On the Rights of Animals

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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

On the Rights of Animals

By Justus George Lawler
Originally published in The Anglican Theological Review (April, 1965).

The mind of every man experiences some great crux when attempting to understand the Christian synthesis. For Newman it was the New Testament teaching on eternal punishment; for William George Ward it was the scholastic doctrine on predestination; for scores of parents in the early Church, one assumes it was the theological notion that the unbaptized were damned; and for scores of parents in our time it may very well be the dubious theory of a limbo for unbaptized infants. But for many others, who simply reject the mechanistic conception of the communio sanctorum on which the limbo theory is based, it will be the problem raised by animal suffering.

These latter believe, on good theological grounds, that all the agonies of an innocent child dying are requited and find meaning in the next world; but traditionally the painful death of an animal has been regarded as having no meaning in itself; it is only a kind of symbol for man, a symbol of the truth that he should willingly accept necessary suffering without complaint--after the manner of the "dumb brute." But if this were the entire truth one could not help but think it a cruel symbol that some kind of vengeful God had offered to mankind. For of course the animal is a symbol--but then so is man himself, plus something more. And it is this "something more" that theology has left undefined with regard to animal creation.

The living animal is a twofold symbol reminding man, first, of Eden garden and of that integrity and purity that he lost there. Even more, the animal is a symbol of man's undefiled image; for Adam's act of naming the animals was not an assertion of his dominion over them. This naming represented rather Adam's candid companionship with that aspect of creation which had been created in his image even as he had been created in the image of God. And hence the friendship of the great saints with the animals: the great saints preached to them, and the animals in the act of comprehending such "sermons" comprehended themselves and realized through the saints--the men most akin to Adam before the fall--their place in a divine economy which ordinary man has not been able to grasp.

But if the animal is a symbol of what creation was in its state of innocence, he is also a symbol of what man is now in his state of estrangement. The piteous glance of the animal--of which no one has written more eloquently than Buber(1)-comes from the fact that the animal cannot quite respond to the sursum corda of his being, from the fact that he cannot quite communicate his very selfness to another. The animal symbolizes then, simply because of his incapacity to release his spirit from captivity, the fractioned condition of fallen man. For the animal is trapped in a way that man is not, and therefore experiences in a way that man cannot--blindly and by the most tortuously indirect reflection--the excruciating tension of the spirit-matter construct. And thus because the animal's eyes express the frustration of a spirit too diminished, too powerless to penetrate its material envelope we rightly speak only of the tragic "glance" of the animal and not of its "gaze": the emergence of spirit in the animal is a momentary event, without transforming power and without endurability. But in this ontological sadness, in this strain of his nature the animal speaks silently of the groaning and travailing of the whole of an expectant creation. And so it was no exaggeration for Matthew Arnold to write:

That liquid, melancholy eye,
From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs
Seemed surging the Virgilian cry,
The sense of tears in mortal things.(2)

Yet having recognized the wealth of all of this symbolic significance, it is still difficult to find much meaning in the death throes of the animal. One might say in palliation of this seeming horror that animals do not have authentic self-consciousness, and that their sufferings, therefore, are greatly diminished by contrast to those that the human person undergoes: granted in part--though we are embracing a possibility (lack of animal self-awareness) to erase a certitude (the pain of dying)--because no matter how muted, there is still some suffering. And any suffering which is utterly without significance implies a world in which a meaningless situation takes place, and this is a denial of God.

