t think the animals themselves will much care about the nuances, as long as they are being allowed to keep their lives.

VSM:  What made you decide to undertake this research?

KB:  While trying to complete my previous degrees, I became continually and ever more strongly convinced that this topic of animals needed to have attention demanded of it within the Catholic Church because it is such a blind spot, and the ignorance of consideration for animals continually contributes to so many horrors for them.  The Church’s teaching generally can be seen to condone this exploitation and use of non-human but sentient creatures, holding that they are “here for our use”, and this resonates as being so wrong to me, because animals are clearly creatures who have their own lives to go about, seek to keep those lives, and should be entitled to do so.

My main aim in undertaking this dissertation was that I thought that if we could just convince the Church to see this truth about animals (that they are sentient beings, with lives of their own, that matter to them, and which they seek to preserve, and that they are/should be entitled to keep their lives), that it could have an astounding impact for animals were the Church to change its teachings on animals and on how Catholics should view and treat animals.  My experience is that there are so many who seek to follow Church teachings to the letter, that if the Church were to come out and say we need to stop using and killing animals, the benefit to animals would be immense, as people would then be obligated to follow this teaching.  To be honest however, over the 7 years that I’ve now been working on this thesis, I’ve mostly lost hope that my thesis will have any impact, or that the Church has any interest in changing, despite its claim that it seeks the truth and that whatever is shown to be true will be encompassed in its teachings.

A point which I think is of great significance, and which I hope to be able to include in my thesis, is the fact that while the Church seems to think it is the author of compassion, secular/non-religious people are actually far “out-compassioning” the Church on the animal issue.  Secular people and non-Christians are switching to veganism in droves, and yet many Christians seem to think they are entitled to welfarist “baby-steps” and the Church demands ultimate proof of (I don’t even know what anymore…animal souls?) – things that are unprovable from either side, before it will even consider changing.  I think the Church, and people in the Church, are terrified of humans “losing their spot as the centerpiece of creation” if admissions were begun to be made by them about animals’ rights to keep their lives.

VSM:  Have you found many instances where the official theology differs from the original writings or ideas of the saints and main figures in the Church regarding meat-eating and attitudes to animals?

KB:  No, I don’t think so. There is a handful of Catholic saints and theologians that would have taken a more positive view of animals, but they are seldom given much attention – at least in terms of what has been written down.  But we all know that the “winners” write history not the “losers” and that might doesn’t make right so the “winning side” isn’t always the side who is right or moral or ethical.  So it is possible that the church held a more positive view and that it got obliterated and overridden by later doctrine.  I’m not sure it’s possible to ever really know.  However it does seem to me that for most of its history the Church has been concerned about human salvation, not other creatures, and we do have some very prominent theologians in the history of the Church (now considered “Fathers of the Church”) whose views and writings can be held largely responsible for the strong anti-animal-consideration view that we find in the Church.  St. Thomas Aquinas would be first among these.  His views, along with those of the earlier St. Augustine, became enshrined in Church doctrine.  Paul, in the Bible is also particularly not animal friendly.

VSM:  Can you give us some examples of saints or theologians who held pro-animal views?

KB:  My research area isn’t really on the history of thought on animals in the history and tradition of the Church, so much as it is on emphasizing the idea of the need for consistency in the ethic of life, so I’m not an expert on the figures in the past history of the Church who might have had animal friendly views.  Andrew Linzey’s books are a good resource on this, as are Ryan Patrick McLaughlin’s.

I think it’s important to note though that the actual idea of being vegan is a more recent occurrence and probably not an idea that would have existed cohesively in the past very much.  Even the idea of being “vegetarian” is not something that was probably that familiar to saints and theologians in the history of the Church, especially not vegetarianism for ethical reasons.  Some saints and religious orders did abstain from flesh or certain types of flesh or even all animal products, but it tended to be for reasons of asceticism (self-denial/ “purification”/ “sacrifice”) rather than for ethical/animal rights reasons.

There are certainly some saints who are known for having a more protective and holistic view of creation, and who befriended animals and/or offered them protection.  Some of the Celtic saints are said to be particularly known for this.  Interestingly enough though, the “patron saint of animals,” St. Francis, was actually unfortunately not vegetarian as far as we can tell.

There is a very powerful quote from St. Isaac the Syrian, however, that does particularly resonate with me:  “What is a charitable heart?  It is a heart that is burning with charity for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons – for all creatures.  He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his heart, a heart that is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon a creature.  This is why such a man never ceases to pray also for the animals, for the enemies of Truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified.  He will pray even for the reptiles, moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God.

VSM:  Is it true that the early Christians were vegetarians but were forced to eat meat by the people in power at the time?

KB:  I haven’t really heard or discovered this as being true.  My research hasn’t really focused on the Early Christians though.  The closest thing of relevance to this that I’ve come across is a fascinating book by Keith Akers, called The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Non-violence in Early Christianity.  Akers proposes that the original followers of Jesus, and hence, the earliest Christians (the Ebionites) were vegetarian and lived lives focused on non-violence and simple living, but that this truth got “buried” by later Church writings and influences.  I do feel that Akers backs this up enough with early Church documents that it should be considered a valid theory, though it’s not possible to ever conclusively determine what the facts were as they are lost to history.  Of course the Church would not consider this theory to have legitimacy though.

Most research, Keith Akers, Norm Phelps, and a few others aside, conclude that Jesus probably was not a vegetarian and certainly no vegan.  And we will never know the actual fact of the matter, but it does seem reasonable to draw our ideas (and support for protection for animals) from considering what ideas would be consistent with Christian compassion, peace, and non-violence.

VSM:  Have you seen any signs that the Church is beginning to open up to the idea that animals are sentient and deserve protection? 

St. Francis of Assisi

KB:  Not really.  Many Catholics have championed the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si as being pro-animal.  It is true that Laudato Si contains what are probably the most significant statements we have thus far from the Church in regards to a positive stance on animals.  But at the end of the day, virtually every statement contains so many qualifiers so as to render it virtually meaningless, always again making sure that humans have primary consideration and animals only after that.  Statements along the lines of animals being “not only for the use of humans” seem to imply they deserve some protection or some right to exist, that they have SOME purposes of their own for being here, but those things only alongside their use to humans and humans’ right to use them.  Statements that seem pro-animal are made in one place but then contradicted or qualified elsewhere in the encyclical.  At the end of the day, the encyclical is ambiguous at best.

Many vegans and other people who care about animals were very hopeful when the current Pope took office that he would make significant leeway in protection for animals because he chose the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.  But Pope Francis was, unfortunately, very clear that he chose the name Francis for solidarity with the poor, not for reasons of concern for animals.

So, do I think the Church will change?  I know this will sound very negative, but no, not really, not easily, and not from the top down.  I actually think that the Church will be one of the last bastions of animal cruelty, dragged along kicking and screaming at the very end, when the rest of the world has already gone vegan.

If change happens, I think it will end up happening only from the ground up, when Catholics insist on a consistent pro life ethic and repeatedly point out the lack of compassion and the absurdity of this.


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