The Catholic Tradition and the Consumption of Animals

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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

The Catholic Tradition and the Consumption of Animals

Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews John Berkman, May 2007

John Berkman teaches moral theology at The Graduate Theological Union and the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. He is the author of several articles concerning vegetarianism including “The Consumption of Animals and the Catholic Tradition”, “Is the Consistent Ethic of Life Consistent without a Concern for Animals”; “Prophetically Pro-Life: John Paul 11’s Gospel of Life and Evangelical Concern for Animals” and “A Trinitarian Theology of the ‘Chief End’ of ‘All Flesh’” with Stanley Hauerwas. The Abolitionist’s questions are theologically based as John Berkman shows par excellence how the Catholic tradition has really been a victim of poor scholarship with regard to its views of the other of God’s creatures, the animals.

Abolitionist: In “The Consumption of Animals and the Catholic Tradition”, Food for Thought The Debate Over Eating Meat, ed by Steve F. Sapontzis you said that even from the few Catholics voices you present, “the question of consuming animal flesh is significantly more complex and diverse than is typically realised.” Please flesh out your thoughts on that for us here John?

John: I think one of the things that was going on while I was writing that was I’m trying to figure out in my own mind whether I’m writing more for the “theology” people or the “animal” people, to put it simply.

Most of the pieces I have written have been more towards people who think theologically but don’t think about animals. With this piece I definitely had in mind the people who are concerned with animals and maybe aren’t so concerned with theology.

Having been thinking of writing about this for many years I’ve become somewhat frustrated by what I took to be crude and inaccurate generalisations regarding the Catholic tradition in relation to it’s views on the use of animals. Some well known authors who write about the ethical treatment of animals simply sum up the Catholic tradition – a 2000 year tradition of many, many, many important people who have thought and written about these questions -- and all they do is simply take one (often out of context) quote from Thomas Aquinas, maybe something from a 19th Century moral manualist, and they would take that to sum up the Catholic tradition.

One of my goals in this essay was to show that such summaries are gross misrepresentations of the tradition as a whole, even if many traditional Catholics think that’s what their tradition is. One goal was to show both of those groups that the Catholic tradition is much more complex and varied and nuanced than is often thought. This is just a small start at examining the tradition with a little more balance and fairness. It’s a limited little piece but it was at least trying to show that such generalisations simply don’t hold up to a serious investigation of the tradition.

Abolitionist: In the same article you said that, “When Catholics pray the Lord’s prayer, they pray that God’s peaceable kingdom may come more fully in the world.” What does that peaceable kingdom hold in store for humans and animals alike John, as spoken through the Christian scriptures?

John: I think the tradition very much gives us a vision in both that God creates a peaceful world in Eden, or known as the Edenic state (also known in the Catholic tradition as a state of original justice) where creatures live at peace with one another. Then the Fall occurs and there is this terrible disruption in the world and one of the things that flows from that is all kinds of bad things come about. Humans not living rightly with others and humans not lively rightly with Creation and humans no longer living rightly with other animals.

In the Garden of Eden the scriptures speak of humans being vegetarians and animals as being vegetarians – eating plants and fruits but not other animals. So after the Fall it’s clear that in scriptures that humans are now permitted to eat other animals. It’s not clear if this is a happy thing or if this is a good thing but this is really now the way the world is. The Christian story doesn’t end there. It continues that through what Jesus Christ has done in redeeming the world, that there are new possibilities for humans to live at peace with other humans and other animals. Various places in scripture, both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, present visions of what it would be for humans and other humans and humans and other animals to live in peace. I take it that this is a vision of what we call God’s peaceable kingdom and this is an issue for Christians praying for “Your Kingdom Come.” I think it’s certainly appropriate for Christians and Catholics to pray and to be thinking about peacefulness for humans with other humans and peacefulness between humans and other animals and to realise this in their own lives more fully and to pray for it in a more general realisation.

Abolitionist: What is the Peace of Christ that Catholics celebrate in the Holy Mysteries?

