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Catholic-Animals
THE ARK

A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals

 

Selections From The Ark Number  205 - Spring 2007

JOINT PRIZE-WINNING ESSAY (2)

This is the second of our prize-winning entries for the 2006 Essay Competition for students of theology. Benjamin Platt is a student at King’s College, University of London

‘Animals are God’s creatures.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2416):
What are the theological and practical implications of this statement?

BY BENJAMIN PLATT

‘Fear not, O beasts of the field…’ (Joel 2:22-23)

We are told that on the sixth day, when God had created the world and everything that lives in it, including humankind, he ‘saw all that He had made, and found it very good’ (Genesis 1:31). What can be inferred from this? One might comment on something we are not told, namely, that ‘God saw all that He had made, and found it very good, but humans especially good.’ On the contrary, we are invited in Genesis to see how God values the whole of his creation equally. Having taken note of this, one might then go on to point out that nowhere in Genesis does God inform human beings that the world was made especially for them, as an edifice wrought for their exclusive convenience. Indeed, it may be that such an understanding of nature would cheapen its worth in our eyes, which might in turn lead us to inflict harm upon it, and incidentally upon ourselves. Sadly, this understanding, with its symptomatic malady, is the prevailing one. We do violence to a world that better deserves our love and profound respect and, in the suffering of animals used for meat, experimentation, fashion, product testing, and blood sport, or in the travails of those animals affected by the damage humans do to the environment, we see this obdurate and ignorant malignity most immediately and keenly manifested.

All this is not to say that we humans do not occupy a special place in God’s scheme of creation, or that we are not uniquely privileged in sensibility and capability, and correspondingly dear to our creator. It is rather to suggest that we have spurned the responsibility that comes with such gifts, and have instead pursued our own selfish and misguided interests. We read in Genesis 1:27-28, that we are to ‘Fill the earth and master it’; more fatal words have never been committed to paper, but how should we understand them? Keeping in mind that this is a command issued by a being of supreme lovingness, shall we not conclude that it is an injunction to care for the earth and its inhabitants with a like love? In Genesis 2:15, the first man is placed in the Garden of Eden, ‘to till it and tend it.’ If the Hebrew words used here are examined closely, we discover the mark of an unmistakable spirit. Avad means (as well as ‘to till’ or work) to serve or worship God. Our ‘tilling’ of the earth is thus simultaneously a connection with and worship of the divine. Further, shamar, ‘tend’, more typically means to guard or watch over.

Needless to say, our treatment of animals often falls short of this ideal by which they are creatures to be honoured and loved for the sake of themselves and their creator, and it is merely Genesis’s acknowledgement of human power that for the most part continues to reflect humanity’s attitude to animals: ‘We shall do what we like to them, because it is good for us, and because we can’. But what is good for us (or rather, what we imagine is good for us) is not, of course, necessarily good for our fellow creatures. Actually, it can be painful, frightening, frustrating and deadly for them. Against this human selfishness, the divine command that we should ‘fill the earth and master it’ requires that any treatment of animals that interferes with their wellbeing is an aberration in clear defiance of the Gospel imploration to all-embracing love. That we should love all of creation equally – and in particular animals – can rarely have been more movingly put than it was by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. He has the monk Zosima ask this of us:

Love the whole of creation, both the whole and each grain of sand. Each leaf, each sunbeam of God, love it. Love the animals, love the plants, love every object. If you love each object you will also perceive the mystery of God that is in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin untiringly to be more conscious of it with each day that passes. And at last you will love the whole world with an all-inclusive, universal love.

Love the animals: God has given them the basis of thought and an untroubled joy. So do not disturb it, do not torment them, do not take away their joy, do not put yourself in opposition to God’s intent. Man, exalt not yourself above the animals: they are sinless, and you in your grandeur fester the earth with your appearance on it and leave your festering footprints after you – alas, almost every one of us …

(The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book VI).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), unfortunately, has chosen to propagate the notion that ‘God’s intent’ in creating animals was simply to serve the needs of humans. It opts to interpret Genesis 1:28 as a carte blanche to use animals as if they were mere ‘things’. However, as will appear, the Catechism’s position on animals is at odds with the nature of a supremely loving Creator and thus condemns itself to internal incoherence. We read in paragraph 2415 that:

… Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives.

This ‘moral imperative’ is akin to one incumbent on villagers eager to see their local general store well stocked and in good repair for the comfort of themselves and their descendents: the animal kingdom, along with the rest of nature, is here no more than an object of human utility. Nonetheless, there is a proviso:

Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Phillip Neri treated animals (para. 2416).

Weak Logic
The logic of the Catechism’s reasoning on this point is hopelessly weak; the sun, for example, also gives God glory ‘by its mere existence’ and his maintenance of it, but it would be nonsense to claim that we owe it kindness on that account. While admitting that animals are creatures deserving of kindness, it appears loath to give the reason why; they are sentient beings capable of feeling pain, fear, and frustration. Anyone blessed with love and kindness will naturally wish to avoid causing them such unhappiness, but their capacity for suffering is not spoken of here. Whether this is a lingering influence of Scholasticism which the Catechism is unwilling to relinquish or not is unclear, but its final position is firmly stated in the next paragraph:

God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals … (para. 2417).

