Toward a Theology of Animals

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Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

Toward a Theology of Animals

By Justus George Lawler
Written as a continuation of
On the Rights of Animals

Catholics are growing more and more wary of the indiscriminate citation of papal statements to reinforce unstable doctrinal propositions. The circumspection extends not merely to ceremonial or occasional utterances of the popes but to encyclical letters of the past, and--though more questionably--even to recent encyclicals written about current topics and enjoined upon the faithful for their immediate acceptance. It requires, therefore, a great deal of temerity or na´vetÚ for a moralist to invest some casual phrases of Plus XII with all the weight of "an official opinion of the Church" on the question of vivisection. Though there are certainly more crucial moral issues than vivisection facing mankind--nuclear war and the limitation of births being the most obvious--there is none which is more delicate, which requires more sensitivity for its adequate assessment, and which is more resistant to easy resolution by papal obiter dicta, above all dicta as imprecise, Latinate and alien to the Anglo-American mind as the following:

There is nothing reproachable in simply killing an animal .... When there is good reason to slaughter and kill beasts, their cries should not arouse unreasonable compassion any more than do red-hot metals undergoing the blows of the hammer, seeds spoiling underground, branches crackling when they are pruned, grain that is surrendered to the harvester, wheat being ground by the milling machine.(14)

Since the Reformation, the loss of what Newman called the "English-German element in the Church" has engendered a monophysitism which dismisses not only humanity, but the "humanities" and the humanistic. It is not surprising, then, that it is only in the last few decades that Catholics have sought to formulate a theology of temporal realities, and that they have begun to concern themselves both with the material progress of man and with those movements properly called "humane." Nor is it surprising that every concrete expression of this concern has met with opposition from the defenders of social stasis and ecclesiastical angelism.

It is in the context of this relatively new discovery of the temporal that recent agitation by Catholics over animal experimentation must be placed. For we are faced here not with an accelerating sentimentalism, except perhaps among paranoids who attach themselves to all reform movements, but with another of many signs of the growing personalization of men and their works: a personalization that has always been retarded by theological and philosophical literalism and by specialized institutions which find in such literalism their moral and intellectual rationale. More specifically, and with regard to animal experimentation, it may be said that such personalization is impeded by the majority of Catholic moralists whose arguments bolster the vivisection stance of the A.M.A.--an organization as opposed to government regulation of laboratory experiments as to government regulation of national health services.

The crux of the moralists' argument is that because animals have no rights, man may treat them as he wishes so long as he does not thereby degrade himself. This argument evidently had more cogency in an age when such clearly defined categories as sadism or perversity covered the full range of cruelty. But in the age of "the button," in the age of an Eichmann, those categories have been shattered and with them the canons of conduct so confidently laid down by classical morality. We now know a refined cruelty, a calculated barbarism, which is the consequence of a network of causes, and which in its effects is so remote from its perpetrators, that even if a man is totally implicated in the eventual horror he is not manifestly degraded as a person. The parts of the machine are so elaborately interconnected that, though each of them is indispensable, no single one seems to bear the entire thrust of the evil act; thus self-recrimination and personal responsibility evaporate. A moral code which defines degradation to man as the outer limit of cruelty to animals is obsolete. There are laboratories in which the most severe pain is inflicted on animals in an atmosphere of such aseptic purity by teams of such well-educated, benign practitioners of medicine and psychology that the entire operation has about it the aura of philanthropy. In fact it is stained by what I can only regard as moral corruption.

Let us be precise about what is at issue. Again, there is no objection to animal experimentation as such--on condition that the infliction of severe pain be avoided as a grievous evil. The following dilemma will briefly summarize the grounds whereon this position stands or falls. Suppose that, through a suspension of the laws of physiology, someone lying on his deathbed could be cured by, say, the dismembering of a live cat. Would such an act be morally permissible? If this example is too remote, perhaps the dilemma may be made more precise in this way: can I, at this moment, pluck from their sockets the four limbs of a living animal in order to save my own life? To those who would answer with an unequivocal "yes," nothing more can be said; for them what follows will seem only rampant emotionalism.

If it is countered that vivisection never involves that kind of horror, one can only accept or dispute that as a fact. If it could never involve such horror, there is no issue, but if it has, one must acknowledge its monstrosity and even if it might in the future, one must demand justice. Now the fact is that vivisection has involved such horror in the past, that it still does, and that the medical profession is intent on its continuing to do so.

