Last year The Society of Christian Ethics launched the Animal Ethics Interest Group—one of many clear indications that the moral status of animals is becoming an issue of greater concern for Christian theologians. Tell us about the development of your own interest in this issue, and also why you think theologians are now giving the human-animal relationship greater attention.
Yes, as a co-founder of that interest group, it has made me nothing less than excited to see such interest in the topic. Though, even as a professional ethics society, we have struggled to consistently resist violence toward non-human animals. In some ways, these growing pains mirror my own. I became convinced of a duty to refuse to eat meat in my early 20s after reading Peter Singer, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 years old—and I found even better reasons in my own tradition—that I finally made a firm commitment. I then wrote a book on the topic of Christian ethics and animal protection and co-edited a special edition of the Journal of Moral Theology—the first Catholic academic journal to be devoted completely to non-human animals. I think younger theologians, in particular, are giving the topic greater attention because (1) their lives are not as deeply intertwined with or addicted to meat-eating, (2) new technologies have allowed us to document the suffering of animals in new ways and share them widely, and (3) we can now see more clearly the relationship between how we treat animals and climate change, economic justice, and worker justice.
The number of vegetarians has skyrocketed in the past ten years, demand for meat has gone down, and consumers are seeking out “free-range” chicken and eggs. Some of my secular friends in the animal protection movement would say greater concern for animals in the U.S. has come about despite Christianity’s teachings on animals. How would you respond? Is Christianity good news for animals?
I’ve always told anyone in the animal protection movement that, unless you get people of faith on board, you’re fighting a losing battle. Furthermore, the idea that our poor treatment of animals comes from the teaching of Christianity is historically ridiculous. We treated other animals poorly well before human beings even had formal religious teachings and practices. And factory farming of animals on a wide scale came about, not with the rise of Christianity, but with secular Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Christianity’s message of nonviolence, care for God’s creation, resistance to consumerism and the profit motive, and having a special concern for the voiceless and vulnerable all point in the direction of animal protection.
We’ve also seen extraordinary development in our own understanding of animal intelligence in recent decades. Is there a possibility that the Catholic Church’s teaching on animals could shift as we come to learn more about the inner lives of animals?
I think so. On the one hand, we should just care about animals because God cares about animals (even the lowly sparrow), and God has given us the job of caring for God’s creation. But I do believe in a hierarchy of creation (there is a difference in the moral statuses of Zika viruses and dolphins), and I think we are now more aware than ever of the very sophisticated nature of many non-human animals. When gorilla have a vocabulary of over 150 words via American Sign Language, elephants pass mirror tests proving their self-awareness, or dogs show evidence of understanding the concept of justice, we need to at least consider the idea, for instance, that some animals are non-human persons. Theologically, there is nothing in the abstract that would prevent creatures other than Homo sapiens being a “substance of a rational nature,” and traditionally angels and even aliens could be put into this category. It is time to start asking this question about certain non-human animals.
Pope Francis has made creation-care a central theme of his papacy, affirming that acting to protect creation is integral to living out our faith. Where do animals fit into Pope Francis’s moral vision?
To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed in Pope Francis on this score. Taking the name of the greatest animal lover of all time, coupled with his focus on God’s creation, I thought would lead to more significant movement on other animals. There are some good things in Laudato Si’ on this question, to be sure; animals are part of Francis’ vision of the afterlife and he believes even the Blessed Mother grieves for their earthly sufferings, for instance. But there is no sense that animals matter more than any other aspect of creation. And, as I said above, we need to make hierarchical distinctions that will call us to treat animals differently than, say, dandelions. Pope Benedict, however, was a strong animal lover and in an interview said that he thought factory farming was inconsistent with a Biblical view of animals. Catholic teaching is moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go when it comes to realizing the implications of our broader moral teachings for how we treat animals.
When I see wildlife, I am in awe of God’s majesty, and I have felt God’s unconditional love through the love of my dogs. How do you think our relationship with animals affects our own personal relationship with God?
You couldn’t be more right about this. I also feel unconditional love from at least one of my dogs! It is interesting that in Genesis 2 God brings the animals to Adam, not to eat or to do labor for him, but because “it is not good that man should be alone.” In many ways, our experience of animals is very directly the experience of God’s love for us.
Should a Catholic exercise concern for animals when there is so much human suffering in the world? What might that look like practice?
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. And, often, our concern for one moral issue is directly connected to that of other. If we care about protecting the prenatal child from abortion, for instance, we will naturally be concerned for the welfare of her mother. If we care about worker justice and climate change, then we simply must care about how we treat animals. These sets of issues are intimately connected with each other. Factory farming non-human animals, for instance, is arguably the most important contributor to global climate chance and relies on exploiting vulnerable workers. Here I think Pope Francis’ vision of “The Throwaway Culture” looms large. There are issues so tightly-connected within this culture that it is nearly impossible to put rigid boundaries between them.
You’ve written about service animals in church. How could our church communities and our liturgy better reflect God’s intentions for the human-animal relationship?
One of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen was that of a dog laying in abject grief in front of his human companion’s casket at a funeral liturgy. In other cultures, stray animals come in and out of the church, even during mass, as a matter of course. It is an indictment of our culture’s mistaken view of animals within God’s creation that we refuse to see them as worthy to be in a liturgical space.
You’ve recently become a father, congratulations! How do you talk to your children about faith and animals? When talking to them about the food you choose to eat as a family, do you tell them about factory farms?
Thank you! Adopting three siblings from the Philippines in June has certainly changed our lives, and presented us with new questions. We certainly didn’t indoctrinate them with our eating habits, and if they ask for a hot dog at a baseball game or something, we do buy it for them. But for the food shopping at home we have no meat, and they don’t miss it at all. When they ask why we don’t eat meat my wife and I tell them our reasons. And they basically agree. Our boy still feels connected to eating meat (there is something very gendered about meat-eating, it seems to me), but the two girls have basically decided on their own to go meat-free.
As a Christian vegan, I’ve heard protestations from my fellow Christians such as “but Jesus was a fisherman,” and “what about animal sacrifice in the Old Testament?” Have you heard similar responses and how do you reply?
Yes, I have, and these are important questions. The scriptural witness on animals is complex, but I think it is really important to drive home the point of social context. Jesus’ eating fish is not the same moral act as eating fish is today. Animal sacrifice might have been approved by God in certain contexts, but today it is not approved. I tend to focus on factory farming of non-human animals. Whatever theological arguments we may have about animals, nearly everyone agrees that massive torture chambers for animals at the service of maximizing what the industry calls “protein units per square foot” simply cannot be justified. Yet, this is where the overwhelming majority of our meat comes from.
I’ll end this interview with your thoughts about the future. What kind of progress do you expect to see for theological thinking concerning animals? What signs of hope do you see? Any stumbling blocks?
I'm convinced that it is only a matter of time. Younger people in my classes—whether liberal or conservative, theist or atheist—are either already convinced by arguments for animal protection or are more than open to such arguments. Much like other historical practices which exploited and discarded the vulnerable, there is a new consciousness developing when it comes to our participation in violence against non-human animals, and I believe—as was the case with other social movements for justice—that Christian churches will be at the forefront of the animal protection movement. Indeed, I predict that my children will see a near-complete reversal in our attitudes and practices within their lifetime. Horrific violence directed at animals because we want to eat cheap meat cannot stand.
Sarah Spengeman earned a Ph.D. in political science, specializing in Christian political theory from the University of Notre Dame. She is a cofounder of Saint Francis Alliance and lives with her husband and dog in Washington, D.C.