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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 210 - Autumn 2008

By Judy Barad

Dr Judith Barad, a Full Professor at Indiana State University, specialises in ethics, and the philosophy of religion. Here she explains how St Thomas Aquinas and St Francis ‘can both enlighten and inspire us today’.

St Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical writings about the nature of animals, and the example set by Francis’ relationship with them, can both enlighten and inspire us today. These Catholic thinkers clearly illustrate the meaning of ‘catholic’ as ‘universal’ and ‘all-inclusive’. Yet not all Catholics treat animals in a way consistent with their veneration of these saints. Why is this? After presenting an address of Pope John Paul II regarding animals, I will explain the background of his claim that animals have a soul. The best source of this explanation is Aquinas, who also sets the stage for understanding how Francis can treat animals in a brotherly way. By recounting anecdotes from Francis’ life, I hope to show that he was an exemplary precursor of the modern animal rights activist. Having viewed the attitude towards animals of such spiritual Catholics, I will suggest a reason why more people don’t follow their lead.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II proclaimed [in a general audience] that ‘the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren’. He added that all animals are ‘fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect’ and that they are ‘as near to God as men are’. The Pope emphasized that ‘animals possess the divine spark of life – the living quality that is the soul’.

The Pope was not advancing a new notion. This concept is rooted in the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who acknowledged the fact that animals possess a soul. Aquinas’ argument begins by observing that some things [e.g. rocks, minerals] are inert, while others are capable of movement, perception, thought, and desire. We call the former ‘non-living’ and the latter ‘living’. If some bodies are living and others aren’t, life can’t be explained by the mere fact that a thing is a body. So what is the source of life in a body? The source can’t be physical, because if it were, then any material thing would be living, which is absurd. Aquinas reasons that a body is alive not merely because it’s a physical thing but because of a cause which isn’t bodily or material. Without an immaterial substance or soul, a body would simply be a corpse. So it’s the presence of a soul that distinguishes animate beings from inanimate beings.

An alternative explanation is that a physical organ, such as the brain, heart, or lungs is what makes someone live, rather than a soul. But this alternative fails to consider that the brain, heart and lungs are each a living organ. So what is it that makes each of these organs live? According to Aquinas, only something essentially different from a bodily organ can make these organs perform the activities of life. This essentially different substance is the soul, which organizes all the bodily organs so that they can function as a living unity.

For Aquinas, an essential difference in activity indicates an essential difference in an organism. The vegetative soul is the seat of a plant’s ability to absorb nutrition and grow by cell multiplication. Animal life reveals itself, not only in acts of nutrition, reproduction and growth, but also in sensation, motion, consciousness and self-direction. Since animals have a wider range of activities than the vegetative soul, Aquinas attributes to them a ‘sensitive soul’. Human life encompasses all the previously mentioned activities but is distinguished from other life forms by reasoning and choosing freely. The human soul, accordingly, is called the ‘rational soul’.

Embedded in substance

Besides making things live, the soul is the substance which underlies mental activities. No activity exists separately from a substance. Try to think of the activity of running without someone running. It can’t be done. Nor can colour, pleasure, or weight subsist in themselves. They are always found to inhere in a substance. In the same way, mental activities require a substance in which they are embedded. The activities of perception, thought, and desire presuppose the existence of the soul or a substance which unifies the various mental states of an animal. Because she has a soul, a cat knows that the sound of the can-opener is connected to the food she sees and tastes, which is what she desires. Her soul unifies her perceptions.

According to Aquinas, human and the ‘higher’ non-human animals possess the senses, desire, memory, and imagination. Inferring emotions from the behaviour of animals, Aquinas notes that they feel joy, sorrow, pain, pleasure, fear, anger, and love. He knew that animals respond emotionally to what they remember, as well as to present events. In regard to future events, he writes that animals show the emotion of hope. ‘If a hawk spies a bird that is too far away it does not go after it, as though it had no hope of catching it. But if the prey be nearby it makes a try for it, as though it hoped to capture it.’ Aquinas argues that animals also possess an estimative sense, which is responsible for the continuity between non-human and human intelligence. By means of this sense an animal is able to synthesize and organise the images stored in the memory in order to act suitably in a given situation.

The ‘breath of God’ and the Peaceable Kingdom

The Latin word for soul, ‘anima’ is the root word of animated, representing ‘which makes living things live’. Like the Greek word ‘pneuma’, it also connotes breath. In his 1990 address, Pope John Paul II said that animals came into being because of the ‘breath of God’. He was probably aware that ‘ruach’, a Hebrew term used in the Old Testament, refers to wind and is associated with breath. It is conferred on an organism by God to give it the power of life. ‘Nephesh’, another Hebrew term usually translated as ‘soul,’ is used in regard to both animals and people. It has roots associated not only with breath, but also with a range of emotions. So in the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew traditions, the term for ‘soul’ derived from its relation to the breath found in human and non-human animals.

