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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 203 - Summer 2006

Animals also are creatures of God

Leonie Boot1 is a Dutch member of CCA. Her article here provides a theological view on animal rights, one that attaches great importance to the loving relationship between human and animal, and its directedness towards God.

by Leonie Boot

Compassion for animals has long been a debatable subject in our society. As far as Christianity is concerned, compassion seems to be limited to fellow human beings. We consider ourselves to be the centre of creation, ruling all of creation, including animals. St Augustine condemned the killing and torturing of animals simply and solely because it could cause the human ratio [rational faculty] to be diminished. This ratio should remain focused on God. Attention to animals for their own sake is considered a diversion. Augustine’s interest in animals existed only in so far as they provided a moral lesson or presented an image of the love of God.2

St Thomas Aquinas also did not consider it wrong to use or kill animals. Solely man can obtain contact with God, since he is the image of God in regards to his ratio. And animals, as irrational beings, are not. Aquinas also condemned cruelty towards animals. If a few texts in Scripture seem to forbid animal cruelty, he asserts, it is out of fear that it may provoke cruelty towards human beings. Because of their lack of reason animals have no moral status in themselves unless human interest is involved. In the natural order, animals are intended for human use.3 Man cannot commit a sin against beast, only against God and fellow human beings.

This doctrine of Aquinas is still clearly present in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1994. This speaks of respect for the wholeness of creation. Animals are acknowledged as God’s creatures. The care for animals, however, is no immediate duty so long as human suffering has not been alleviated. Animals are nothing more than cosmic resources that man can utilise as he sees fit.4

The reaction of religious people

Religious faith is no prerequisite to condemn atrocities against animals, of course. However, shouldn’t it be the Faithful who reflect more than others on the way we ought to behave towards animals and deal with their exploitation? Shouldn’t they be more distressed than others by the inhumane treatment of animals in bio-industry and by genetic manipulation? Can the human ratio still be an excuse to exploit animals solely for human interests? Isn’t it the ability to have good relations with others that defines our being created in God’s image? Does the term ‘fellow creature’ also apply to animals? Which aspects of theology give rise to an affirmative answer to this question?

Stewardship as representation

As a result of public discussion concerning the environment a new theological discipline has emerged: eco-theology. Stewardship as its central concept functions as a correction of the notion of dominion.

Stewardship signifies the human assignment to rule the animals and work the earth, ‘to tend and keep it’ (Gen 2: 15). The present environmental crisis indicates that this assignment has not been carried out correctly. The attitude of man towards nature is one of a uni-directional ‘harvesting the fruit’ of the earth. Animals are treated as mere means of agricultural production. Two Dutch authors whose thinking is led by a specific Christian view of creation, on which a right understanding of stewardship is based, are Boerhof and Heusinkveld.5 Their starting point is an eco-theological perspective in which nature has its own intrinsic value. People are a part of the ecosystem, not the standard. Thus a perspective arises which points beyond humans and nature towards their source: God as creator of this earth. This is about the triad – God, man, nature. These authors refer to it as the ‘triangle of meaning’, in which God is the dominant orientation.6 Man is not the master of creation, but only master within creation.

The biblical interpretation of the concept of stewardship includes the notion of vocation. This vocation offers certain opportunities as well as limitations to the task of humans. It concerns responsible management, i.e. not only working and preserving, but also protecting and healing. Humanity has to keep the multiformity of life in the world of plants, animals and people intact. Protecting and healing imply that creation leads an existence that is endangered and damaged in many respects. The factuality of our day and age does not match the will of God.7

Image of God

People are responsible for what has been given to them. They have to make ethically right decisions. This means, theologically speaking, that they have to understand their position as the only creature that is the image of God. We can be called the image of God, because God wants to be represented by people. With imago Dei (image of God) is meant the unique relation human beings have with God as God’s image. The dominion we may have as God’s representative (Gen 1:28) is not the substance of being created in the image of God, but comes to us as a responsibility we have as a consequence of being imago Dei (Gen 1:26).

