The 2009 CCA prize-winning essay:
A CHURCH THAT PROMOTES COMPASSION TO ANIMALS IS ONE THAT IS TRUE TO ITS CORE
By Rizinde Mahirwe Dieudonne
All human beings and animals are earth.
The aim of this essay is to raise the Christian awareness about the compassion
to animals and show that these also are important questions for the people of
faith. This essay aims, therefore, at showing that our faith does not exclude
the call to responsibility and custodianship as a mandate each human being has
received since the beginning of creation. Therefore, being aware of the
theological dimension of the animals as part of whole creation, it is imperative
that this paper conducts an enquiry into the theological basis of compassion to
animals in the Bible.
The first chapter of this reflection will offer a scriptural basis of what
humans have in common with animals and the rest of creation. In the second
chapter we intend to define compassion to animals as a prophetic role of the
Church. This paper is written with the hope that it will help the readers,
particularly individual Christians, to improve or change their attitude towards
animals in order to engage in caring for them and protecting their habitat.
I. Scriptural Basis
1. The Divine Plan for whole creation
Creation is one and human and animals are all connected to the earth. The unity
of creatures is manifested in the creation accounts, especially in Genesis 1 and
2, as willed by God. All creatures share the same creation matter, the ground
(Genesis 2:7. 9. 19). The Hebrew word Adamah from which Adam derives means ‘what
is from the ground’.
The whole of creation has contact with God and all creatures have the ability to
praise God (Psalm 145:10). The animals have that ability to worship the Creator
continually. Amidst all that are praising God, wild animals and cattle, reptiles
and winged birds are also invited to offer praise (Psalm 148: 9). If a greater
privilege has been given to us, a greater task and accountability are also
expected from us. Our privilege over other creatures cannot justify the dominion
and exploitation against animals and other creatures. More responsibility and
accountability are rather expected from us. The image and likeness of God is
therefore ‘the capacity for relationship’2
with God, with the fellow human
beings and with the rest of creation. Our being created in the image and
likeness of God tells us about ourselves and about what we ‘ought’ to be.
Moreover, to be created in the image and likeness of God says about the role of
humanity in creation. We are given a role and task within the created order.3
This is indeed a meaningful anthropology that is found in the creation story of
Genesis 1 and 2. ‘The concern of Genesis is not to reject any connection between
humanity and the non-human world but to affirm the special relation of the human
race within the world.’4
We have been given the fundamental mandate to reign, to
multiply and to subdue. The term image has the full meaning of our relation to
God while ‘have dominion’ is expressing our relation to the world in freedom5.
This means that we have the task to care for animals as God cares for them, to
rule over them as God rules, with diligence and love.
2. Jesus, the Model for a Church that cares for Animals6
probably, made the Christian community develop the tradition of representing
Jesus’ birth with two animals in connection with the text from the prophet
Isaiah: ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; Israel does
not know, my people do not understand’ (Isaiah 1:3; see also Habakkuk 3: 2). The
most theological implication in Isaiah’s prophecy is the warning against the
people for not accepting the messiah while this (messiah) found a home with the
animals. It shows how the human heart can be harder than that of the animals.
Yet, we are created to belong to God, created in God’s image.
The gospels present to us many examples where Jesus relates with animals. One of
such example shows that Jesus ‘remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by
Satan. He was among wild beasts, and angels ministered to him’ (Mark 1:13). From
his birth, in his simple living conditions, Jesus is related with people and
animals. Luke’s gospel places the new-born child Jesus in a manger.
Therefore, from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, we are shown how Jesus was
eco-friendly because ‘in death, as in life, Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as
one who is in harmony with nature’.7
Jesus remained a man of nature throughout
his ministry. We are told that the first witnesses of his birth were shepherds
who kept vigil guarding their sheep (Luke 1:8). Moreover, his first followers
were fishermen (Mark 1:16-20) who appreciated the gift of nature: waters, fish,
trees to make their boats etc. And we find mountains, lakes, trees, plants,
animals, birds, grain, clouds, rain, rocks, wind, storm etc. appearing in Jesus’
teaching and parables.8
Jesus admired nature and related to it in his encounter
with the Father and his followers. Jesus is also known as ‘Lion of the tribe of
Judah’ (Revelation 5:5) and as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the
world’ (John 1:29). That is why we can confidently say that Jesus appears, in
the Gospel, as an environmentalist par excellence. 9
II. Compassion to Animals as a Prophetic Role of the Church10
tales are known about the Desert and Celtic Fathers concerning the way they
lived in harmony with the natural world in the wilderness amidst wild animals.11
The Desert and Celtic Fathers were not the only Christians to cultivate an
ecologically friendly attitude towards nature. Others, like Saint Benedict,
Hildegard of Bingen and Francis of Assisi, are well known for their ‘implicit or
explicit biocentric ethic’. Hildegard of Bingen believed that ‘whatever God
created was bound together in cosmic interdependence’,12
and also according to her ‘one of the best ways to know God was to love God’s
work of art’.13
There is no doubt that St Francis reached the level of revering the non-human
beings for what they are in themselves and because they are also created by God.
