The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Animals are our responsibility

The Director General of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Peter Davies explains the duty on Christians of care for all of God's creation, which naturally includes the world of animals

While I personally converted to Catholicism in 1970, the charity I run, the RSPCA, does not promote any philosophical stance. However, it is not always appreciated that the RSPCA - the first national animal welfare society in the world - came into existence as a result of a Christian vision.

Appalled by the cruelty inflicted on horses, sheep and cattle, an Anglican priest, the Reverend Arthur Broome, founded the Society in 1824, aided by other Christian social reformers such as William Wilberforce.

The Society's first prospectus posed the questions: "Our country is distinguished by the number and variety of its benevolent institutions ... all breathing the pure air of Christian charity ... But shall we stop here? Is the moral circle perfect so long as any power of doing good remains? Or can the infliction of cruelty on any being which the Almighty has imbued with feelings of pain and pleasure consist with genuine and true benevolence?"

As I approached my retirement from the Army, the opportunity to apply for the post of Director general of the RSPCA became possible. After discussing it over with my wife, I decided that this was a most wonderful and demanding second career and would reflect my keen interest in the animal world. Having spent a lifetime defending humans, it seemed natural to spend my remaining active years defending animals.

The founding ethic, established by Broome, is still held today: to prevent cruelty to, and promote kindness to, all animals. In 1977, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Donald Coggan, became the President of the Society, saying: "Animals, as part of God's creation, have rights which must be respected. It behoves us always to be sensitive to their needs and to the reality of their pain." His sentiments were echoed by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, who stated in his acceptance speech as first vice-Patron, that he was concerned that human beings, who have unique ability and power, should treat the rest of God's creation with respect and sensitivity.

In 1995, the importance of animal welfare to the Christian Church was underlined when the then Chairman of the charity's council was granted an audience with Pope John Paul ll at the Vatican. During this meeting a petition was presented on behalf not only of the RSPCA, but also of the World Society for the Protection of Animals and of the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare. The petition reiterated the belief that human stewardship brings with it a moral obligation to respect other forms of creation and to avoid treatment that exploits and causes unnecessary suffering to animals.

The document also urged the Church to condemn wilful cruelty to animals whether it be on farms, in laboratories, in the wild or for the sake of sport and entertainment.

At present, the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes a short section on animals stating that it is contrary to human dignity to cause needless suffering.

The RSPCA believes that this inclusion in the Catechism provides for compassion towards animals, recognised by Roman Catholics as God's creation and thus worthy of respect.

The understanding of animals as God's creatures has led so many Christians over the centuries to take a stand for them. As well as St Francis of Assisi, there are many examples of Christians who have included care for creatures as part of the "living out" of their faith. I am pleased, as a Welshman, to know that when St Melangel in Wales saved a hare, her devotion to the creature is said to have led to the conversion of the Prince who was hunting it.

Most modern Christians interpret discipleship as including some degree of environmental responsibility, which must encompass animals as part of creation. This does not mean that one has to have a romantic and unrealistic view of the realm of nature. Indeed, our view is pragmatic and practical in every sense. For example, in our continuing campaign to ban intensive farming of battery hens we condemn the exploitation of the animal as a mere commodity. A hen does not exist simply to provide maximum profit through maximum egg production. Instead of merely working to ban battery cages, we have set up the Freedom Food scheme which has meant that millions of eggs have been produced in commercial schemes where the hens have been reared within free-range and barn systems with high welfare conditions.

Rescuing cruelly treated, unwanted and abandoned animals is probably the best known of the work the Society does. We also prosecute those who inflict cruelty. As well as that we campaign to change legislation and working practices to bring about real improvements for the welfare of all animals, from family pets, to livestock and wildlife, and to laboratory animals.

This year one of our campaigns, to ban hunting with dogs, has been supported by MP's in the Christian Socialist Movement. The Movement has just published a pamphlet: The Christian Case Against Hunting which highlights the contradiction between hunting for pleasure and Christianity. They say that the exploitation of power by humans to kill and control, diverted into pleasure at such acts, is a fundamental betrayal of that God-given power.

The Bible makes clear that animals are part of God's creation. The book of Genesis describes not only that the birds of the air and beasts of the field were made by God, but in Chapter 9, verse 15 reports God as saying that he will remember his covenant, not just with man, but also with every living creature.

The interpretation of this one passage in Genesis has long been debated - in what sense were humans given "dominion over" or should it be "stewardship of" the living world?

The prevailing view in the Judeo-Christian world is that animals do not belong to us but to God and must therefore be objects of value for human beings.

So, as humans given temporary lordship of creation, are Christians not obliged to recognise their responsibility to avoid arrogant or cruel treatment of animals. In the words sung by almost every schoolchild in this country, "all creatures great and small, the Lord God made them all". Surely they should be treated accordingly. The aims of the RSPCA are consistent with, and can accommodate a broad spectrum of, views that animals matter and that we humans have a duty to respect and care for them.

*The RSPCA produces an Order of Service for Animal Welfare/Blessing which is appropriate for most Christian denominations.

From the Catholic Herald dated 6th February 1998

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