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A Publication of

From Number 191 - Summer 2002


A Franciscan sister living in the Faroes sent in this moving account of her
soul-searching struggle with the issue of animal welfare and vegetarianism

By Sr Maria Forrestal, fmm

Almost a year ago, I was approached by a young man when traveling on a local bus.  He told me he was an agnostic and a vegetarian searching for truth and justice.  He believes that the message of Christianity and the just treatment of animals - by which he means equal consideration of interests - are incompatible.

His questioning challenges me to reflect on my own attitude.  Is being a follower of Jesus Christ an implicit demand to live a vegetarian life style?  How should a Franciscan sister live out the attitude of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) towards animals and the whole of creation?  If I fail to address this question, am I a credible Franciscan - or even worthy of the name?  Many voices are raised today in the name of justice, peace and the integrity of creation, and great work is being done to address the problems of injustice towards the poor and the environment, but the animal world doesn't seem to merit the same attention. Why?  Are animals not worthy of the same care?  How should we relate to them?

Reflecting on the biblical texts, I have become more conscious of the often overlooked command: ‘I give you every green plant for food’ (Gen 1:29-31). Isn't this suggesting that a vegetarian diet was part of God's original plan for mankind?  I see that ‘the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (Gen 2:15).  What are my responsibilities towards creation?  Do I have the right to exploit it selfishly for my own needs?  I am reminded that on the sixth day, God created ‘living creatures’ before he created man, and that he saw that his creation ‘was good’ (Gen 1:20-24).  Shouldn't this tell me that animals have a purpose in themselves and are loved by God for themselves?  Reading the story of the Great Flood, I also see that when God made the covenant, it was between him ‘and you (man) and every living creature’; that he would remember the covenant between him ‘and you (man) and all living creatures … the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on earth (Gen 9:12-17).  Psalm 150 calls on ‘everything that has breath’ to praise God.  Do I pay enough attention to the fact that man and animals share the same Creator and the same ‘breath of life’?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) speaks of the interdependence of creatures and of the solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory (ns 342, 344).  I reflect on the commandment not to kill (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17).  Can I honestly say I am promoting a ‘culture of life’ if I sanction the killing of creatures created and loved by God?  After the Great Flood, the people were given to understand that killing animals was a grave matter and that they would be held accountable for every life which was taken (Gen 9:5).  Is it necessary and justifiable to kill animals for food, particularly in our rich consumer societies where there are so many alternatives available, to say nothing of modern dietary knowledge?  The prophet Isaiah gives us a vision of peace and harmony between creatures and between man and animal (Is 11:6-9).  I ask myself what concrete and constructive steps am I taking to live in a relationship of peace and reconciliation with my brother-creatures?

Pope John Paul II and animal souls

During a public audience in 1990, Pope John Paul II reminded listeners that ‘also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethern’; that they are the ‘fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect’; and that they are ‘as near to God as men are’. His public statement gives a clear and unambiguous answer to the often vexing question; do animals have souls?  It is worth recalling that not too far back in history people were saying that women, slaves and black people didn't have souls either.  The Pope went on to say that, ‘animals have the breath of life and were given it by God.  In this respect, man created by the hand of God is identical with all living creatures … The existence therefore of all living creatures depends on the living spirit/breath of God that not only creates but also sustains and renews the face of the earth’. Carlo Molari, then Professor of Theology and Dogma at the University of Urbino, said that the statement ‘demonstrates the Church´s desire and deep concern to clarify present confused thinking and attitudes towards the animal kingdom’.

On 12 November, 2000, Pope John Paul II reminded farmers of the true meaning of the command to ‘subdue’ the earth (Gen 1:28), saying: ‘The famous words of Genesis entrust the earth to man’s use, not abuse.  They do not make man the absolute arbiter of the earth's governance, but the Creator’s ‘co-worker’.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church also speaks of man and woman as stewards of creation, and reminds us of our responsibility to treat animals with kindness (ns 373, 2416, 2417, 2418 and 2457).

