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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 217 - Spring 2011



The 2010 essay competition, on the subject:‘Moral indifference to animal suffering is a challenge the Church has to address’, saw a record number of entries, and from many different countries. This essay, by a novice with the Sisters of the Assumption, won a special Runner Up award. The first prize winning entry will be published in the next Ark


Throughout history, there has been an evolution in moral standards as Christians have, through prayer and study, gradually discovered more clearly what constitutes God’s justice. Changes in behaviour, however, often lag behind a theoretical progression in beliefs, and take place only after extensive campaigning on the part of a minority. Despite the condemnation of slavery by Pope Eugene IV in 1435, by Pope Paul III in 1537 and by numerous other popes more recently, the practice of owning and selling slaves continued to be widespread amongst Christians, with even some Catholic bishops still appearing to support slavery as late as the 19th century. The inalienable right to liberty of each human, created by God and having a special place in his heart, gradually came to be recognised and understood, yet indifference and lethargy continued to be widespread. Many Christians closed their ears and hearts to the arguments of campaigners, resisting change which was inconvenient to them and which required an internal transformation in their moral standards.

Today, the immorality of slavery seems self-evident and we struggle to understand why the trade continued so long, yet our incomprehension of the actions and attitude of our ancestors serves only to reflect the profound change in outlook which we have undergone as part of our human evolution.

Today, it might be equally difficult to accept that those who fail to oppose animal suffering are really ignorant of the impact of their indifference. Vegetarianism has become almost ‘mainstream’ in Britain; hard-hitting campaign materials are widely distributed by charities working to promote animal welfare; our daily newspapers frequently include articles describing the conditions endured by farmed animals and the cruelty inherent in this industry. Nevertheless, animal suffering is still frequently treated as a fringe issue by the Christian Churches.

The Bible has traditionally been interpreted as giving humans free rein over animals, which are seen as existing for our utility and pleasure. The moral evolution which is currently underway reveals that humans have, in fact, been given a responsibility for all God’s universe. Formed in the image of God, we are called to behave with his love and care towards his creation, and specifically to treat animals with respect and solicitude. For this evolution to be successful, that is to say, to achieve a widespread change in behaviour and attitudes towards animals, requires a progression through several stages.

Animals’ feelings

The foundation of all such change must be an insight into the capacity of non-human animals to feel pain and, indeed, to experience many of the sensations and emotions once thought particular to humans. Certain individuals throughout history have demonstrated an intuitive, God-given awareness of this; one only has to think of St Francis’ relation to animals as an example. However, for those not endowed with this natural sensitivity, or perhaps lacking in personal experience of animals, there is now an impressive array of scientific studies demonstrating the striking similarities between the functioning of the nervous systems of animals and of humans. Behavioural studies outside the laboratory, too, for example in slaughterhouses, indicate clearly that animals react to danger and pain very much as we do.

We may well lament what so many millions of animals have had to endure to convince at least some scientists of the reality of what has long been evident to more compassionate souls, but this information can at least be used to educate those who continue to view animals as pieces of flesh reacting only by instinct and conditioning. While opinions may still differ as to exactly what treatment of animals causes them pain, there can no longer be any doubt that animal suffering is a reality. Nevertheless, many people remain ignorant of this fact, simply because they have not been made aware of it. Education is, thus, an essential link in the chain of ending the unacceptable treatment of animals.

Following this education, there must be a fundamental shift in the attitude of each individual such that the immorality of animal suffering is recognised. This may seem to follow self-evidently from awareness that animals can suffer, but for many the link is not so clear. Indeed, the Church itself claims that causing animals to suffer is acceptable in certain situations. Those who have witnessed a slaughter, or even seen images of this practice, are surely aware that for the animal it is an unwanted event.

Nevertheless, since animals have traditionally been viewed as expendable, as created for our use, their suffering is frequently justified by appeal to human needs. These so-called needs can range from the nutritional properties of meat, and indeed its flavour, to the development of therapeutic drugs and other forms of medical treatment. It is through our education and personal experience that each of us acquires our unique moral stance on the situations in which causing suffering is justifiable.

Media campaigns compromised

Following such a shift in attitude, personal ways of behaving must be recognised as contributing to animal suffering. This link, also, may seem obvious; eating meat presupposes the farming and slaughter of animals. High-profile campaigns by public figures such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver have helped to reveal the actual conditions endured by animals such that meat can arrive on a consumer’s plate, leading to a greater awareness of the impact of personal lifestyle choices. However, this stage in the process, too, is by no means as clear as it appears at first glance, as might be deduced from the fact that both these chefs are enthusiastic proponents of traditionally and locally raised meat. Indeed, blockages can happen all along the route of the evolution. Education is reliant on people who wish to spread more widely the reality of animal suffering. At present, however, the focus of the Catholic Church is elsewhere. Statements in support of the whole of God’s creation, for example in papal encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae, do not go far enough to reach individuals in parishes.