Again, the logic displayed in the jump from premise to conclusion is feeble: to be able to proceed from ‘God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image’ to the conclusion that therefore ‘it is legitimate to use animals’, two completely unwarranted presumptions must be at work.
The first is that our stewardship of animals amounts to little more than seeing to our provisions, reducing these living beings to the level of ersatz commodities, denied the respect due to creatures possessing their own ends; a view already noted above.

The second is that such callousness is God’s will. But would a loving creator imbue beings ‘destined for the good of humanity’ with the capacity for suffering which our very use of them elicits? The answer must, of course, be no; if He did, then we are left with the awkward result that anyone who shares, say, Dostoevsky’s benevolence towards animals exceeds God in terms of love.

A Perfect Love Mirroring His Own
Moreover, as we have seen, a proper reading of Genesis will reveal that in bestowing upon us our ‘mastery’ over nature, God can only have meant it to be employed in a spirit of the most perfect love for the whole, that is, a perfect love mirroring his. Indeed, that the God revealed to us in the Gospels should have intended it to mean anything else is unthinkable. ‘God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image,’ says the Catechism. Christians, in turn, entrust themselves to the stewardship of him in whose image they were created, and as surely as they expect love and mercy from him, so too should they dispense the same to those that live under their power. If they do not, then they fail to live in the image of their God, and have strayed far from Christ-like love and service.

In the next paragraph the Catechism allows that animals are fitting objects of love, thereby betraying itself to the charge of incoherence within the wider theological precepts just outlined. However, this concession is tempered by the qualification that such love should never equal that due to humans (para. 2418). But how consuming and exclusive should the love of any given object be? Once more, we need to be mindful of God’s equitable regard for all of his creation, and must aim for an encompassing friendship with nature. True, healthy, joyous love cannot exhaust itself on one thing to the detriment of another, but is constant, and charges and permeates one’s relationship with everything from ants and colours to people and mountains. Such perhaps will be the love enjoyed and shared in the promised Kingdom of God. But before we examine the significance of our treatment of animals in that respect, a certain state of affairs should be acknowledged.

Nature and ‘the problem of evil’
Nature is, unquestionably, an amoral phenomenon (it cannot be said to be either morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it simply is). From tapeworms to tigers, it displays markedly parasitic and predatory tendencies. As philosophers such as J. S. Mill and Arthur Schopenhauer have eloquently stated, this characteristic of being ‘red in tooth and claw’ hardly seems consonant with the existence of a loving creator.

On why it is that violence, predation and parasitism exist in nature, or for that matter in the human world, it would be pointless my wasting words: I don’t know. And yet while this is not the place to discuss ‘the problem of evil’, the way we respond to the realities of the natural world is of critical importance. The perceived ‘immorality’ or anyway ‘amorality’ of animals has often been used as a weapon to attack the idea that they have rights. Some claim that they have no rights because they carry out no duties (oddly ignoring the duty evident in the diligent parenting seen throughout the animal world, or in the protection afforded to each other by herd animals for instance). Others say that because humans are part of the animal kingdom they may imitate the predatory and parasitic behaviour found in it and exploit their weaker cousins. To be a Christian means to dismiss such thought with the utmost vigour, and we should be mindful of Christ’s teaching when tempted to speak of the ‘savagery’ of nature:

You hypocrites! First take the plank out of
your own eye, and then you will see clearly to
take the speck out of your brother’s ...

                                            (Matthew 7:5).

Christian ethics is fundamentally eschatological, concerned with bringing about a world ripe with God’s love. As we have seen in our consideration of Genesis, this must mean the whole world, of itself and in the way we treat it. It is essential that Christians be embarrassed neither to believe this possible nor to act as if it were so; only by actively working towards it will it come about (that is to say, only by putting God’s grace into effect), and this shall necessarily involve eschewing every form of violence; there will be no slaughterhouses in the Kingdom of God – it is not difficult to do without meat, it is easy. Neither will there be laboratories where animals are made to suffer on our account because we make ourselves sick by ingesting tobacco smoke, alcohol, fat, sugar, chemicals and air pollution, or weak through lack of exercise; there will be no indolence, if only because there is too much to be done. New ways of living must be found. In the words of St Paul:

For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us. For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed… if we hope for something we do not yet see, then we look forward to it eagerly and with patience (Romans 8:18-25).

And yet we do see it, but perhaps not quite aright. All that the world awaits is our love. Kindness and non-violence to animals must be a foremost concern in the realisation of the eschatological vision; the question now is how we are to move from our current disharmony with nature towards the concord and friendship with God’s creation for which we are intended.

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