What is a Catholic Concern for Animals? – by Dr Carmody Grey

In what way is a Catholic concern for animals different from a secular concern?  The moral indignation in the face of human mistreatment of animals expressed by the animal welfare movement has long seemed a reproach to Christians.  The frequency with which Francis of Assisi is resorted to in such exchanges unfortunately corroborates this impression: is he the sole exception in a history of dismal Christian disinterest in nonhuman life?  The perception of Christian disengagement from the lives of animals has been exacerbated by the negative reaction among some Christians to the new emphasis on animal ‘rights’. 

Fearing that it compromises human uniqueness, and distracts attention from human suffering, they have entrenched Christianity in a simplistic anthropocentrism in which nonhuman life exists only to further the purposes of human beings, a view seemingly supported by the Catechism: ‘Man is the only creature on earth which God has willed for its own sake’.  In this view, human beings alone are understood to possess immortal souls and to have an eternal future: they alone have a permanent, intrinsic and spiritual value.  This suggests that the suffering of animals, while perhaps regrettable, is not to be seen in the perspective of eternity.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’ is a gift of God to those who have long felt that this view does not properly represent a Catholic concern for nonhuman life.  We are blessed to be living in a time when our tradition is recalling the Biblical vision: the whole cosmos, with every living thing, is the object of God’s saving action in Christ.  The notion of human beings as exclusive possessors of immortal souls destined for heaven was always a problematic and not very Biblical conception of salvation.  In the Bible, salvation is material as well as spiritual; it is for the whole person, body, soul and spirit; and it is for the whole created order, which is destined for transformation and renewal in Christ.  God reconciles to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven; he will make a new heaven and a new earth, where he will be all in all. ‘The one that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I will make all things new.’  Jesus commands us to preach the Gospel to all creation.  The good news of salvation is for every creature.  As Pope Francis says, ‘Even the life of the most fleeting of beings is the object of God’s love’.  Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God.  How then, asks Francis, could we mistreat them, or cause them harm?

This has important implications which take a truly Christian concern for animals well beyond secular animal activism, implications which should make us realise that what we are engaged in is not simply an attempt to ‘keep up’ with a secular world which is always one step ahead of us.  It is true that we can say that our tradition commands what they have long been preaching: we should not cause suffering to animals.   But we have a great deal more to say than this. 

Firstly, we need to point to the good news that the Christian tradition alone has for animals, which no secular or merely immanent worldview can offer.  We do not ask only that they be protected from harm; we hold them up as recipients, with us, of the promise of transformation.  After the flood, God made a covenant with every creature, that he would save them from destruction.  To this is added the promise to them, in Isaiah, of the eschatological peace of the Messiah.  ‘The wolf will lie down with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’  In Mark’s typically terse comment about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, ‘He was with the wild beasts’, the force of the with is regarded by some Biblical scholars as a foreshadowing of the peace among the animals which the Messiah will bring.  Just as in Christ God is with us, he is with the beasts.  In other words, the Christian tradition does not ask us merely to avoid causing animals harm, to give them legal rights or statutory protection.  It asks us to see them in an eternal perspective in which God accompanies them and promises them peace.  They are not mere furniture for our entertainment on this transient earth.  They have the dignity of participating in a cosmic destiny of glory. 

Secondly, this understanding of the transcendent orientation of all life involves us in an attitude of profound moral critique of the natural order that we find ourselves in.  One of the most serious shortcomings of secular animal rights movements is that they are prone to a dangerous sentimentality, because they cannot seriously protest the brutal violence and suffering of nature.  In the words of a well-known environmental philosopher, nature is ‘random, contingent, blind, disastrous, wasteful, indifferent, selfish, cruel, clumsy, ugly, full of suffering, and, ultimately, death’.  Secular animal ethics tends to evade the desperate sadness of this by focusing on the capacity of animals to form attachments and have experiences similar to our own.  They draw attention to the fact that elephants have the capacity to grieve, or dolphins have the capacity to form lifelong bonds of affection.  These are easier facts to notice than the relentless onward march of agony and waste in the context of which these extraordinary natural phenomena occur.  For so many of nonhuman sufferers in the history of this earth, life seems to contain no fullness, no expression of the potential of that creature to flourish and to fulfil its nature.  Why must a secular animal welfare philosophy evade this fact?  Because in holding this world and its values to be all, it has no means of finding the natural suffering of animals to be a cause of moral outrage.  Consider the fawn burnt alive in a forest fire; the cattle slowly poisoned by the Komodo dragon, and eaten while still alive.  This state of grotesque pain and mortal threat in which nonhuman beings live is ‘natural’, is ‘the way things are’ – if this world is all.  They focus on our own responsibility for animal suffering, but cannot enter into the more demanding and painful form of protest, which is a protest against nature itself. 