John: This is an opportunity during the Mass that Catholics are given to turn to each other and offer the Peace of Christ. This is a very particular peace. It’s not simply about some absence of war or something. Rather, it’s a notion of living peaceably and similarly to what I have just described. To live in peace with other creatures and as a whole way of living with life. In a way it’s similar to the peace that Christ demonstrates to his followers in his life and in his death that is seeking not to respond to attack with violence. It is very much at the heart of the Christian gospel – Christians seeking to live peaceably.

Abolitionist: Is a commitment of veganism and vegetarianism an extension of wanting to extend the Peace of Christ to the Animal Nations or is this a confusion of two completely different concepts?

John: I think it’s a complicated question and I don’t want to over-state it. Clearly, in some times and in some places in order for humans to live and for humans to survive it requires the sacrifice of other animals to live so I’m not really that interested in telling people, living in a culture with a lack of alternative plant food (e.g. the Inuit), that they need to starve or move rather eat other animals. I mean I don’t want to turn this into a universal moral obligation. I think that situation is irrelevant for the vast majority of us because the vast majority of us we now live in a situation where we can perfectly well live with little or no sacrifice to ourselves -- except for some developed tastes some people may have -- without the consumption of animals.

The contemporary consumption of animals involves not only the killing of animals -- a bad thing to do if we don’t need to – but perhaps more morally problematic our cooperation with modern methods of slaughter which obviously in almost all cases involving incredible cruelty. This cruelty is clearly incompatible with the Gospels and Christian belief. I think that it’s very difficult for contemporary Christians to eat animals in any kind of good conscience. Knowing that that kind of cruelty on a mass scale goes on and also because simply we really have no need to eat animals, it’s a good thing if we can avoid supporting the killing of other animals when not necessary.

Abolitionist: We know that cruelty is unholy and there is no room for cruelty in Christian theology yet the quality of suffering has a different propensity. Pope John Paul 11 wrote in “The Private Prayers of Pope John Paul 11 The Loving Heart” that human suffering is very close to the Mystery of the Resurrection and Jesus’s suffering is a call,” to sustain, in proportion to your strength, and with devout fortitude in your sufferings, the work of the Church with your prayers, and with your sacrifices, here and throughout the World.”

Please let me ask you this: Many animal rights people spend a lot of time trying to figure out if Jesus was a vegetarian. Isn’t it enough from a Catholic perspective to accept the Bible was written for humans because it is them, and no one else, who have reneged their duty to Christ through not applying the principles of love, compassion and mercy to the animals?

John: Again that’s another complicated question. I think there are a number of ways one can respond to that. I think we have no reason to believe that Jesus was a vegetarian. I have read some attempts which seem to be historically problematic try to make the point [that Jesus was a vegetarian]. I certainly don’t think that the point whether Jesus was a vegetarian is essential to our deciding whether or not we in our contemporary cultural situation, as faithful Christians, should eat animals.

Abolitionist: In “The Consumption of Animals and the Catholic Tradition” you speak about Christian abstinence from eating animal flesh. You name three kinds of reasonings – medicinal, ascetical and eschatological. Please outline the differences here.

John: This article was in a sense trying to deal with the early centuries of Christianity in a culture very different from our own and the article is limited in that I focus particularly on Christian reflection in the 3rd,4th,5th,6th centuries. They obviously had different ideas on medicine and different ideas of diet and a whole variety of things, but there are three kinds of arguments I think they made that are relevant to our contemporary situation. The three types of arguments I have drawn out of these writings are medicinal arguments, ascetical arguments and eschatological. Writers like Basil of Caesarea and St. Jerome thought that eating animal flesh was not good for health. They didn’t mean health in the way we now think about it exactly. We make the sharp distinction between physical health and spiritual health. They really didn’t make those kind of distinctions. Rather, they seemed to think that animal flesh was overly nutritious and it simply wasn’t good for human health generally. Some of the rules for monastic orders make an exception when one of the monks was sick. But generally for the health, both physical and spiritual, it was better to refrain from eating animals.