A complete catalog of these outrages stifles the spirit, but a few examples must be offered. At Columbia University anesthetized dogs received "700 to 1000 blows on each leg. As soon as the injury had been inflicted, the administration of ether was discontinued."(15) At Johns Hopkins pressure of "approximately 500 pounds" was applied to the thighs of anesthetized animals. The pressure was applied for five hours, but "no form of therapy was carried out after its removal."(16) At Tulane University and the University of Rochester 43 dogs were subjected to scalding burns covering approximately 70 percent of the body surface, inflicted by immersing them in water at a temperature fifteen degrees below boiling with no post-experiment anesthesia.(17) At Harvard "pigs were laid on a grate about two feet over the pans" filled with flaming gasoline; "air temperatures as high as 900░ C. were obtained for very brief periods ."(18) At the Army Chemical Center, Maryland, "goats [were] tethered in slit trenches and subjected to fire bomb attack, which produced a fire ball of brief duration." "Animals received generalized burns from the fireball, or localized burns from spattering with gasoline." "3-1 percent of the animals on ground surface and two percent in the slit trenches were dead within ten minutes."(19)

In each case the experiments involve the inflicting of a degree of pain which can only be described as immoral--unless, of course, we regard the alleged end, the physical betterment of man, as justifying any and all means for its attainment, a moral doctrine apparently embraced by the author of the U. S. Catholic article previously cited, where he asserted that, "Surely the conquest of disease and the alleviation of suffering are grounds for some painful trials."

Even more atrocious are the experiments carried out to test reactions to what are called "noxious stimulations," that is, experiments in which the inflicting of severe pain is the immediate aim of the researcher. For example, at the University of Oregon cats were forced to walk on hot tiles and suffer pin pricks in their paws; this caused them "to leap into the air and frequently hit the top of the test apparatus. If they landed on the pins they would jerk their paws aside vigorously. . . ."(20) At Johns Hopkins after cats had been pinched, slapped, and spanked by hand, a researcher noted that this "elicited only a few plaintive meows." But when a cat's tail "was grasped between the jaws of a large surgical clamp . . . she cried loudly and attempted to escape." "During the 139 days of survival" this animal was subjected to increasing charges of electricity, the greatest of which "produced a third-degree burn. . . ."(21)

Perhaps the most revolting of all experiments are those carried out by psychologists. In these experiments it is generally not a matter of research by medical doctors for the improvement of human health; more frequently the experiments are purely speculative undertakings carried out by graduate students in a discipline which competes with "Education" for the lowest esteem of members of the academic community. Since these experiments differ mainly in purpose and not in method from those already discussed, there is no need to detail them here. Instead, I confine myself to quoting from a young researcher who, "in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Ph.D. degree" at the University of Southern California, invented a completely light-free cage, the primary advantage of which "is that it permits the control of a rat's lifetime visual experience."(22) All of the literature which discusses such experiments is available, yet no American moral theologian has ever interrupted his litanies to Pius XII's "official opinion" to discuss the obvious "degradation to man" to which these documents attest.

To all suggestions by various humane organizations that government controls be imposed on researchers to avoid excessive pain, duplication and inadequate post-operative care (controls long accepted and praised by British scientists), Dr. Arthur Brayfield, Executive Director of the American Psychological Association replies: "Innovative research, particularly in the pilot-study stage, does not necessarily proceed according to a well-defined plan. It frequently has the characteristics of a multiple-contingency situation."(23) In the language of the layman, it is a fishing expedition where anything or nothing might turn up. Or, faced with the recommendation that limits be imposed on animal experimentation similar to those accepted by scientists in Denmark, England, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland--countries which have produced more Nobel laureates in medical research than the United States--American researchers are likely to agree with Dr. Bennet Cohen's testimony before the House Subcommittee on Health and Safety, in which he said: "I think that the greatest sanction that can be provided against any scientist is the disapproval of his peers."(24)

Yet common sense says that scientists are no different from most other men, and common experience indicates that no profession has ever proved capable of policing itself. It has always required the control, or the indirect pressure, of the community as a whole to restrain the self-serving projects of particular groups. This is true of industry, labor unions, merchandising, agriculture, education, and every other sector of society. It is arrogance of the doctor-knows-best variety to assume it should not also apply to medicine. Moreover, such regulation would not only aid researchers by enforcing higher standards of care for the laboratory animal, it would also prevent their work from being unduly hampered by fanatic antivivisectionist groups opposed even to pain-free experiments. Nevertheless, the collective hubris of the American scientist has got so out of hand that no official body of researchers will discuss with representatives of humane societies a common basis for any legislation.

In the presence of a situation acknowledged as scandalous by religious and scientific authorities in other countries, what has been the response of American Catholic moralists? Faced by overwhelming, documented evidence of the abuse of animals, Catholic theologians have remained mute or repeated ad nauseam that "animals have no rights"--a proposition in itself questionable and in this instance irrelevant. Almost all of these moralists have explicated that proposition with a uniquely deracinated logic, laced with texts such as the one from Pius XII, cited earlier.

