Review of Encyclical: Laudato Sií of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Peaceable Table
July 2015

This long document is occasioned by a profound sense, based on the hymn of St. Francis of Assisi also reflected in the title, that "our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us," "now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her."  For "we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will."

This can only be a matter for our prayers. For the present Laudato Si' can, again, be recommended for serious and meditative reading by all with a concern for our Mother Earth in her suffering and that of her many creatures, whether Catholic or Christian or not.

This recent Encyclical from Pope (or rather Friend) Francis contains much that will be of interest and encouragement to those with animal concerns, as well as engendering an awareness that much remains to be said and done.  As such, it deserves discussion in The Peaceable Table.

This long document is occasioned by a profound sense, based on the hymn of St. Francis of Assisi also reflected in the title, that "our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us," "now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her."  For "we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will."

The letter goes on to present a long indictment of damage done to the natural environment and to the lives of human beings, particularly the poor, by technological "advances," global capitalism for the sake of profit and consumerism alone, and lack of awareness of the interrelatedness of all creation. While forceful, contrary to the view of some critics the Encyclical did not strike me as "catastrophist" or unbalanced in its view of new technology or the world economy. Rather, granting that some technology has enhanced quality of life and some economic developments have brought about improvements in distribution of goods and knowledge to many, the pontiff rightly insists that all such change must be judged in terms of its human motivation. and its impact on all classes of society, especially the poor, on all creatures, and on the earth itself. The questions are always not only, "What is to be gained for us by this activity," but also, "What will be lost, and by whom?" Francis himself spells out the agenda of the letter in a long sentence near the beginning:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture the proposal of a new lifestyle.

I cannot here present Francis' teaching on all of these points, though I highly recommend reading the Laudato Si' in its entirety. I will therefore restrict us for now to lines particularly pertaining to animals. There is much, and much that is heartening.

To begin with, Ch. III, "Loss of Biodiversity," first refers to the plundering of the earth's resources because of short-sighted approaches to commerce and production. But the text adds that "It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential resources to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves." Lamenting the disappearance each year of thousands of plant and animal species "which we will never know, which our children will never see," the writer acknowledges this is mostly due to human activity: building highways, plantations, dams, all that crowds out natural habitats.

Again, this is more than just an economic matter. "Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another" [Italics added].  There is a religious dimension: "we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures." For it is also the case that "The earth is the Lord's." "Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures." Rather, "we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God's eyes: by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory,'" for "we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful". . . as the Catholic Catechism says, "'Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. . . Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature.Ē "Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous."

However, a darker side to this wondrous realization is implied. "When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings.  We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationship other other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is 'contrary to human dignity.'" It was none other than Jesus who reminded us of "the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures. With moving tenderness he would remind them [his disciples] that each one of them is important in God's eyes: 'Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.'"

Moreover, citing again the Catechism, "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly." Passages in the Old Covenant are cited to show concern for the well-being of animals: the provision in Ex. 23:12 that the Sabbath rest is not only for humans but also so "that your ox and your donkey may have rest"; the admonition in Dt. 22:4,6 that if you come upon a bird's nest, "you shall not take the mother with the young."

With such a magnificent preparation, one can only express disappointment that Francis did not go on to discuss animal agriculture explicitly: its role in the production of methane and other "greenhouse gasses" he so deplores; in its devastation of the environment and the extinction of many species through habitat destruction; above all in the cruelty and lack of practical respect for the divine ray of wisdom and goodness in each creature of its usual operation, especially in present-day factory farms and slaughterhells. Perhaps the Holy Father was held back by the way fishing and animal agriculture are generally parts of traditional Catholic cultures; perhaps-- and this is what I hope--he is saving that topic for a future Encyclical.

While perhaps Pope Francis would not feel free to condemn as sinful all eating of meat and other animal products, or their use, it seems to me -- though speaking as one outside his religious tradition -- that it would not be contradictory in that letter from the future for the papacy to denounce any dietary or other use of animals not raised in a manner consistent with the splendid lines above about goodness and love in each creature.  Such would in fact rule out most present-day farming of animals and lead us to look for non-violent alternatives. The Pontiff could also refer to the vegetarian diet of certain strict monastic orders, and to the traditional abstinence from meat in Lent, to argue that whether or not the foodstuff is evil in itself, its avoidance is clearly meant to be a path to a higher holiness even in longstanding Catholic tradition, and as such worthy of serious consideration. It would be fine if he would set a personal example.

This can only be a matter for our prayers. For the present Laudato Si' can, again, be recommended for serious and meditative reading by all with a concern for our Mother Earth in her suffering and that of her many creatures, whether Catholic or Christian or not.


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