But what is the importance of having a soul? If we accept the argument of Aquinas that the soul is the source of mental activities in a living being, then it makes sense to treat an individual who has a soul differently from the way we treat inanimate beings. St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) shared Aquinas’ belief that animals have a soul and very sophisticated mental activities, a belief that showed itself in his treatment of animals.

Before Pope John Paul II spoke about the souls of animals, he went to Assisi, the birthplace of Francis. In his March 12, 1982 message on ‘Reconciliation’ he compared the saint’s love for animals to an anticipation of the Peaceable Kingdom, envisioned by the Prophet Isaiah, a world in which all God’s creatures will live in peace with each other. The Pontiff also discussed Francis’s ‘solicitous care, not only toward [people] but also toward animals and nature in general’. He added that Francis demonstrated a ‘faithful echo of the love with which God in the beginning pronounced his “fiat”, which brought them into existence’. Concluding his message, the Pope asked, ‘Do we perhaps not have here the explanation for the sweet name of “brother” and “sister” with which [Francis] addressed every created being? We, too, are called to a similar attitude.’

In these words, John Paul II was affirming not only the value of animals in themselves, but he was telling us that we should treat other creatures in a way that recognises our solidarity and brotherhood with them. As he noted, Francis, the patron saint of animals, sets a good example. Francis talked to animals in a fraternal way, believing they would understand his words. His fraternal form of address was based on his acute awareness that he had a creaturely status, one that he shared with all other animals. He felt no need to set himself above them.

St Francis of Assisi

Colourful stories about St Francis’ life show his compassion for animals and his respect for their intelligence. He clearly showed the heartfelt solidarity with his ‘brethren’ that John Paul urged upon us. The most moving anecdotes are those that show how Francis’ compassion for animals resulted in his rescuing them from death at the hands of humans. In such stories, we see Francis’ love and protectiveness toward gentle, innocent animals as well as their love for him. He realized his responsibility for creatures, whose intelligence he respected, and he was tenderly anxious to shield them from harm. Responding to their desires, he provided for their needs and even liberated them, much the same as a contemporary animal rights activist might do.

His early biographer, Thomas of Celano writes that, when Francis ‘was staying at the town of Greccio, a little rabbit, that had been caught in a trap was brought alive to him by a certain brother. Francis was moved to pity and said: “Brother rabbit, come to me. Why did you allow yourself to be deceived like this?” And as soon as the rabbit had been let go by the brother who held it, it fled to the saint, and ... it lay quiet in his bosom as the safest place possible.’”

Based on his behaviour, Aquinas would say that the rabbit was hoping for Francis’ protection. Caressing the sleeping rabbit with ‘motherly affection’, Francis ‘released it so it could return free to the woods. But when it had been placed upon the ground several times and had returned each time to the saint’s bosom, he finally commanded it to be carried by the brothers to the nearby woods’. Francis tenderly loves the rabbit and frees him from both oppression and captivity. Freeing trapped animals is something that many contemporary animal rights activists do.

Although Francis admired the gentleness and innocence of animals, he also showed respect and care for the more aggressive wild animals, as in his well-known encounter with the wolf of Gubbio.

Animal rights activism––and egotism

Francis was a model animal rights activist, one who never resorted to violence of any kind, but liberated animals and urged others to treat them with the respect generated by love. He was truly a humble man who adopted a catholic (universal, all-inclusive) relationship with animals. The fact that he eschewed egotism suggests a reason why we don’t see more people today who treat animals so respectfully. In our mechanised, technological society, we seem to have a need to feel special. While we are truly special as unique individuals, we aren’t necessarily special in the sense of ‘better than’ someone else. The notion that we must be ‘better than’ others comes from our ego concerns. At the level of the ego, one person can win only if someone else loses. The egotistical person doesn’t consider the needs and rights of others. This person has a self-serving perspective, seeking to gratify his or her own interests.

Egotism also manifests itself on a broader level of race, gender and ethnicity. Egotism on this level sees the group it belongs to as superior only if a different group is inferior. The supposed inferiority of a group is used to justify differential treatment. On the broadest level, egotism shows up as speciesism, which champions the view that non-human animals are inferior to human beings.

The Catholic faith, however, encourages believers to think of themselves as spiritual beings as opposed to egotistical ones. At a spiritual level, there are no winners and no losers; spirit, unlike ego, isn’t competitive. Spiritual people, like St Francis, have a salutary humility, which egotistical people abhor. The difference between perceiving animals from an egotistical perspective rather than a spiritual one has enormous implications. If people adopt the spiritual viewpoint of the recent popes and medieval saints, the world would be a more loving and peaceful place for everyone – both human and non-human.

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