A Papal Mercy

How the Vatican views animals, and why Christians should care

As 41,000 devout Catholics crowd the new Washington Nationals Stadium this morning for a Holy Mass led by Pope Benedict XVI, animal protection is not likely to be on their minds.  Amid the great questions of war, justice, and life, animals might also appear a humble concern for the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. But the Pope himself has suggested that the issue of animal protection is far from irrelevant to the Catholic faith.

When a German journalist put the issue to the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2002, he received a surprising answer. The Pontiff-to-be called the issue “very serious,” detailing his theological belief that animals are God’s creatures, deserving of merciful treatment by man.    

Ratzinger specifically attacked the practice of factory farming, which affects 10 billion animals in America each year. “Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible,” he said.   

Yet the average American church is strangely out of tune with the Pope’s sentiment.  American preachers seldom mention animal rights, except as evidence of the excesses of secular radicalism. National polls show an inverse correlation between church attendance and support for animal rights.  Churches celebrate the blessing of the animals on the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, and then largely ignore animal ethics for the rest of the year. 

This is partly because the animal rights movement has proven so uninviting to Christians. Peter Singer, whose 1975 book “Animal Liberation” began the modern movement, is an outspoken atheist and proponent of euthanasia. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ traveling trailer featuring a model of a vegetarian Jesus seated at the last supper with notable vegetarian “disciples” Paul McCartney and Cesar Chavez didn’t make a great impression when it pulled up at the Southern Baptist Convention last June.

But Paul Waldau, the director of the Tufts Veterinary School Center for Animals and Public Policy and an expert on animals and religion, argues that it can also come from a misunderstanding of religious traditions. He notes that many preachers point to the passage in Genesis where God grants man “dominion” over the beasts of the wild as a blank check to treat animals at our will.  He argues that the Hebrew word for “dominion” in is the same word that the Bible uses to refer to a King’s rule over his subjects. He says that “stewardship” is a better translation.

Pope John Paul II had a similar view. He believed that “animals possess a soul” and are “as near to God as men are.” Nor is this sentiment new: Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) was the patron of the French Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Pope John XXIII (1958-63) declared that “man must never hurt animals, must never ill-treat them, nor torture them physically.” In Saint Thomas Moore’s Utopia, the slaughtering of animals is left to slaves for fear that when citizens do it, “the practice of mercy, the finest feeling of our human nature, is gradually killed off.”

Indeed, the modern animal protection movement began with Christian reformers in 19th century England. After attacking the abuses of slavery and child labor, reformers like William Wilberforce, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, and Anglican Priest Arthur Broome turned their efforts to man’s sins against animals, co-founding the SPCA in 1824. In part, they were responding to the concerns of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who had found “a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that had never sinned to be so severely punished.”

Belatedly, the animal protection movement is remembering this noble legacy. In 2002, Matthew Scully, a devout Catholic and senior speech writer to President Bush, published Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, an elegant moral tome against animal abuse. Today, volunteers of the Christian Vegetarian Association hand out leaflets entitled “Are We Good Stewards of God’s Creation?” at mega-churches and Christian rock concerts across the nation.

With “creation care” a growing environmental movement in American congregations, animal protection will hopefully gain religious notice. In the meantime, Catholic priests can look to the words of Pope Benedict XV, the current Pontiff’s namesake, who in 1915 enjoined priests to support the Italian SPCA, “that they may offer to the animals refuge from every suspicion of roughness, cruelty, or barbarism, and lead men to understand from the beauty of creation something of the infinite perfection of their Creator.”

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.  His column appears on alternate Thursdays.