When I reflect on the life of Jesus today, I find myself becoming aware of how the manner in which he relates to animals is often overlooked. When God became man in Jesus, the Word became flesh in a manger - the abode of animals (Jn 1:1-4; Lk 2: 7,16).  He spent forty days in the desert where he was able to live amongst the wild animals without being in danger (Mk 1:13).  He made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding an untamed colt (Lk 19: 30-38).  In his Passion and Death, Scripture tells us that he is ‘a worm, and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people’ (Ps 22:6), and that he ‘was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’ (Isa 53:7).  What does this close identification of Jesus with animals tell me?  When he speaks of loving our neighbour, our enemy; when he identifies with the suffering, the weak and the voiceless; when he speaks of the coming of a new creation, is it correct to suppose that animals really don't have a place in his thoughts?  And if all of creation is to be released from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), how can anyone suggest that animals are not included?  St Francis of Assisi tells us, ‘Consider, O human, the wondrous dignity God has conferred upon you.  He created and formed your body in the image of his Beloved Son, and your soul in his own likeness.  Still, all creatures under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you do’ (Admonition 5).

In his message, ‘Peace with God the Creator - Peace with all of creation’ issued on World Peace Day, 1st January 1990, Pope John Paul II calls on modern society to take a serious look at its life style; to develop an education in ecological responsibility as a matter of urgency; and states that the aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. He presents St Francis of Assisi as an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation.

Not necessary to kill for food

In his book Animal Theology under the chapter, ‘Vegetarianism as a Biblical Ideal’, Professor Andrew Linzey reminds us that killing is always a grave matter and suggests that it is now not necessary to kill for food as it was once thought necessary, particularly in the rich West, meaning that when we have to kill (for food) we may do so, but when we do not, we should live otherwise.  He goes on to say that ‘to opt for a vegetarian life style is to take one practical step towards living in peace with the rest of creation’.  When one considers the difficulty of producing enough food to serve the world´s population, a vegetarian life style eases the pressure that exists on the land.  For example, over one quarter of the world´s surface is given over to grazing 1.25 billion cattle.  Other labour-intensive food could be provided from this land: nuts, fruit, vegetables and grain. A vegetarian requires from one-eigth to half of the land needed by a meat-eater, depending on the type of vegetarian life style one embraces.  A vegetarian life style also helps reduce animal cruelty.  As it is, animals are abused, mistreated, tortured and killed in a bid to meet the demands of human greed and arrogance!  Much of the exploitation is avoidable and could be eliminated with more investment, commitment and sensitivity.  A vegetarian life style is healthier!  The diet contains little fat and can reduce the risk of certain cancers by up to 40 per cent, and heart disease by up to 30 per cent.  It can also help lower cholestrol levels, restrict the chances of suffering kidney and gall stones, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Andrew Linzey also reminds us that the modern vegetarian movement was strongly biblical in origin.  Inspired by the original command in Genesis 1:29-31, an Anglican priest, William Cowherd founded the Bible Christian Church in 1809 and made vegetarianism compulsory amongst its members.  According to Andrew Linzey, the founding of this church in the United Kingdom and its sister church in the United States by William Metcalfe, heralded the beginning of the modern vegetarian movement which has grown rapidly since the 1970s. In the early Church, the rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 480-547) forbade the eating of meat in his community: ‘Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely from the flesh of four-footed animals’.  Trappist monks have being living on a vegetarian diet since 1966.

So why not?

So why am I not a vegetarian?  Is it because I lack conviction?  Is it apathy? Laziness?  I cannot honestly claim ignorance!  Do I fear the prospect of discomfort, conflict and opposition?  Is compromise an option?  Is it possible to silence the voice of conscience?  I think God may be using the encounter with the young man on the bus to make me to re-think the way I relate to his ‘living creatures’.  It seems that I am being confronted with my own sinfulness; with an area of my life that needs redemption.  Some changes have taken place since that encounter.  I now include animals suffering torture at human hands in my prayer for all victims of torture; I have a greater awareness of the disrespect and irreverence shown animals when they are regarded simply as ‘dinner’ and when their bleeding, butchered bodies are exposed in newspaper photographs; I try not to eat meat when I am free to chose an alternative.  Small steps, but are they enough?  My friend would say, No!  He would maintain that it's a simple matter of justice, and that I am morally obliged to become a vegetarian.  Need he stand alone: ‘LORD, do not stay silent; Lord, do not stand aloof from me.  Up, awake, to my defence, my God and my Lord, to my cause’ (Ps 35: 22, 23).  It seems to me that God is calling for warriors to stand in battle with my young friend …

With St. Basil (330-379AD), I pray for a change of heart:

O God enlarge within us a sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers and sisters, to whom you gave the earth as their home in common with us.  May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life.  Amen.

Return to The Ark No. 191 - Summer 2002

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