From the Winter 1991 edition of The Vegan:
Dr Robert Hamilton, a teacher of marketing in a university school of
management, examines recent Christian teaching on the moral status of
creation and discovers some important messages for the modern world
At the time when the Vatican was beginning to speak out on the
ecological crisis, in 'Solicitudo Rei Socialis' (1988) and in the Pope's
1990 New Year Message, the World Council of Churches has had a parallel
process of consultations on the same subject under the theme 'Justice,
Peace and the Integrity of Creation'. Both the Vatican and the WCC are
continuing a long, biblical tradition of prophecy about making true the
relationships between God, people and nature. They both revive an
all-encompassing vision of God's creation that our contemporary world
In the New Year message, John Paul ll pointed out that the ecological
crisis is a moral problem, basically one of solidarity with the whole of
creation. In 'Solicitudo'', he had written that one thing we need to do
is realize "the appropriateness of acquiring a growing awareness of the
fact that one cannot use with impunity the different categories of
being, whether living or inanimate - animals, plants, the natural
elements - simply as one wishes, according to one's own economic needs.
On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and
of its mutual connection in an ordered system" (para 34). In a recent
speech the Pope pointed out that, in The Bible, God's
breath is the life not only in humans but also in non-human creation, so
undermining the popular, but ill-defined idea that only humans have
Within the WCC, a meeting of theologians in Annecy, France in 1998
considered the moral status of non-human life in more detail. The theme
of its report, 'The Liberation of Life', extends "the world-wide plea
for peace and justice to all creatures, whom we humans need in order to
exist, and who are valuable in themselves and to God."
Two Christian Traditions
The earliest Christian records have a religious vision in which
everything is created by Christ and redeemed by Him, for example: "God
wanted all perfection to be found in Him [Christ] and all things
reconciled through Him and for Him, everything in heaven and everything
on earth" (Col 1:19-20). However, another tradition has an
exclusive, God-man view: "We have been taught" Justin Martyr says in 150
CE, "that God did not make the World aimlessly, but for the sake of the
human race." In this human-centred vision the non-human had no moral
stature in itself. As Aquinas writes: "According to the Divine ordinance
the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for
man. Hence, as Augustine says, 'by a most just ordinance of the Creator,
both their life and their death are subject to our use' ". This has been
the dominant vision within Christianity for many centuries.
New Moral Rules
The modern, sorry treatment of animals on farms, in abattoirs,
laboratories, sport and entertainments and the linked environmental
threats, have prompted a reconsideration of the status of non-human
animals. The Annecy report is the first official statement which speaks
in detail on the treatment of animals and which offers precise moral
rules. Liberation of Life, it concludes, is about the integrity of the
eco-system, the maintenance of biological diversity, and justice and
peace for individuals, people and animals.
On our relationship with individuals, human and non-human, the report
wants Churches to break out of the habit of ignorance and study how
animals are treated today and how this treatment departs from the
respect due to God's creation. Some ethical guidelines are recommended
for Christians. In summary these are:
- avoiding products that have been cruelly tested on animals;
- avoiding clothing, e.g. fur, that involves cruelty;
- avoiding eating meat produced in intensive farm systems;
- avoiding entertainments that demean animals, e.g. circuses
This report gives the WCC the chance to make an adjustment to the
pragmatic compromise on meat-eating that goes back to Genesis. It is an
adjustment that many people, Christians and others, think is long
Vegan Ideal of Genesis
The vision of a perfect world at the beginning of Genesis contains
the divine command to eat a vegan diet. "I give you all the seed-bearing
plants that are upon the whole earth, and all the trees with
seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food" (1:29). This moral
ideal of Genesis receives modern scientific support in Gill Langley's
recent (1988) book, Vegan Nutrition, which brings together the
research evidence on vegan nutrition.
This ideal is adapted, but not rejected, after the flood. In a
society seemingly addicted to meat, personally and socially, the authors
of Genesis sought a compromise to allow the eating of flesh "so that",
as Calvin puts it, "we might eat it without a doubtful and trembling
conscience". Meat eating was permitted, but only if the reverence due to
life that God created was maintained by avoiding blood, the symbol of
life (Genesis 9:1-14).
This became a religiously and socially approved rule for applying the
general vision of Genesis, which is, in the words of Robert Murray, the
biblical scholar, that "We are fellow creatures of everything else in
the cosmos; we have no right to destroy, but we have duties to all,
under God to whom we are responsible".
The rule was important. It is included in the four essential rules
for gentile converts laid down by the early Church: "you are to abstain
from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled
animals and from fornication" (Acts 15:29). St Paul seems to
disagree with his "of course all food is clean" (Rm 14:20), but
whatever his meaning, he was not authorizing cannibalism or disregard
for the rules on eating animals. Paul accepted the Genesis compromise
though he chose to be a vegetarian: "since food can be the cause of my
brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause
of a brothers downfall" (1Cor. 8-13). Possibly, like Daniel, he
opted for a vegan diet (Dan 1:13). In The Bible,
eating animals has many moral pitfalls; the vegan ideal avoids all
these, and is unconditionally pleasing to God.
Annecy offers a new compromise. As in Genesis, it is based upon
observation of the contemporary world. There is still a personal and
social addiction to meat, but now the animals are produced in intensive
systems as machines, where virtually every natural form of behaviour is
thwarted. The systematic deprivation and the cruelty involved is seen by
Annecy as devoid of the reverence due to God's creatures. A new rule
about eating animals is recommended: to avoid factory farmed animal
products and instead eat animal products "from sources where the animals
have been treated with respect, or abstain from these products
This moral rule means it will be very difficult for a Christian in
Europe to find acceptable poultry, eggs, veal and pork; beef, fish, milk
and milk products will require careful choice. When higher prices are
asked for the morally better animal products, as often happens, the
choice between God and Mammon is raised in a new way. As a solution to
these practical problems Annecy offers the option of abstaining from
animal products. Put positively, Annecy suggests the ideal vegan diet of
Genesis, which is morally better, nutritionally at least as good and
usually cheaper than a meat based diet. There is no such thing as a
problem without a gift for us in its hands.
Closer to the Ideal
Annecy's new moral rule can be only the first step. There are
imperative reasons for raising our moral sights higher and making the
new compromise much closer to the ideal of Genesis. One is the lack of
sufficient reason for killing. A second is the need to feed the world's
population. A third, linked to the second, is the ecological threat to
forests and grasslands from farm animals.
It is very difficult, in Europe, to eat animal products and not
support factory farming. It is almost impossible to eat meat and avoid
supporting hunger in the world and the ecological destruction. It is
impossible in Western countries to have sufficient nutritional reasons
for taking the life of any of God's creatures.
For these reasons, there is a need to revise the Genesis compromise
that was worked out in a different situation to the world of today.
Annecy is in the right direction, but, as stewards of the beauty of
God's creation, there is an urgent need for us to move much further
along the road towards the vegan ideal of Genesis.
'Liberation of Life'. Consultation Report for the Church and Society
of the World Council of Churches, France, September 1988.
Thomas Aquinas, 'Summa Theologia', 2, Question 64, Article 1.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol 3, part 4 ('The
Doctrine of Creation'). 352-56. Eds & trans. A T Mackay et alii.
T & T Clark, 1961
J Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, vol.
Justin, 2 Apology 4.
G Langley, Vegan Nutrition: A Survey of Research, The
Vegan Society, 1988
Reproduced with Thanks to the Vegan Society: http://www.vegansociety.com.