There is some hint of a solution to this problem in that obscure passage, already alluded to, from the epistle to the Romans where St. Paul proclaims that "creation itself also will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into freedom of the glory of the sons of God."(3) Almost all exegetes agree that "creation" here refers to the physical world and to the animals that dwell in it. But the text remains baffling, and can perhaps only be understood by reading it in the light of the message of the great pauline visionary of our time, Teilhard de Chardin;(4) and for that reason it is also somewhat consoling because it hints at an explanation for the one dominant mystery in the physical universe, the pains of animals. St. Paul's proclamation suggests that even animals share in the redemption; which means in turn, that they must also share in the parousia and in the final renewal of this world. Every creature according to its own nature, inasmuch as it fulfills the will of God according to that nature (man freely moved by God, animals more unfreely) will then participate in the final consummation, though, as Karl Rahner says, "it staggers the imagination to conceive how."(5)

"Imagination" is the proper word here. For in the growing concern both within and without the Christian community over the pains of animals we are faced with one of those revolutions which sensibility often so successfully engenders in the face of abstract cerebration. In fact, a parallel could readily be drawn here with the change which sensibility--non in dialectica--wrought in the early Church when the notion that unbaptized children were damned was finally and definitively abandoned. For this reason such witnesses to the salvation of animals as Bishop Butler, Charles Kingsley, Cardinal Manning, Baron von Hügel, and C. S. Lewis, can be recognized as the prophets of a new but not unexpected development of Christian doctrine.

This growing dissatisfaction with the traditional Christian view of animals, both in and out of religious circles, stems almost entirely from the depths of sensibility and empathy which have been discovered by post-medieval man. For this reason the animal-welfare movement can be recognized as derivative of that common body of opinion which in recent centuries has brought about the amelioration of conditions among laborers and factory workers, the universal condemnation of slavery, the improvement of penitentiaries, the abolition or humanizing of various instruments for capital punishment, and virtually every other beneficial social reform.

Without oversimplifying needlessly it can nevertheless be affirmed that this emergence, or better, eruption, of a new dimension in human sympathy is the direct consequence of man's discovery of selfness, of his discovery that his dignity stems not from his place in society, not from his function in this or that office or work, not from his biological antecedents, but entirely from his own spiritual character. Lord Acton has traced this growing realization of personhood to the diffusion of the Stoic writings in the late Middle Ages;(6) and it is a commonplace of historical knowledge that this realization culminated in what is ineptly termed "the romantic movement." It is not surprising then, that Protestantism which represents this same romantic vision in the religious sphere, has traditionally been more sympathetic to humanistic reform movements than has Roman Catholicism.(7)

It would be an injustice to attempt to condense multifaceted and complex cultural and sociological tendencies into a single linear evolution, or to attempt to write a philosophy of history in a few lines; but it is quite obvious that the discovery of selfness is the basic factor in the development of Western social consciousness. For social consciousness is engendered only to the degree that man comes to recognize his own personhood, his own interiority; and it is paradoxic but axiomatic that the subject only knows itself in knowing the object, while the object is only fully known in reflection on the subject.

This awareness of man's authentic humanness was inhibited by medieval culture both in its religious and its secular aspects (to the degree that they are discernible and separable), by such additional factors as the confinement of education to the clergy and nobility, the mechanistic ex opere operato conception of the Sacraments and consequently though regrettably of the entire ecclesiastical structure, and finally by the intellectual inbreeding of all aristocratic closed societies, whether political, academic, or religious. All of these and many other influences made pre-Reformation man a being who was defined fundamentally in terms of outwardness and exteriority. And it is because of this cultural ordination to the world of the objective that it is difficult to embrace either Christopher Dawson's notion of a Christian culture, or Karl Rahner's notion of a present-day diaspora. There never was a Christian culture, there was only a Christian carapace; and this, because Christianity implies above all not an adherence from without enforced by the physical pressures of a highly stratified society, but an inner acceptance of Christ. Without any sense of interiority such an acceptance is impossible.

These are necessarily loose generalizations, but their main drift is recognized as valid by virtually every historian of our time. And they serve to explain why on the grounds of a misconceived natural-law doctrine Christian bishops could defend slavery even in the nineteenth century, and, more pertinent to the present subject, they explain why even today Roman Catholics will defend vivisection on that same natural-law doctrine bolstered by citations from that pre-eminently medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas. The truth is that here as in a number of other fields St. Thomas has only a historical significance, and that twentieth century man is no more likely to be swayed by his opinion that animals have absolutely no rights than by his notion that more people are damned than saved, or that burning at the stake is a permissible punishment for heresy.

