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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 213 - Winter 2009

Interview: Bruce Friedrich On Animal Action And The Church

Bruce Friedrich is a vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organization. He is also a member of the governing board of the Catholic Vegetarian Society, the advisory board of the Christian Vegetarian Association, and is a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He explains his views of religion and animal rights in the following interview given to our Editor

DMJ: Bruce, after graduation, you spent six years working with homeless families in a Catholic shelter in Washington, D.C. What made you change to working for animal rights?

Bruce Friedrich: While at the Catholic Worker, I was given the book Christianity and the Rights of Animals by Andrew Linzey. Linzey’s essential message is about the nature of being an ethical human being in the world today. He frames his argument in a Christian context, but the argument is universal and applies to all of us: we should, where possible, make kind choices rather than cruel ones, and we should lead our lives with a goal of making the world more compassionate. When I finished the book, I began to talk to everyone I could find about the simple fact that we make a choice every time we sit down to eat – do we want to add to the level of violence, misery, and bloodshed in the world, or do we prefer to make compassionate, merciful choices?

We all know that animals have a capacity to feel pain, just as humans do; all animals have behaviours, wants, needs, desires, and so on. Anyone who has shared his or her life with a dog or a cat knows that animals are interesting and interested beings with personalities. It seems to me self-evident that, regardless of whether a person has a religious faith, people of integrity should make kind rather than cruel choices. People of integrity should choose not to support cruelty to animals, and thus should choose to eat a vegetarian diet.

I read more, had conversations with many people about suffering in the world, and took a few months to go back to school to complete my degree. A few dear friends, Betsy Swart and Aaron Gross, made a persuasive case that working for animal rights and vegetarianism would be where I could do the most good, and PETA seemed the perfect fit.

DMJ: Are you still a practising member of the Church?

Bruce Friedrich: Yes, I am. I like the story of St Lawrence, when he’s asked for the riches of the Church, and he brings the poor of the city—‘these are the riches of the Church’. The Church is not perfect, but it’s good on things like war and materialism. And if you take the Catechism’s pronouncement that causing animals to suffer needlessly is not allowed, well then the Church should be advocating veganism, since eating animal products causes animals to suffer needlessly. The Church needs reform on a range of issues, but that’s not reason to leave, I don’t think. Fr Richard Rohr’s Why Be Catholic?: understanding our experience and tradition was very helpful to me at one point when I thought of leaving. I’m not ready to cede the Church to those with the least devotion to Christ’s message of compassion.

DMJ: You ran the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ campaign. Why did you take that (rather arguable) line?

Bruce Friedrich: I read Keith Akers’ The Lost Religion of Jesus and the intro to a book called James: the brother of Jesus. The former sported an introduction by Walter Wink, and the latter by Bishop John Shelby Spong. The former was dedicated to the idea that Jesus was a vegetarian, and the latter included about 100 pages (of about 1,000) on that topic. The theological argument that the historical Jesus was a vegetarian is extremely strong, as Akers makes clear. We publicized this research in order to have a conversation about the imperative of making kind choices where possible.

DMJ: While we try to change the Church’s views on animals ‘from the inside’, you seem to believe it more effective to slap the Church’s face. Have you any evidence that your confrontational strategy works?

Bruce Friedrich: Our principal outreach to the Church is through Fr John Dear’s pamphlet Christianity and Vegetarianism, through articles I’ve published in Catholic papers, through adverts in America (Jesuit magazine in the U.S.), through letters to priests, etc. I think we have, in our outreach to the Church, been purely non-confrontational.

Some years back we did the occasional billboard that used Catholic imagery—for example, we had a Madonna and Child image [which substituted a chicken for the Child Jesus] with the tagline ‘Vegetarianism: an Immaculate Conception’—but those weren’t focused on the Church as much as they were focused on the general public—as a way to generate discussion and interest in animal issues by using iconic (in both ways) imagery.

I don’t think that images can be offensive; I don’t think that God cares about words and images—God cares about actions. As Jesus says repeatedly in John’s Gospel, believing in him entails doing the work that he does—what’s important is not what we say we believe (or what we say more generally); what’s important is how we live our lives. That is, of course, also the central message of the Matthew 25 story about the works of mercy—the one who believes is the one who provides succour to those who need it. Linzey teaches us that animals are the ‘least of these’ today.

So I don’t think there was anything ‘face slapping’ about these images or campaigns. My many friends who are priests, if they weighed in at all, thought these images clever. My bishop didn’t object. The only people who seemed to be offended were Bill Donohue and his pals at the Catholic League, and they’ve got a cottage industry going in taking offence. I figure if Bill and his ilk are against you, you’re probably doing something right.

DMJ: You have been quoted as supporting violence – such as throwing water in Ken Livingstone’s face – in the struggle for animal justice. How can you reconcile this with a Christian outlook?

Bruce Friedrich: Dumping a glass of water on Ken was street theatre—there was nothing violent about it. He just laughed it off, but we reached millions of people with the message that starving pigeons to death is immoral (unChristian, if you will). I did make one ill-advised statement about a decade ago [advocating violence against property], based on thoughtlessness and having not really considered the issues. When I made that statement, I was thinking about the fine faith tradition of smiting the golden calf, overturning the tables in the temple, and so on. But of course Moses and Jesus took those actions publicly. I think there’s room for civil disobedience in the Gandhian tradition (or the Mosaic/Christian tradition, if you will), but I am absolutely convinced that we have public opinion on our side (everyone agrees that cruelty to animals is wrong), so our real goal should be to educate people—that’s the gap; people don’t know what’s going on, but when they find out, they’re appropriately outraged. As noted, the Catechism says explicitly that causing animals to suffer needlessly is immoral; that rules out eating animals, wearing animals, the vast majority of experiments on animals, using animals in circuses. We have people ethically and intellectually; we just need to educate them so that lives align with beliefs.

DMJ: You reacted publicly to President Obama’s swatting a fly in a TV studio. No doubt you were reviled for lacking a sense of perspective. How did you answer that charge?

Bruce Friedrich: The media lacked perspective. We were asked what we thought, and we said ‘It shows he’s not perfect, like the rest of us’. They said, ‘So you really think he should not have swatted the fly?’ and we said, ‘Well we don’t have a fly compassion campaign and we wouldn’t make a big deal of it and he’s great on a lot of key issues—like the fur industry, factory farming, and animal protection generally—but like Dr Albert Schweitzer and Mohandas Gandhi, we think that where you can be compassionate, you should be.’ They blew that up into ‘PETA Peeved at President’, which was objectively untrue. I guess you can’t believe everything you read in the papers or see on TV—I for one am shocked!

DMJ: Most married people in their mid-thirties have toned down the activism and idealism of their youth. What keeps you motivated and focused?

Bruce Friedrich: Well, my wife is a part of the struggle, so I suppose that helps. I don’t think that animals have time for us to tone down our activism. Weekly Mass, of course, keeps me focused on Jesus and trying to emulate Christ’s life. I try to pray daily, though I sometimes fall short.

DMJ: Finally, what should a church-based animal organisation (like ours) do, in your opinion, to make the Church more pro-animal?

Bruce Friedrich: I think the most important thing is getting information in front of the faithful; our arguments are absolutely right, as you know, but people have not yet heard them. PETA is anti-copyright. You should feel free to take our Christianity brochure (the one by Fr Dear) and use it however you wish there. I am delighted to hear of your new book, which I can’t wait to read! .

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