As the image of God we are subordinate to God. Therefore, we should not act as if we were God, but as human beings. Being human comes with certain limitations. Individually and within social structures we should heal and promote protection. Not only technological innovations and economical interests should receive attention, but also the concern for the environment, the welfare of people and the intrinsic value of animals. The value of animals and people and related interests should be taken into consideration when moral judgements are made.8

In the above-mentioned theological-ethical reflection on how to deal with nature, the concept of representative becomes the Christian point of departure. My personal objection is that with the term ‘representative’ the eco-theological perspective threatens to become unbalanced, because the relationship between humans and all of creation remains a matter of balancing interests. God, who should be the dominant orientation in the ‘triangle of meaning’, is lost in the process. Within eco-theology I prefer to characterise human beings as participants. Creation is a unity of which mankind is a part. Being a participant within this unity implies that we can create space for all living creatures. We are not just representatives of God, but as living creatures ourselves we have living relations with animals. Creation is a dynamic whole within which every creature has its abilities and is allowed to satisfy its needs. Every individual, every animal is allowed to seek its own fulfilment.

Animals and the rights of God

As a response to the public discussion on the welfare, protection, and the rights of animals this subject has also received attention in theology. The theologian Andrew Linzey speaks of animal rights as Theos-Rights [God-based rights] in his book Animal Theology.9 The basis of these rights lies in the religious conviction that animals have been created by God. In his opinion the dignity and the meaning of animals do not depend on the possession of reason, as is the case in the still-dominant scholastic tradition. Animals derive their worth from their relationship with God. As a result of their being created by God, they truly belong to God. Linzey asserts that we should respect the worth of animals, accept our responsibility for them, and support their God-given rights. The rights of God are at issue, when we violate the rights of animals. By calling animal rights ‘theos-rights’ Linzey wants to make it clear that the Spirit of God is concerned. That is the reason why he can call animals ‘spirit-filled’ life over which we have no absolute control. God’s incarnation in this world signifies God’s compassion for all matter regardless of the intellectual development and the communicative abilities of this matter. God does not waste anything. On the contrary, God appreciates and watches over even those creatures that have no discernible purpose or function for people. According to Linzey, this does not imply that we should give up the unique position of the human person as the image of God.

The religious understanding of the human as the image of God is important in order to encourage an ethical relationship with animals. People are morally superior in the sense that they have the ability to serve. Just like Jesus Christ – the High Priest – had a calling to follow the perspective of God, so are people called upon to practise a worldly priesthood. The throes of creation call for people who want to labour for its healing and liberation. Worldly priesthood thus means that we can remedy the suffering of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can transform the world when we practise ways of liberation without making human interests our first priority. We can serve creation just like Christ was its servant. Being a servant means: acting in a priestly manner for God’s creation. We have no right to treat animals solely as means to our own ends.

Dominion: the right to serve

If the dominion over animals grants us any rights at all, it is the right to serve. Christians can show what it means to believe in a generous and loving God by demonstrating our own generosity towards other, nonhuman creatures.

In order to illustrate the general nature of generosity in our attitude towards animals, Linzey uses the analogy of the relationship of parents and children. Analogous to parenthood we can use our authority to benefit animals. Parenthood means no less than the daily moral obligation to practise generous love. When we use our power to determine the quality of the life of an animal or even its life itself, our motive should always be the interest of the animal, just as it should be with children. Our moral obligation to be generous increases whenever we find ourselves in a position of power towards powerless creatures. This requires a reorientation of our relationship with animals comparable to the one that has already been initiated where children and other vulnerable members of society are concerned.10

The starting point in Stephen Webb’s book On God and Dogs (1998) is not the rights of animals, but the loving relationship between people and their pets.11 This relationship serves as a model for the way people should relate to all the animals in the world. Webb understands the person-dog relationship as something mutual, something that goes beyond profit calculations. In this relationship the dog gives its unconditional love and the person is called upon to respond with a similar gift of love. This exchange of love, says Webb, is a sort of rhetoric, a way of communicating that takes place between those who do not share the same language or are unable to speak at all.