In the broader conception of animality which modern man possesses, it can certainly be affirmed that the animal has an instinct for life, and that since this instinct by definition is a drive for life without any termination--all animals fear extinction--it is a tendency toward continued living as such. The very awareness the animal has of its own physical dimensions and of the impingement of objects on its sensory apparatus constitutes a kind of "conscious" individuality, a kind of embryonic personality. The animal's instinct for life, then, is a thrust toward a condition in which the stimuli of pleasure shall be permanent and those of pain annihilated; and this thrust would seem to be the experience of the individual animal and not of the species. Moreover, the animal does have a sense of impending harm, does have an awareness of anticipated pain, and the very awareness itself, no matter how vague, must be an additional source of suffering which is entirely non-physical.

For that reason it would be deeply satisfying to the modern mind, in whom empathy for the pains of others--whether persons or animals--has been much more thoroughly cultivated than it could ever have been in the medieval world, if Roman Catholic theological and philosophical manuals would consign to the rubble of dead history the notion of vis aestimativa, and instead treat of animal knowledge as inchoately spiritual, and therefore as demanding for its subject correlative spiritual rights. That is the clear meaning of the following lines by the priest-poet, Henry Vaughan, on St. Paul's text from Romans:

And do they so: have they a Sense
Of ought but Influence?
Can they their heads lift, and expect,
And grone too? why th'Elect
Can do no more: my volumes sed
They wer all dull, and dead,
They judg'd them senslesse, and their state
Wholly Inanimate.
Go, go; Seal up thy looks,
And burn thy books."(8)

With theological and metaphysical wit Vaughan punned in the first line on the passage in which Christ explicitly affirmed God's concern for animal creation even though it neither reaps nor sows. And in the word play on ought-aught, he went even further to suggest that since the animal does have a sense of "ought," which implies obligation, then he is, like man, a kind of spiritual creature. (9) This "oughtness" would require that the animal simply be what he is, as of course nothing else is possible. But is not that for man also the highest fulfillment of obligation and thus the highest form of prayer--simply to be what he is, to accept fully his creaturehood?

Thus there is an adequate basis for the elaboration of a theology of animals which would explicitly affirm their immortality. The doctrine would have to emphasize, first, the participation of the animal's spirit in the human spirit, even as the human spirit is a participation in God; and, second, the affinity of the animal body with the human body, and of the body of the latter with the body of the God-man. And as the human spirit is incomplete without its body, one would maintain that the animal spirit would also demand union with its body. This is simply to emphasize again that the central issue does not relate to any vaguely defined salvation of the species, but to the saving of the individual animal as such.

It is at this point that one can answer that question which seems to vex unduly those who do not see the immense symbolic value of a doctrine of reverence for life, and who seem to delight in inquiring about such matters as the fate of swarms of insects or of other lower forms of life. To the question of where one draws the line--bearing in mind that it is not for man to draw any such lines but only to attempt to satisfy his own confusion before mystery--it must be replied that one would imagine it to be drawn at the limits of flesh and blood. Great is the emphasis in the Christian revelation on the "body and blood of Christ," on that body and blood which was assumed precisely in order that a God might suffer. And it is because the animal can undergo his "passion"--in the root sense of the word--that he must share in the resurrection. One draws the line, then, at the lowest extremity of creatures who share in spirit and who are compounded of nerves, and blood.

Now if all of this may be maintained, one is well on the way to exiling to the dark chambers of the past--along with the history of bear-baiting and bullfighting, to say nothing of autos-da-fè--the monstrous scholastic notion that animals, like heretics, are to be treated as mere things. Any creature when it reaches the threshold of experiencing and anticipating pain possesses rights. Some of this may sound exorbitant, but it at least moves one in the direction of explaining what in the traditional Christian worldview is simply left inexplicable. And it is at least a step toward a solution which finds some meaning in the otherwise meaningless suffering of animal creation.