The second reason is ascetical abstinence. They thought that eating animals was overly luxurious and in fact some of the early saints and fathers of the church, St Basil and St John Chrysostrom, are somewhat coarse in speaking about it. Eating animal flesh is gluttonous and intemperate. They were thinking of the vice of gluttony and the virtue of abstinence and thought that for Christians should live simply. I think that argument resonates in a very different way today. If nothing else we see the large-scale consumption of animals is basically terrible for the environment both in terms of the animal excrement produced and in terms of the wasteful use of all kinds of grains which could much more effectively feed the planet by feeding people directly. Thus the instrumental argument that raising animals for meat is in itself gluttonous, since we can get our daily nutrition in more efficient and effective ways than through the consumption of animals.

The third argument is the eschatological argument which is really what I was thinking about earlier. It’s a much broader vision of the way God created the world to be at peace, what the theologian John Milbank has referred to as “ ontological peace.” In contrast to this Christian vision of ontological peace is the typical modern perspective of “ontological violence” that presumes the world is by nature at war with itself -- whether in predation of humans against humans or against other animals. The Christian view is that “this is not the way it is suppose to be.” In Christ we see the world differently, as fallen but as fundamentally a place where we work to further God’s peaceful kingdom.

Abolitionist: In re-reading St John Chrysostom’s“On Fasting” it is as fresh and alive today as it was then when he wrote it. He was speaking on how fasting and abstinence produces holy reverence in the person and it occurred to me that often veganism in abstaining completely from all animal products, produces reverence for the animals. Do you see these connections as well John?

John: Yes, very much so. I think that our practices shape our vision. I once raised the following question in an article: Can you seriously have an argument over vegetarianism when you’re sitting down having lunch with somebody who’s eating a hamburger? Unfortunately, I seem to typically get into discussions of vegetarianism precisely at meals, where I’m not eating animals and people around me are and ask me about it. It is always this odd situation because it’s questionable whether someone can really seriously engage the issues while they are digging into their flesh meal on their plate. Thus, I think we need to be aware to the extent to which our practices shape the way we are willing to think about certain things.

Beyond that to the actual question I think people like Chrysostrom and Thomas Aquinas certainly saw that fasting was not only a means for atoning for or preventing sins which we often associate with fasting, but also more generally a way of raising the mind or the spirit to spiritual matters. They would say, “As gluttony puts one to sleep, fasting draws one to prayer.” When we are hungry we are attuned to many matters (hopefully more than looking for food) and we all know what happens to us after we have a very large meal! Now I am by no means good at fasting or other kinds of ascetic discipline, and I’ll be the first one to admit that. I don’t claim to be holier than I am, which is not very. However, those who are holy in the Catholic tradition typically point to fasting as enabling us to be more attentive to, and leading us to God and the Holy Spirit.

Abolitionist: Is the torture, torment and execution suffered by animals in the research laboratories around the world, satanic?

John: A huge amount of animal research is simply unnecessary and probably doesn’t even rise to being a significant moral question. I am willing to say that there could be situations in which animal experimentation could be justified, but I think the burden of proof, and it would be a significant burden, would be on those who want to say that this is sufficiently important and necessary for it to go on. If we could simply stop the obviously wrong animal testing we would be so far ahead. For example, in the United States there’s all kinds of very out-dated regulations in government that require animal testing on a variety of new products. There are much more easy and efficient ways of doing it and so it is both unnecessary and morally inappropriate.

Abolitionist: How does one positively initiate moving the Churches closer to the animal rightist point of view? Professor Linzey has said in his writing, “The moral arguments of animal rightists needs the underpinnings of religion to be effective” yet it was Matthew Perry’s in “Dominion The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” stating that if it wasn’t for animal rights people then much of the exposure of what happens to animals in the world would never come to light.

John: I think Mr Perry is exactly right. I think if anybody can expose injustices and wrongs going on in certain places Christian bodies should be open to learning from this. The Church has always been open to learning from those who are not in the Church but have enlightening perspectives on the world. It’s a gift that’s been given to heighten our awareness to the many evils going on in the world and this is one of them.