This lack of education appears to span the entire Church hierarchy, indifference to cruelty to animals being reflected in a lack of formation for bishops and priests, who thus fail both to change their behaviour and to influence their parishioners. While vegetarians are catered for admirably in almost every restaurant in Britain, one does not have to look far to find a parish event where non-meat eaters are reduced to bread and a lettuce leaf, that is, if they are ready to stand firm in their convictions. Such fidelity is by no means self-evident, endured as it can be in the face of scornful and verbally violent reactions. Thus the Church falls woefully at the first hurdle, continuing in its very limited recognition of the reality of animal suffering. As already stated, the evolution can also stall at the stage of progression from a realisation that animals can suffer to a conviction that this suffering is immoral. Here also, guidance from the Church is contradictory, weak, and poorly diffused. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, since God has given humans stewardship of the earth, we may consequently use animals to our own ends. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, a steward is ‘a person whose responsibility it is to take care of something’. This makes it abundantly clear that what is at stake is the welfare of that with which the steward is charged, rather than the needs of the steward. Moreover, there is always great risk in reasoning that ‘the ends justify the means’. When the Catechism states that medical and scientific experimentation is acceptable ‘within reasonable limits’, in order to alleviate human suffering from disease and disability, one has to wonder exactly what those limits are. This logic also ignores the fact that alternatives to animal experimentation could have been developed earlier and more successfully if financing had been directed to this end.

Even if the fundamental immorality of animal suffering is accepted, it is all too easy to rationalise one’s behaviour as being consistent with one’s convictions, for example, in persuading oneself that eating organic meat avoids the cruelty inherent in animal farming and slaughter. Others live in awareness of the inconsistency between their ideals and the reality of their behaviour, but are unable or unwilling to move forward: challenged, for example, by the idea of cooking without meat, or reluctant to behave in a way that might be viewed as odd. Furthermore, the complexities of exactly what forms of behaviour involve animal suffering should not be overlooked. For anybody who fears change, it might be safer not to start on the route of discovering just what is involved in the products we use each day. We may become aware of the appalling conditions in slaughterhouses, and so stop eating most forms of meat. Then we discover that fish are left to die by suffocation after the intensely painful effects of decompression from being trawled out of the depths of the sea, so they, too, have to be removed from our diet. Later on, someone tells us that even free range eggs come from farms where almost 50 per cent of the chicks are killed when they hatch, through fault of being male. Our dairy products come from cows who often barely see the light of day and are slaughtered years before the end of their natural lifespan, exhausted, frequently with infected udders and severe hoof problems. All this is before consideration of the gelatine in our fruit pastilles, the leather in our shoes, the charities we support which fund animal experiments. And which of us asks our doctor for a non-existent humane alternative to the life-saving drugs she prescribes to our loved ones? Perhaps it is no surprise that the Church prefers to pay only anodyne lip service to what our behaviour really involves, and just how much it needs to change if we are to successfully complete the evolution to a morality of respect for animals.

Where is the Church?

The strange and unexpected aspect of all moral evolution is that throughout history the Church has failed to prove itself a consistent leader. While certain popes condemned slavery, and William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian, famously fought for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, the atheist Jeremy Bentham was equally influential in this process. A justified fear of rejecting the essentials of the Christian faith seems often to have resulted in a reluctance to listen to God’s message as he communicates it in each age, and to act on the new insights received. Thus, while the immorality of animal suffering is now beginning to be widely recognised in our culture, the Church remains largely passive and silent. It is time to learn from past failures and to be proactive in changing attitudes and behaviour. This is, indeed, a challenge the Church has to address, and to address first of all ‘at home’, through prayer, study, dissemination of information, and a concerted effort to identify our own failings and act on what we discover. Then we might be in a position to influence the world more widely, rather than being viewed, at best, as a dinosaur culture with no relevance to our contemporary society, and, more probably, as scandalously inactive.

It is all too easy to consider oneself enlightened. Just as many of those Christians involved in the slave trade really did not see the evil in what they were doing, and numerous Christians today see no moral requirement to consider what animals endure, I too am certainly guilty of moral blindness in many areas of my own behaviour. This is what calls me to pray, ‘Father, forgive me, for I do not know what I am doing.’ This is what must prevent me from judging or condemning the behaviour of others. Nevertheless, I have a moral responsibility to share with others what I believe to be God’s message to His people. This requires patience, perseverance, and great hope in the possibility of change, however slow it seems to be.

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