We are in need of a broad-gauge sociology of religion. Such a sociology might help us know, for instance, to what extent national traits have been reflected in the various theological schools and have shaped theological opinion. It is obvious that a concern for animal life has been characteristic mainly of that Anglo-Saxon religious temper which, as Cardinal Newman stressed, is deeply rooted in the affective, the concrete, and the empiric, that is, in the terrestrial. Nor is it a mere matter of taste that led to the inclusion of two texts from English poets in the paragraphs above. Works on the pains of animals and on the meaning of animal creation almost constitute a genre in the English poetic tradition--one need think only of Vaughan, Blake, Coleridge, Arnold, Hodgson, Thomas, Monro, Stephens, and Wolfe. On the other hand, since the continental theological tradition is mainly Latin and speculative, it is not surprising that the mystery of animals has been virtually ignored by Catholic religious thinkers. And this, it may be suggested, is why when one looks at the major popular entertainment in those happy Iberian lands, which for centuries enjoyed the benefits of clerical tyranny, one is not always impressed by the impact of religion on the sanctification of man in his concrete, real condition.

Bullfighting must be viewed as a grave and intolerable immorality, and the assertion that it can be regarded as an esthetic enterprise is irrelevant: murder itself can be ritualized, as Kafka's "execution machine" would illustrate. What is even more perverse, and a grievous scandal, in these countries is the sanctioned torture of animals in conjunction with religious festivities. Although it took the Church centuries to forbid clerics to bear arms as professional soldiers, and although at the first Vatican Council Bishop Vérot of Florida, who wanted to have priests forbidden to hunt, was derided by his brethren,(10) nevertheless considerable progress has been made in the humanizing of institutional religion. And notwithstanding the fact that our zoos continue to enclose animals in cages that are only two or three times larger in dimension than the size of the beasts themselves, and that small wild animals are imprisoned without a mate for life in tiny glass cells where they have no contact with any living thing save for the daily insertion of a food tray--notwithstanding the fact that such immoralities continue to be perpetrated for the delight of the onlooking images of God--it nevertheless remains true that the more gross evils have gradually been eradicated. We don't bait bears, we don't fight cocks, we don't impale bulls, and even nonbrutalized slaughter-houses are replacing the vile abbatoirs of the past--at least in the non-Roman Catholic world.

All of this points up the significance of Joy Adamson's series on Elsa the lion. The popularity of these books--which counter the Disneyland conception of love for animals as primarily a juvenile virtue--indicates a radical change in the general sensibility. They constitute a Christian testimony of man's devotion to animals which is utterly remote from the complete indifference of many Roman Catholics as well as from the academic franciscanism of the defenders of "moderate" vivisection. Forever Free, like Born Free and Living Free, breathes the kind of piety we identify with Anglicanism at its best, and one may be pardoned for preferring this Joy with her religious naturalism to that galvanic virgin whose psychophysical contortings Bernanos portrayed. Joy Adamson and the growing school of contemporary writers to which she belongs seek to put together that divided image which the world of experience begets, and to tell us that the fearful symmetry of the tiger in the night was traced by the same hand that made the lamb. These books, like certain paintings of Chagall and Franz Marc, restore us for a time to that garden state where the lion and the lamb lay down together. (11) They are works of religion in the deepest sense.

It is here that any theology of animals must situate itself: in the tenable thesis that animals, like angels, explicitly share in our worship of God. They are a part of that liturgy which must be dearest to the Father if only because his Son when preparing for his redemptive mission, as St. Mark says, "lived among animals and was served by angels."