With regard to “animal rights,” I have a somewhat different view from my good friend Andrew Linzey. I don’t fundamentally think about the issues of our responsibility to care and to love other creatures as fundamentally one about rights. The whole language of rights I think is not the ideal language to think about animals and partly it’s because I’m not big on the language of rights speaking about human relations either. I think typically the language of rights assumes a world at war with itself, a typical Hobbesian view of the world, where life is nasty, brutish and short. We need to protect ourselves from other people therefore we appeal to the language of rights to maintain ourselves against everybody else who wants to do us in. Not that this isn’t a good thing, but it presumes a very different vision of the world than the Christian vision. Now with the Christian vision of the world there’s this fundamental vision of the world for human goodness and human decency. Certainly we need to restrain evildoers and we need to find ways to do that. However, the Christian tradition doesn’t call us firstly to “give people their rights,” it calls us to love them.

So how does my view differ from the animal rights view? I see our responsibility and duty to care for God’s creatures, not fundamentally because they have rights but because God has created them and declared them good. They have their own inherent dignity as creatures of God. Christians are to try to see the world around them in the same way God does! So although I greatly admire and respect Professor Linzey’s writings, on this one particular question we disagree. In an article I wrote called, “The Chief End of All Flesh” I tried to give this alternative theological vision and way of thinking about animals..

Abolitionist: What are your thoughts on how evil manifests in the world John? Would “good” people allow the sheer scale of animal suffering and brutality on the modern factory farm to continue unabated if they were spiritually or sufficiently awake?

John: You made a reference to what “good” people won’t do. I think the sad reality is that we are too often willing to do all kinds of evil things. People like Hannah Arendt and others in the 20th Century have written about the bureaucracy or the banality of evil. How people who otherwise seem to be “good” people are willing to do all kinds of horrible things. We see this in the slaughter of innocent human beings, whether it’s the Holocaust or all kinds of other 20th C genocides where the slaughter of large number of innocent persons are involved. We also see the willingness of many human beings to do terrible things to others when an authority tells them to do it. We see this in the famous psychological experiments of Milgram and others, where one person is told to send an electric charge to another person if they do not answer a question correctly. Although the experiment was fake, the charge was not really being given, the person giving the charge does not know that, and they seem willing to keep raising the charge sent until it is one that the meter says could kill the person getting the charge. The upshot of this? It is amazing what so many of us 20th Century people are willing to do if someone we see as an authority is telling us to do it. If this is indeed the case, it does not surprise me in the least that human beings are willing to do all kinds of horrible things to animals in factory farms if they are being told and paid to do it.

It just seems it has to be the case if so many people can be involved in the routine cruel slaughter of huge numbers of animals. We hear in slaughterhouses of animals who were not killed before they were dropped into boiling vats and we could go on and on about some of the practices that go on. People somehow seem to be immune to this. I’d like to think that human beings will resist this, but we humans seem to be very adept at developing habits of doing cruel things. In some ways I’m pessimistic about our ability to recognise evils that we do, or are particularly susceptible to be told by others to do something we find problematic, but then finding ways to justify our behavior.

Recently I saw the film “Fast Food Nation” which shows what goes on in a slaughterhouse so I think it’s important to raise peoples’ consciousnesses about what’s going on. Most people who eat animals simply eat something out of a plastic package they pick up at the supermarket. They have no idea how that came to the supermarket or how that came to their dinner table.

Abolitionist: Pope Benedict came out against factory farming.

John: I think that’s wonderful. His statement (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) was specifically challenging what is done to geese and ducks to produce foie gras and how chickens are typically treated. He says doing this turns these creatures into “caricatures of birds,” fails to respect the kinds of creatures that God created them to be.

Abolitionist: The late John Paul 11 had a vision for the Holy Roman Catholic Church. He said, and he was speaking to the Jesuits at the time, that there is no room in Catholic tradition for any atheist ideology. His vision was one of evangelism “Evangelisation 2000” and he called upon modern-day Catholics to imitate the early Apostles in that every Catholic should be an evangelist in this sense of the meaning of the word. He believed that every medium should be employed to hear the Word of the Lord and Speak the Word of the Lord. Because non-human animals cannot do this, and remember St Francis of Assisi preached to the animals which isn’t a redundant exercise, is human intercession required, through Christ, to raise up the animals from their lot?

