By Patrick Battuello, In Behalf of Animals
While channel surfing one night, I came upon a show called Life on the Rock on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). The host, a Franciscan Friar, was interviewing two Catholic priests who were also passionate hunters. One, Father Joseph Classen, has a website called Hunting For God with information on his books (Hunting for God, Fishing for the Lord and Meat & Potatoes Catholicism). All the usual and well-versed hunting defenses are present; the ecological necessity to maintain balance among wildlife, the humane culling of deer populations to mitigate slower death by starvation and disease, humanitarian donations of excess meat to the less fortunate, and, least convincingly, protection of crops, landscaping, and careless drivers. This ground has already been covered in The Hunt. What makes Father Classen, hunter, interesting, is the uniquely religious defense and all-too-typical subterfuge.
For background, Classen quotes directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.
In short, animals are soulless resources created for maintaining and improving mankind. So, along with the usual hunting jargon of communion with nature and participation in the life cycle (curiously, I know of no contemporary custom that involves leaving deceased human bodies in the wild for recycling), Catholic or Christian hunters may invoke God’s will as justification. In the intro to Hunting for God, Classen writes, “…the pursuits of fishing and hunting have been a sacred catalyst which has revealed and guided me to something profoundly more significant than merely catching fish and harvesting game.” Yet nowhere on his website could I find a Catholic rebuke of factory farming, fur farming, or animals used in entertainment. And, because human misery will always be with us, we are advised not to donate to animal advocacy groups or sanctuaries who work to alleviate animal suffering. It appears that the Church has decreed that animal suffering matters (recalling the St. Francis ethic of gentle kindness) but not enough to warrant meaningful aid.
On his website, Father Classen references a paper entitled The Myths of Vegetarianism by Stephen Byrnes. Myth #15: Eating animal foods is inhumane. “Nevertheless, many people have philosophical problems with eating animal flesh, and these sentiments must be respected. Dairy products and eggs, though, are not the result of an animal’s death and are fine alternatives for these people.” This notion, endorsed by Father Classen, demonstrates either gross ignorance or willful deception. Modern dairy cows and egg-laying hens endure more suffering than any other farm animals and certainly will be gruesomely slaughtered when they are spent.
I also find it offensive that the Church will go to great lengths to condemn abortion and homosexuality but is unwilling to teach respect (i.e., vegetarianism) for other sentient beings. Classen, in Meat & Potatoes Catholicism, writes, “In other classes, things like sexual promiscuity, homosexual activity, abortion, masturbation and other soul-destroying filth was presented to us as the acceptable norm that we should be supporting and celebrating.” Homosexuality, abortion, and masturbation are soul-destroying filth, but modern factory farming (with all its negation, abuse, cruelty, misery, suffering, and violent destruction) escapes Classen’s critical pen.
And this is the subterfuge…
…He [God] hooked me up with a monster 6 lb 22″ bass! - Father Classen
He’s had triumphs too, like the day he used his bow to harvest a 10-point trophy buck.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch book review on Father Classen
Hunting, for most, is primarily an egocentric activity; a satisfaction of a pleasure desire or competitive itch. As soon as the first pose is struck or hollowed body is mounted, a hunter reveals his central motivation.
That’s not to say that hunters don’t consider the other, more selfless, goals. Most hunters truly believe that they are acting with compassion by thinning herds, and, I would guess, that very little venison is ever wasted. But if it could be proven that, in the absence of hunting, deer populations would check themselves (with no more or less suffering than every other wild species), and if faux meats were created that replicated taste, texture, and nutrients (in fact, they already exist), hunters would still hunt. In simplest terms, they like (love) the activity.
From an animal rights perspective, hunting wildlife is preferable to factory farming. But it would be refreshing to hear Father Classen and other hunters dispense with the well-rehearsed arguments for hunting and exhibit real honesty.
The supposed wondrous humility experienced while outdoors communing with nature and forging bonds with God and His creations, is betrayed by celebratory pictures and taxidermist visits. This is all the more egregious when exhibited by a Catholic priest. Classen, careful to refute that hunting and fishing are sports, has said nonetheless, “As I gently released that beautiful fish I was reminded once again of an important lesson: put the Lord first in all things.” Catch-and-release sounds suspiciously like a sport (or, at the very least, a leisure activity).
The Church acknowledges that animals can feel pain and suffer, and Classen points out nature’s own indifference (including bloody ends) to life and death. But nature provides some comforts and even joys or pleasures. While maybe lacking the richness and variety of human pleasures, life for other sentient beings is more than an endless and all-consuming foraging as Father Classen would have us believe. Now, with the Church denying a soul (and an opportunity for everlasting life) to nonhumans, is not intentionally cutting these lives (the only ones they will ever know) short morally objectionable? At the very least, isn’t commemorating the kill troublesome on its own? Father Classen:
Certainly, it is not fun to watch the spark of life dwindle away from a creature’s eye, knowing that one is directly responsible for its death. But at the same time there exists a satisfaction, and yes, a sense of honor in being an active, disciplined, gracious, responsible and respectful participant in the cycle of life.
I believe that Father Classen does enjoy hunting and fishing and experiences a high when successful. At its core, it is indeed fun, and that makes the rest of his quote mere background noise.