Almost invariably the Catholic moralist feels called upon to conclude his apology for all forms of vivisection with an appeal for conversion from a preoccupation with animal suffering to a concern for "people"--as if the two were mutually exclusive. "Anti-vivisectionists create the impression that they would rather see their children diseased than to see scientific experiments performed on poor little rats."(25) And in a statement defending bullfighting, Arthur O'Brien, C.S.C., wrote of its opponents: "They cry out that animals must have adequate housing, good food and medical facilities, while around them their fellowmen lack these same essentials and go unnoticed."(26) One might also "cry out" that it is precisely in those countries where the "artistic" torture of animals is sanctioned that the social improvement of people has been least evident--where, moreover, social justice has been impeded by the same theology of stasis which defends bullfighting.

Lastly, Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, in attacking proposed Congressional controls of medical experimentation, also mocked those concerned over the abuse of animals: " . . . any human being, no matter how poor and sick and fallen, no matter how insignificant and forgotten, is worth more than any number of the majestic wolfhounds Mrs. Irene Castle McLaughlin parades about the country in anti-vivisection demonstrations."(27) Such derisive nonsequiturs betray the fixed mentality of the special-pleader who will not or can not argue his case in the forum of rational debate. It is an elementary truism that in a complex world not everyone can pursue the general goals of humanity through the same channels. That some people are dedicated to the animal-welfare movement is no more surprising than that other people should be dedicated to, say, the construction of a national shrine in honor of the Immaculate Conception-one of Hannan's pet projects. Diversification is a law of progress.

The assumption of these clergymen that advocates of pain-free experiments would prefer to see people rather than animals suffer has been undermined by recent evidence--published mainly by animal-welfare groups--that more and more researchers, compelled by the drive for success in their own narrow specialty, are resorting to experiments on human beings. A British scientist has compiled a list of five hundred such experiments, and Dr. Henry K. Beecher of Harvard University in a study, "Ethics and the Explosion of Human Experimentation," has itemized twenty recent experiments on people--one of which, he notes, resulted in "25 men crippled, perhaps for life." Contrary to the insinuations of the moralists quoted above, it has been the members of various humane societies who have done most to draw attention to the heinousness of human experimentation.

Given the theological and philosophical weakness of the arguments put forward by clerical defenders of painful experimentation on animals, one can only be startled at being told repeatedly that the Hannan thesis represents the "official" view of the Church. The truth is that here, as with so many other "official" views, there can be no meaningful statement by Church authorities until the question is studied in depth, in the light of incontrovertible facts and of the new ranges of human sensibility which have been disclosed in the twentieth century. Until such study is undertaken there can be only provisional norms--norms which, in my opinion, are already obsolete.

There is little point, therefore, to moralists' triumphantly asserting that the eminently sensible National Catholic Society for Animal Welfare has been "reprimanded by a Church official."(28) Church officials have been wrong before. Regarding this particular official, it should be added that he also reprimanded the Fathers of Vatican II for their preliminary acceptance of the draft text on nuclear war, that he reprimanded the president of the Catholic Historical Association for his inaugural address criticizing McCarthyism, and that he reprimanded the Catholic press for its "un-Catholic" critical spirit. Such a plethora of "official" reprimands should not obscure the fact that no single bishop, not even the Metropolitan of New Orleans, speaks for the Church.

The melancholy conclusion must be that Catholic leadership has lagged, leaving this aspect of social morality to secular humanists and non-Catholics. And it is their arguments--not those of Catholic moralists--which will inevitably bring about the needed reform. Their basic argument, the one that will prove most persuasive to the electorate, is that if there is no abuse of animals, as the experimenters maintain, why oppose legislation that will simply codify this allegedly happy state of affairs? No decent parent has ever opposed laws aimed at punishing those who abuse children.

The failure of Catholic moralists to address themselves to the proven abuse of laboratory animals, while expatiating upon the unquestioned inferiority of animals to man, is comparable to the failure of just-war theorists to address themselves to the existence of an overkill capacity, and of social moralists to address themselves to the existence of de facto segregation. Neither the animals-have-no-rights assumption, nor the just-war theory, nor the brothers-of-Christ doctrine has any relevance to anyone--except to Catholic theologians of Laputa--unless it plunges its roots into the existential, unless it confronts and transforms the world of the here and now.


14. Pius XII, quoted by James J. Quinn, S.J., "A Proper Respect for Men and Animals," U.S. Catholic ( June, 1965 ). This was a response to the Jubilee article referred to above.

15. The American Journal of Physiology ( January, 1947 ).

16. Surgery, Gynecology, and Obstetrics (October, 1942).

17. Surgical Forum (No. 10 1959).

18. Symposium on Burns, National Research Council, 1950.

19. Ibid.

20. Journal of Neurophvsiology (No. 21, 1958).

21. Proceedings of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases (No. 27, 1948).

22. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (April, 1963).

23. Subcommittee Report on H.R. 1937, 87th Congress ( Washington, 1962 ) , p. 269.

24. Ibid., p. 320.

25. J, D. Conway, The Catholic Standard, September 9, 1963.

26. Albany Times-Union, February 16, 1963.

27. The Catholic Standard, May 17, 1963.

28. Quinn, loc. cit.

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