John: There are a number of parts to that question. I do think in many of his writings Pope John Paul 11 has called Catholics to be more “counter cultural.” To be aware of their society’s failure to live the Gospel, to be more outspoken and to live in ways that demonstrate the faith in their lives. I think this is a continuation of what Vatican II speaks of as the “universal call to holiness” of all believers. Holiness is not just for some Catholics, like clerics or those in religious life. All Catholics, all Christians should seek to follow the Way of Christ and to embody holiness in their lives.

Pope John Paul II discusses this in perhaps his most famous writing, the encyclical Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life. It presents a vision of the holiness that all Christians are to embody in their culture, speaking of working for a “culture of life,” and against a “culture of death.” Although it’s primarily concerned with issues of human life, of abortion, of suicide, of euthanasia and capital punishment, there are also clearly places in Evangelium vitae where he makes reference to ecological questions and questions to do with animals. For Pope John Paul II, although we need to start with questions pertaining to humans, we shouldn’t exclude questions to do with animals. In The Gospel of Life the Pope presents an eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God and calls us to live eschatologically, seeking to build up the kingdom. In what Ratzinger said about factory farming, I think we see him saying something consonant what Pope John Paul II says in Evangelical Vitae about environmental questions.

Abolitionist: Catholics believe that they are actually eating the Body of Christ and drinking the Blood of Christ when they receive the Holy Eucharist. Does this still make them vegans and vegetarians John?

John: I can see myself going two different ways to answer that one. I’m not sure which of the two different ways I want to go on that one yet.

Abolitionist: Is veganism and vegetarianism a spiritual experience?

John: I would say yes but I would call it a spiritual discipline or a spiritual practice. At least refraining from the eating of animals is a spiritual discipline which all Catholics are called to, at minimum, during Fridays during Lent in preparation for the celebration of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and of course Easter Sunday. Abstaining from eating animals is a spiritual discipline required of every single healthy Catholic in the world at least on those Friday’s in Lent. For many Catholics perpetually abstaining from eating animals can certainly be a spiritual discipline. I think it has been historically, and can be for contemporary Christians a very good spiritual discipline as a way of anticipating and helping to bring forward Christ’s peaceable kingdom.

Abolitionist: John, but did you become interested in all of this work and your love for animals?

John: When I was an undergraduate and studying in England I picked up books by Stephen R. L. Clark. The philosopher was a Christian and he was writing on this topic. I was a Christian but not a Catholic at the time. I picked up these books and I didn’t really want to read them because I thought they might turn me into a vegetarian which I didn’t want to become. As someone who basically didn’t like vegetables and ate only meat, milk and fruit!

But the next year, in my final year as an undergraduate I was back in the University of Toronto and decided to sign up for a philosophy course on the ethics of experimentation. There were a number of different topics that students were meant to present on. One of the topics was experimentation on animals. So I thought, “Okay, here’s a chance to read those books.” So I read them and some other things then gave my presentation. This is back in the early 1980’s when experimenting on animals for cosmetic testing was still pretty common, if not universal. I remember one called the Draize test where you didn’t pass if half the animals didn’t die. It was just one of these horrific tests. I thought this was awful especially since it was only testing for cosmetics. I remember sitting in this class and assuming that most people would agree that we should not inflict all this cruelty on animals for such trivial reasons and I was just astounded that most people in the class had no sympathy for what I was saying. Morever, some taunted me, “Well if you are so concerned about all these rabbits, what are you going to do, become a vegetarian?” and I remember saying “Yeah, I am”. That started it and you know, it was very odd. For the next couple of months I would forget that I was a vegetarian and I’d go to a restaurant and forgetting my new convictions order half a chicken dinner and they would bring it to the table and I’d go “Oh, I’m vegetarian!” (laughter).

For me at the time it was a complete change of my eating practices but then I became fairly obsessed about it. Every time I went into a store I’d look at the side of a box of crackers for any lard! Back then almost everything had lard in it although it doesn’t now. So that’s how I became a vegetarian – for philosophical reasons -- that’s really how it started. In my graduate studies in Theology I gradually came to see more distinctively Christian reasons for being a vegetarian and I consider my reasons fundamentally theological. However, I initially became vegetarian for philosophical reasons and I’m grateful for that. It has been over 20 years since I have been a vegetarian.

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