Any discussion on the theology of animals must broach that question of vivisection which shall be examined in greater detail in part two. (12) Many twentieth-century Christians, and recently even some Roman Catholics, have found it almost impossible to understand why the animal which--according to traditional opinion--has no other life can be forced to suffer in this its one life in order to extend or preserve that temporal life of man which in the Christian conception is merely the prelude to an eternal life. That is the larger premise on which many Christian antivivisectionists would base their argument. But even apart from specifically Christian considerations, it is difficult to find any ethical justification whatever for the infliction of needless pain on animals--how to define "needless pain" shall be taken up shortly. Certainly since animals exist for the good of man (but because of their rich participation in spirit that "good" is not to be understood as though they were primarily physical objects or mere things), even as man exists for the good of his fellow man, one may justify the necessary and painless killing of animals just as one might justify the necessary and painless killing of a murderously intent criminal. But in neither case could one on any grounds justify torture. Nor in the case of such a criminal could one argue that because he had abdicated his human rights it would therefore be licit to attempt medical experiments on his now "non-human" body. Furthermore, if it is reason that presumably distinguishes man from the animals, and if on the basis of that distinction vivisection is allowable, then it ought to be equally allowable to perform experiments on the permanently deranged. For certainly, one could say, the permanently insane may be adjudged to have no rights; they can neither contribute anything to the human community nor can they praise God through formal prayer--even when, like animal creation, they can praise God by their mere existence, by their lack of duplicity and by their innocence.

The alleged presence or absence of higher faculties in men and animals has no bearing on the question of vivisection as such. What is relevant is the fact that both men and animals are sentient, are capable of experiencing pain. There is no verifiably significant correlation between possession of reason and awareness of suffering; nor can we in the name of the first impose the second. What reason does give man is the power to tyrannize other creatures, the power to imagine that he shall be as God--that is, the power to deny his creaturehood, a denial which both Greek tragedy and the Old Testament teach degrades man to a condition lower than that of the brute. Since I shall discuss below the norms that should be established for all medical experimentation, I will not detail them here. But in the framework of the larger argument developed above, I would suggest the following as a summary rule for the determination of morally permissible experimentation. Since the one element that both vivisector and animal share in common is a capacity for suffering, the vivisector should in his own conscience refuse to inflict any pain that he would not himself be willing to undergo.

Thus one can accept the case which has been made by the medical profession for the use of animals in laboratory experiments provided that there is virtually no pain, even as one might justify the slaughter of animals for food, provided again that virtually no pain was inflicted--though one may be convinced that as human consciousness is intensified and as man not only is patient of evolution but guides and directs it, the barbarity of carnivorousness will be more and more realized. Before the fall, one may remember, there was no slaughtering of animals for food.

But that Roman Catholic theologians particularly, and Roman Catholic institutions defending vivisection, have tolerated the abuse of animals is doubly tragic because their theology, along with that of the whole Christian tradition, teaches that human suffering is not of itself an evil to be negated no matter what the cost. And this theology also teaches that human suffering finds full compensation in an afterlife which is theoretically denied to the suffering animal. Given these two assumptions, one would have thought the logical corollary to be that a fortiori it is sinful to cause needless pain in that aspect of creation which has--in the awesome phrase of Léon Bloy-"The air of trying to drown Cain in the calm lakes of its eyes." 

Also see: Toward a Theology of Animals


1. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York, 1958), pp. 96-99.

2. "Geist's Grave."

3. Cf."Tranfigured Universe," Thought (September, 1948).

4. Cf. "Chardin and Human Knowledge," Commonweal (April 13, 1958).

5. Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death (New York, 1961), p. 36.

6. Lectures on Modern History, op. cit., p. 73.

7. Similarly it is not surprising that the theological école romantique of Tübingen, under the influence of Möhler, has come to be appreciated by anglophone Catholics only in this century.

8. Romans 8:19.

9. Cf. "Why Ought Implies Can," The Review of Metapysics (June, 1963).

10. James J. Hennesey, S.J., The First Council of the Vatican (New York, 1963) , p. 242.

11. Cf. "The Christian Themes of Marc Chagall," Thought (Summer, 1956).

12. Cf. "Life in the Vivi Sector," and "An Outright Damned Lie," Continuum (autumn, 1965); "Do Animals Have Rights? The Morality of Vivisection" [illustrated], Jubilee (November, 1965).

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