The person-dog relationship makes generous love possible between heterogeneous creatures. This relationship can open a perspective of abundance that enables us to give ‘outwardly emanating care’: from the specific experience of mutual generous love between person and animal we can allow the love to emanate, to flow out towards all animals. As a result of the encounter with others, new perspectives are opened up and from this position it becomes possible to cultivate and expand our care. When we acknowledge the dog’s love as generous love in the person-dog relationship, we can discover it has more to offer than a confirmation of what we want to take it for. This ‘more’ is an impulse to live our lives in an abundance of love and grace. Generous love stops being a one-way street of humanity and becomes something mutual, a matter of receiving and passing on. This type of person-animal relationship based on mutual giving, Webb calls grace. Indeed, not all interactions with animals are full of grace. However, what Christians call grace in their dealings with other people is present as well in our relationships with animals.

Loving animals as gift

Instead of killing animals and exploiting them, we can love them as gifts. In reference to Webb’s vision: animals do not serve a metaphysical or moral purpose. They are just there, sparkling like jewels in creation, exuberant and abundant splendour and glory of God’s artistic powers of imagination. This provokes thought and stimulates contemplation of this extraordinary world with its variety and diversity of creatures.

Just as God can identify with people through Jesus Christ, people can identify with others. With her own affective powers a person recognises the love of her dog. If we can extend our love beyond our own species, we should be able to acknowledge the pain and the suffering of others. Our own pain is a burden that confuses and disorients, but feeling the pain of others is like a gift that pulls us outside ourselves and leads us towards specific responsibilities. Therefore grace is just as relevant for the way we give to others as for what we receive from God. That is the grace that God has given to us through Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of the pain and hope of all living creatures. This grace enables us to find the love that is God’s own presence in the world.12 In our relationship with pets we discover the reciprocity of love among living creatures. As a result grace gets a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension. In the relationship with those who are ‘under’ us we find the grace that is given ‘from above’. Thus the classical words ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est become worldly reality thanks to our hands and feet and their paws: Where there is love, there is God.

The basis for a creed

For those who doubt the relevance of animal theology, the above can at least form the basis for a Christian creed concerning animals. Every living being receives its own place in the world connected by ties of care and love. In this loving affiliation everyone’s worth is confirmed, and compassion for other people and animals becomes possible. In contrast with the classical approach it is not reason that characterises us as God’s image, but our capability to bond with others. After all, we share one world that can only live as creation if it can accommodate the dynamics of love and care between God, people and animals.


1. Leonie Boot, Ook dieren horen erbij, in: Speling, Tijdschrift voor bezinning 3/2005, De ruimte van …Katholiek. ….

2. A. Linzey and D. Yamamoto (Eds.), Animals on the Agenda: questions about animals for theology and ethics, London: SCM Press Ltd, 1998, p. 78-79.

3. Thomas Aguinas, Summa Theologica, 2 a 2 ae, q.64, a.1. Ibid., 2 a 2 ae, q. 25, a. 3.

4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1995, paras. 2415-2418.

5. H. Boerhof and G.J. Heusinkveld, Kaders voor christelijke wetenschappelijke bezinning op gentechnologie, in: H.J. Jochemsen (red.), Toetsen en begrenzen, Een ethisch en politieke beoordeling van de moderne biotechnologie, Amsterdam: Buijten & Schipperheijn, 2000.

6. Ibid., p. 58-64.

7. Ibid., p. 65-66.

8. Ibid., p. 71-81.

9. A. Linzey, Animal Theology, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 24.

10. Ibid., p.24-58.

11. S.H. Webb, On God and Dogs: a Christian theology of compassion for animals, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

12. Ibid, p. 4 -154.

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