By James Van Alstine
While spanning some 800 pages, the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers little on the faith’s teaching regarding animals. That which is provided offers a less than complete picture of an ideal relationship with animals and shows little awareness of the current conditions imposed on animals by human society. A consideration of the sections addressing animals follows.
2415 The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
This section clearly encourages the Christian faithful to remain mindful that animals and all creation are the work of God. It twice uses the phrase “integrity of creation.” This phrase may be brought to mind when considering the impact of animal food production on the environment and on the animals themselves. Animal rights advocates would be disappointed to see that animals are “destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity” since it reflects a world view that animals only exist for human kind, rather than along with human kind. It may be more encouraging to consider the growing recognition that the “common good” of humanity is intrinsically linked to that of all life on our increasingly fragile planet.
2416 Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
This is a beautiful and lucid paragraph. Could a Christian keep this paragraph in mind while visiting a feedlot, slaughterhouse or battery cage egg production facility?
2417 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, if it remains within reasonable limits, is a morally acceptable practice since it contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
The conspicuous disconnection between the first sentence of this section and those that follow seems to reflect a likelihood that the authors of the catechism are swayed by an idealized and antiquated vision of animal stewardship. Anyone with an awareness of contemporary animal production methods would recognize that it has become difficult, if not altogether impossible, to reconcile God’s trust of stewardship with the purported “legitimate” use of animals for food and clothing. Even the practice of using animals for medical testing is now highly questionable within the scope of Christian justice as such tests come under increasing criticism for unreliability, redundancy and obsolescence that can actually risk the health and lives of humans while certainly imperiling the lives of millions of animals (www.pcrm.org).
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. 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 light of the fact that billions of human beings live healthful lives without using animal products, it is clear that all food animal production needless, but is rather a luxury product that invariably does “cause animals to suffer [and] die needlessly.” Insightfully, this section points out that whenever animals are ill treated it is not only an affront to them and to God, but is also “contrary to human dignity” and is therefore intrinsically hurtful to humankind as well.
In writing the cautionary sentence about spending money on animals that should rather go to meet human needs, the catechism clearly had in mind the sometimes excessive indulgences of humans on behalf of their companion animals. This principle could well be applied to animal food production. In the United States, half of all fresh water used and more than 70 percent of all harvested gain are used to produce animal products while much of the world goes hungry (www.vegforlife.org). Surely this is a massive misapplication of resources that should “go to the relief of human misery.”
2456 The dominion granted by the Creator over mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be separated from respect for moral obligations, including those toward generations to come.
2457 Animals are entrusted to man’s stewardship; he must show them kindness. They may be used to serve the just satisfaction of man’s need.
These last two are succinct and clear paragraphs. The exact wording of the final sentence is especially vital. Humans are permitted the use of animals “to serve the just satisfaction of man’s need.” The Catechism does not extend this use to man’s whims, desires or luxuries. Humans clearly do not need to consume animal flesh and are, rather, harmed by doing so. Nor do humans need to force animals into servitude for our amusement or need to take their skins for coats or shoes. As all former or potential just uses of animals have passed into obsolescence or been supplanted by more humane, non-animal products and procedures, animals have no continuing place in serving man’s need. The instruction to show them kindness happily remains.