The compassion of God towards the people he created does not exclude his care
and compassion to animals. Both animals and humans are in need of God’s
compassion. One of the answers Yahweh gave to Jonah was as follows: ‘So why
should I not be concerned for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more
that a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from
their left, to say nothing of all the animals’ (Jonah 4:11). All animals belong
to God (Psalm 24:1) and he cares for them (1 John 4:16) giving them food,
especially the young ones when they call and cry for help (Psalm 147:9).
God’s compassion to animals should also be reflected in our actions and
attitudes towards animals. If the Church is understood to be the sacrament of
the love of God here on earth, it must also be the sacrament of God’s compassion
to animals. The Church’s failure to care for animals and promote compassion to
animals is a failure to be sacrament of God’s presence in, and care for,
creation. We encounter today many cases whereby animals are being treated
irresponsibly and without any dose of compassion. Such cases are seen in
laboratories, butcheries, game sports, scientific research and the slaughter for
commercial purposes. The Church has the mandate to advocate for God’s creatures,
the animals, especially when they are hunted, tortured and killed needlessly.
There are many other ways through which we can provide for our need instead of
killing animals. For example, God has provided us with cotton and other
facilities to get clothes. Yet people go ahead with killing and skinning newborn
lambs in the search for garments. Why can’t we use more materials from plants to
get carpets instead of killing bears, leopards and lions? All animals belong to
God. We will be indeed answerable for how we have treated these God’s creatures.
If the Scriptures recognize the importance of nature and its contribution to the
human knowledge of God, then those who read the Scriptures must also reverence
nature. The text in the book of Job seems to support this argument because it
shows how God teaches humans through animals: ‘You have only to ask the cattle,
for them to instruct you, and the birds of the sky, for them to inform you …’
There is need to move from an anthropocentric and individualistic eschatology to
an inclusive and communal eschatology based on universal redemption (humanity as
a whole and the cosmos). There is no doubt that St Paul’s theology is in line
with this eschatological ecology: ‘for the whole creation itself is waiting with
eagerness for the children of God to be revealed. […], with the intention that
the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and
brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God’ (Romans 8:19-21).
It means God has a plan for the universe including animals.
Apart from all scriptural references, the Catholic Tradition has also canonized
many Fathers who proved themselves ecologically friendly as Saints. For example,
Irenaeus, and even more Augustine, came to consider that ‘the creatures of
nature as well as human creatures have their own integrity, their own value,
their own necessary place in the greater history of the created order’.
For Pope John Paul II, ‘The most profound and serious indication of the moral
implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for
The pro-life message must also include the cause for animals. This
should include animal health and welfare. There is a call for our duty to avoid
or minimize animal suffering, since unjustified and disproportionate suffering
is unacceptable. In our world of technology and science advance there should be
the duty of reducing or replacing and, when possible, refining the
experimentation adopted for the use of animals in research. The Church as a
whole and individual Christians should come out to create more awareness among
other people on the call to have compassion to animals.
The call to be compassionate to animals is part and parcel of the Christian
call. It is part of the Church’s mandate. It is a way of promoting the ‘culture
of life’ in all aspects and in more concrete ways.
The Holy Scripture is not anywhere asking us to torture and exploit animals. Our
call to care for animals is a best test to check how better we care for our
fellow human beings and also to what extent we are accountable before our
Creator. The psalmist had known it well when he noted that ‘a good man takes
care of his animals. But wicked men are cruel to others’ (Proverb 12:10).
Compassion to animals is therefore part of our Christian responsibility. That is
why the Church, being pro-life, should take seriously compassion to animals as a
prophetic role and an integral aspect to its mission. The Church has the mandate
to make sure that animals are not tortured, exploited and killed maliciously.
The love of creation should be indoctrinated in individual Christians and
Christian institutions and families in schools, homilies, catechesis and bible
sharing and education.
1. Z. Hayes, What are they saying about creation? (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980),
2. J. Ratzinger, “In the Beginning”: a Catholic understanding of the story of
creation and the
fall (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), p.47.
3. Z. Hayes, p.66.
4. Z. Hayes, p.64.
5. Z. Hayes, p.65.
6. I. Bradley, God is Green: Christianity and the environment (London: Darton,
Todd, 1990) p.75
7. I. Bradley, p.9.
8. I. Bradley, p.78.
9. S. K. Gitau, The Environmental Crisis: challenge for African Christianity
Publishers, 2000), p.72.
10. H.P. Santmire, The Travail of Nature: the ambiguous ecological promise of
theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985), p.177.
11. J. A. Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility
TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), pp.81-84.
12. G. Durka, Praying with Hildegard of Bingen (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press,
13. G. Durka, p. 65
14. John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: a Common Responsibility (World Day of
Peace, 1 January 1990).p.7.
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