Catholic Times dated Sunday September 25 2011
By John Gilheany
John Gilheany describes the origins of the vegetarian movement, its
place within the Christian faith, and whether the meat-free diet may be
adopted by more food-reforming Catholics, in light of the return to the
tradition of Friday abstinence in England and Wales.
Perhaps it's the top-hats and those businesslike expressions that
adorn the features of the Victorian founders of the Vegetarian Society…
Whatever their photographers may have sought to capture, it would
have been a tall task to have depicted sentimental, naive, heretical, or
even vaguely hippy-like idealists! However, thanks largely to the ample
efforts of Punch magazine, most of the dismissive terms which have often
been attributed to motives for abstinence from animal products were cast
at food reformers over a century before the exponential rise of the
vegetarian lifestyle which began in the 1960s.
For most of its historical existence, the Vegetarian movement in
Britain received considerable Christian input and leadership. It has
often been remarked upon that the inaugural meeting of the Vegetarian
Society (VS) was chaired by Joseph Brotherton, the first MP for Salford,
Moreover, the Bible Christian sect to whom Brotherton belonged and
occasionally ministered, included several civic leaders from the town of
Salford who adopted influential roles within the VS.
From there, the story of Christian involvement in the development of
vegetarian apologetics has long been a matter of neglect among scholars;
despite the veritable genre of books on the history, ideology and indeed
theology of ethical issues which arise from our dietary relationship to
There have remained several signposts, nonetheless, which became a
part of the fabric of vegetarian lore: such as the ascetic diet of John
and Charles Wesley; the outspoken convictions of early Salvation Army
leaders; Leo Tolstoy and in more recent times, the pacifist outlook of
Methodist orator, Donald Soper. Even Mahatma Gandhi's legendary path to
Ahimsa (or 'dynamic harmlessness') began with no less than esoteric
Christian vegetarian campaigning in South Africa during the 1890s.
Maybe the tendency of some Christian leaders - such as the towering
19th century Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon - to hide their vegetarian
lamp under a bushel (and there may be many others who have hidden the
bushel as well!) has contributed to the burial of Christian
vegetarianism, as an ethical outlook, over the years. However, it has
often been the case that among the faithful, even ardent vegetarians may
regard theology as an entirely separate sphere to decisions that inform
Catholics will find the name of 19th century VS president, Professor
Francis William Newman, rather familiar.
The Oxford linguist was a younger brother of the Cardinal who
dismissed ‘Biblical’ arguments for vegetarianism as “trash” and often
maintained that the VS existed “not to found a sect but to influence a
nation.” In reality the small network of local vegetarian groups and
spokespeople were often isolated and the sense of frustration was
particularly acute for those who attended most places of worship.
The Catholic Church still became a source of interest and intrigue
for food reformers because of Lenten and Friday abstinence, as well as
the monastic tradition which sought to subdue bodily passions through
prayer, fasting and the abnegation of flesh-foods. However there was
scant affinity between the pursuit of personal sanctification and the
aims of most food reformers.
In short, the spiritual case for vegetarianism which was presented
through lectures at church halls, tracts and periodicals, stemmed from
outward concern for the plight of ‘food animals’, human degradation and
desensitisation in slaughterhouses, and an eschatological vision of the
Peaceable Kingdom in the course of daily life.
It is quite well known that G K Chesterton took a particularly
scathing approach to the consideration of vegetarian arguments
throughout his life. However there was often a remarkable depth of
soul-searching beneath his criticisms; as well as satirical occasions
which struck his opponents as disappointingly glib and evasive of the
cruel conditions invariably experienced by livestock on cattle-boats and
upon facing the slaughter-man’s pole-axe. Yet, there was an abiding
warmth between Chesterton, Shaw and other leading figures of the
Vegetarian movement despite rigorous debate in the press, periodicals
and wider literature.
Other Catholics may have been more receptive to the extension of
basic beatitude to those otherwise destined for the dinner table. In
1895, the Order of the Golden Age (OGA) was founded with the
international aim of advocating vegetarian criteria among the world’s
foremost Christian nations. The January 1907 edition of their journal,
The Herald of the Golden Age, comprised their most resolute challenge to
Churchmen to have been presented in over twenty years of publication. A
copy was sent to every bishop and non-conformist leader in Britain .
Furthermore, Pope (St) Pius X received a personal letter from OGA
president Sidney Beard which respectfully implored the Holy Father to
devote serious consideration to the subject of animal slaying throughout
It may or may not have been a coincidence that press reports of the
Pope’s having adopted a vegetarian diet began to circulate before the
summer of that year.
Catholics today, as in earlier eras, may take a dim or devoted
approach to the ethics, or otherwise, of consuming foods derived from
Even a canonical return to Friday abstinence from meat could have
little relation to actual vegetarianism should secular predictions of
‘fish days’ become a genuine facet of the faith. It remains to be seen
of course whether or not the bishops’ wishes will receive active assent
among the laity. When the National Conference of Priests met to consider
a return to Friday penance, in 1983, a spokesman declared with
considerable skepticism: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube
If the rebirth of Christian vegetarian advocacy over recent decades
may serve as any sort of comparison, then a worthy concept is not only
difficult to keep under wraps but quite likely to return revitalised
from the rest.
Reproduced with thanks.
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