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A Publication of


From The Ark Number 189 - Winter 2001

Thomas Aquinas - animal friendly?

Thomism, the system of thought based on the works of St Thomas Aquinas, is frequently quoted as being one of the major negative factors in the traditional Christian approach to animals.  Thomism gives priority to human reason over instinct and imagination, and posits the theory of the hierarchy of created matter, with each ‘lower’ form serving the forms above it.  Can anything ‘animal-friendly’ come from this source?  Well, yes actually.

Consider the following passage from the chapter ‘De cura Dei de creaturis’ in a short work ‘De divinis moribus’ found in Volume 28 in the Complete Works (Omnia Opera) of St Thomas Aquinas.

It is God’s custom to care for all his creatures, both the greatest and the least.   We should likewise care for creatures, whatsoever they are, in the sense that we use them in conformity with the divine purpose, in order that they may not bear witness against us in the day of judgement. ...

It is another of the ways or perfections of God that he cares for all that he has created - the very smallest as well as the greatest, be they animals, fishes or birds.   Two sparrows are sold for a farthing, yet not one is forgotten (Matt 10:29).   He cares even for the worms, great and small.  He keeps all things in being and continually provides them with all they need for life.  He cares for the four elements, for inert matter, for plants and trees and the whole animal world.

‘De divinis moribus’ was for long considered to be by Aquinas himself, but two distinguished scholars in the twentieth century, Grabman and Meersseman, suggest that it was probably written by a Dutch or Flemish Dominican in the late 13th century, before the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) decreed all Dominicans must follow Aquinas absolutely.   If not by Aquinas, it never the less ‘breathes a completely Thomist spirit’, according to Grabmann.  It first appeared only in 1473 in a volume attributed to Aquinas.  The text was not known outside Holland and Germany (there are examples in libraries), until the 16th century.

The significance of the passage is striking: animals will be ‘bear(ing) witness against us on the day of judgement’; they must be used ‘in conformity with the divine purpose’ and that is one which involves ‘caring for all that (God) has created’ ... can anything be more animal-friendly?

Return to The Ark No. 189

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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