For Christians this is not the case.  We are in the astonishing position of saying that the natural suffering of animals is an aspect of the fallenness of this world, of their subjection to futility, in the words of Paul.  This is a strange privilege and burden.  Burden because we have to allow the violence and brutality of nature to touch us, to be a source of moral anguish; we have to allow ourselves to be affronted by the prevalence of seemingly unredeemed suffering and the unimaginable wastefulness of natural processes.  We can acknowledge, in the words of Darwin, one of nature’s most astute observers, the terrifying emptiness of fallen nature, without allowing that to be the last word on nature’s meaning: ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain could write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature!’  And it is a privilege because we hold a promise for all creation that strains our imaginations in its unlimited scope: the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and they shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain, because the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.  In the words of John Wesley:

But will ‘the creature’, will even the brute creature, always remain in this deplorable condition?   God forbid that we should affirm this; yea, or even entertain such a thought!  While ‘the whole creation groaneth together’ (whether men attend or not), their groans are not dispersed in idle air, but enter into the ears of Him that made them.  He is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth, which shall be accomplished in its season… ‘They themselves also shall be delivered’ (not by annihila14tion; annihilation is not deliverance).  Nothing can be more express.   Away with vulgar prejudices, and let the plain word of God take place.  They will suffer no more.

Thirdly, this perspective shows us that it is necessary to affirm human uniqueness to really value nonhuman life.  ‘Biotic egalitarianism’ is the view that all forms of life are equal in value, and among modern and liberal-minded people, this position seems like the most democratic and humane interpretation of life on earth.  On this view even a limited anthropocentrism is an affront to animal dignity.  But in fact the opposite is the case: we are the ones to whom God has made a promise of salvation for all creation.  We hold creation in trust and we proclaim to it, by our actions, an eternal hope of redemption.  This is evident in the fact that human beings alone have the capacity to suffer moral guilt, to take moral responsibility.  It is heavily ironic that this is ignored by much of the animal rights movement, since urging human beings to take notice of animal suffering and accord them legal rights is just the kind of thing that only humans do.  There are no meerkats organising protests and campaigning for justice.  The alternative is to surrender to a falsifying sentimentality about the natural world, failing to recognise the necessity of a moral response which can only be supplied by human beings.  This is no insult to meerkats, it is just to say that that is not the kind of beings they are; that is not what they characteristically do.  It is what we alone characteristically do and this makes us uniquely obliged to care for them.  The eclipse of the unique capacity of human beings to bear specifically moral concern for anything, including animals, undermines any moral project, including the project of animal welfare. 

Moral indignation, the capacity to be morally outraged, to find that the suffering of oneself or another flies in the face of one’s deepest instincts about what is right and true and good, is a specifically human gift.  But we exercise this gift for all.  There is a paradox here.  It is in our ability to recognise obligation, such as the obligation to care for animals, that we stand apart; yet precisely because this standing-apart is the acknowledgement of a unique spiritual solidarity – the responsibility to be wounded by the fallenness of this world, to sustain a hope of salvation for every creature – it is a standing-apart that unites us more intimately with the lives of those for whom we work and on behalf of whom we speak.  A traditional way of expressing this role is the image of priesthood.  Every Christian is a priest, because each of us lifts up the whole of creation to God and blesses it, and receives it back from him sanctified.  In this we are distinguished from creation in the very same act in which we are most deeply united with it.  This is one of the reasons why the Eucharist is a privileged moment for expressing our cosmic hope as Christians.  Lifting up the material world to God as our gift to him, we call down his mercy on every one of our nonhuman brothers and sisters; and we receive it as gift from him in the same moment, resplendent and divinised as the body of Christ.

Christians are called to proclaim the salvation of all creation in Christ; to protest the suffering of creatures, not only at human hands, but at the hands of the inexorable natural processes of which they are part; and in doing so we manifest our unique vocation in God’s plan to save this travailing world.  In this, we have so much more to say than simply repeating the nostrums of their secular counterparts.  Jesus tells us to preach the Gospel to the whole of creation, and what could this preaching mean but to proclaim to them by our actions, by our sustained respect for their specific dignity as God’s creatures, that they too will have a share with us in the new heavens and the new earth?  That they will be saved, not only from the harm we cause them, but from the suffering of nature itself?  No creature, at any time or any place, is outside of God’s mercy.  That is a Catholic concern for animals. 

Dr. Carmody Grey is Assistant Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Durham.