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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 215 - Summer 2010

by Ambose Agius OSB


As the promotion of the cause of Pope Pius XII (r.1939-1958) possibly nears the stage of beatification, Ark readers might like to learn of this insight into the man.

No single figure received such coverage from the world press as Pius XII. Only the Soviet tried to play down his greatness. But while the newspapers of the world extolled the many-sided virtues of the Holy Father’s character, its splendour and its simplicity, none of the innumerable writers thought fit to dwell on his love for animals. This article fills that lamentable gap.

Pope Pius was a lover of animals in an age when some of the fiercest controversies of the day are waged around animals: domestic animals, draught animals, animals for food, animals for experimentation. One hears the everlasting refrain: ‘Man has dominion over animals, therefore he can do what he likes with them’. Or ‘Animals have no souls, so they have no rights: treat them as you like’. Or, more frequently, ‘Regard for animals is a sign of mental debility, silly sentimentality or disjointed psychology’.

The argument is all the more fierce because authoritative statement of principles is, or is thought to be, lacking. So everyone decides according to his own feeling or convenience or, more usually, profit.

Pius XII as a ‘rock’

In this confused welter, as in so many others, Pope Pius XII stood firm as a rock, regardless of criticism. His guidance is clear-cut and authoritative. And he acted according to his principles.

Moreover no one could accuse Pope Pius of sloppy thinking, or baseless sentimentality. He stands head and shoulders above even the business tycoons for sheer, solid, down-to-earth, hard-boiled common sense. Where he leaves the tycoons, business, political or military, trailing on the horizon is his sensitive contact with the highest principles of religion and with the Author of all belief on the one hand, and on the other with the common man or woman, whether patrician or proletarian, favoured or unprivileged. Pope Pius was a contact between God and man, and between ourselves, fellow creatures of every calibre.

But he was no dreamer. Whether he spoke to nuclear physicists and philosophers from the great universities of the world or with Harlem basketball players or world race cyclists, he was always au fait with the minutiae of their experiences and ambitions and able to advise even them.

He was a man unique and providential, whose opinion never failed to win respect.

Now, ask the average man what lead the Pope gave in the matter of animal welfare and the solution of animal problems, and he will answer: nothing. That is untrue. And if we are honest and want to get right down to the root of things, it is very important that we should know what the Holy Father said and did in this matter. Here it is.

Pius XII was walking in his garden when he noticed a disabled bullfinch. He didn’t ‘pass by on the other side’. He didn’t just direct a gardener to dispose of it. Like the Good Samaritan he took it up tenderly, carried it back to the Vatican (which has seen papal pets before now) and nursed it back to health and strength. After that the bird was never happier than when in his presence. It flew round the room when the Pope was shaving and settled on his head and even on his electric razor, enjoying an intimacy allowed to no other, man or beast. It was a sad moment when Sister Pasqualina carried the bird back to a Vatican that would know Pius XII no more.

Pius XII and the bullfighters

Again, the promoters of bull-fights in Spain, seeing how every kind of society was being kindly received by the Holy Father thought they would ‘horn in’ and get a blessing for their questionable trade. They thought the Holy Father would not refuse the toreador’s cloak they had already prepared, gold-embroidered to the tune of a million pesetas. Their cynicism got its reward. The Holy Father gently but firmly turned them down. It would not be convenient for him to see them. The interview was postponed sine die, which means, for ever.

Significantly, almost the last thing the Holy Father did was to arrange for a forty-eight hour reprieve for stray cats and dogs in honour of St Francis’ day. Not only that, but relief patrols were sent out to provide the hungry strays with food.

Those who think, and say, in no uncertain terms, that any care for animals is wrong when so much good needs to be done in the world may well ponder the action of the Father of Christendom. His action provides the answer which many people, to my knowledge, have already found for themselves: do both.

Thus in action Pope Pius showed his solicitude for animals.

What of his words?

The Charter, as it may be called, of the right Christian attitude towards animals is contained in Pope Pius’ reply to the petition presented by the Duchess of Hamilton and two other ladies on 10th November 1950, in the name of 200 animal welfare societies, most of them non-Catholic.

Pope Pius gave them a document which he had written and typed himself twice over. He begins by establishing the principle of respect for all lesser creatures – because they are creatures and still belong to their Creator. Moreover, their very existence comes from the ‘power, wisdom and goodness of God’. Therefore, to ill-treat them is to deviate from those divine attributes. Such deviation is wrong and dangerous. Therefore, ‘Any reckless desire to kill off animals, all unnecessary harshness and callous cruelty towards them are to be condemned’.

Nor is this put out just as an opinion. It is what the Catholic Church teaches in public and private, and anyone who holds the opposite view is therefore a ‘deviationist’ from the Catholic teaching. Thus has the Pope spoken, and this is therefore the official view, which is in possession. For the Holy Father adds that the Church not only teaches this, but also ‘she exerts herself’ to get these principles adopted and observed and legally sanctioned. Here is the last paragraph of the Charter: ‘The Catholic Church strives (s’efforce in French) to influence individuals and public opinion to ensure the acceptance of these principles and their legal protection in daily life’.

There are two other points made by the Holy Father. Cruelty, as described, warps the human character. It injures the natural sensitiveness of the best human natures towards others and the desire to avoid causing them pain. (How horrified he would have been at the idea of school-age experimenters on living animals.) In a word it tends only to make men brutal, to accept a sub-human standard.

Use of animals - but regulated

Finally Pope Pius, and it is the vindication of his sane approach, safeguards man’s essential right to use animals, because they were given to him to be at his service. But just because man’s intelligence puts him on a higher level than the beasts, so must he use that intelligence to regulate the service he requires of them.

The Holy Father read his ‘Charter’ twice: then he gave his apostolic blessing to all workers for animal welfare, as previous Popes had done before him. The text was later transmitted through the then Apostolic Delegate in England. Nothing could be more deliberate or official.

Animal experimentation

Once more Pope Pius spoke: this time through his Secretary of State. The Humane Society of the United States, in February 1958, sent out a representative, with two priests, the Editor and sub-Editor of The Ark, to Rome to present to the Holy Father a memorandum on animal experimentation in the United States.

At the same time was presented a specially bound copy of The Ark. In a letter acknowledging the latter, the Secretary of State declared that the Holy Father was ‘sincerely grateful’, that he took it ‘paternal interest’ in the work of the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare [as Catholic Concern for Animals was then called], which he designated as ‘praiseworthy’, and he gave his apostolic blessing to all its officials and members. So, right up to the end, the Holy Father rejoiced to hear of and participate in any work of relief for God’s lesser creatures.

A poster representing the Holy Father surrounded by animals (as Christ was in the wilderness) was, with the Pope’s express sanction, prepared and displayed in every school in Italy. That poster was copied by the Irish Society for Animal Welfare and it has now been reproduced in Spanish for South American use.

But still, when people talk of animals and the use we may make of them, you would never guess that Pope Pius XII had laid down for evermore the essential principles which should guide our treatment of them. Perhaps, out of respect for his memory and in a genuine effort to follow his courageous lead, there may be at least a beginning of an attempt to get back to the Creator’s idea of how we should treat His creatures. .

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