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


Mother Catherine's chickens

Sir: News reports about the nuns of Our Lady of the Passion, Daventry, Northants, who are opposing the destruction of their battery hens by the Ministry of Agriculture, have, it seems to me, highlighted a double scandal.

The practice of keeping battery hens - or battery calves or other animals unnaturally exploited to gratify human greed - is itself a disgrace to our so-called civilisation. That religious should lend themselves to such a practice is hardly thinkable. But when there is the slightest suspicion that these unnaturally confined birds may (not surprisingly) have produced infected eggs (or even one infected egg) to endanger human life. . .

Is it too much to hope that one day the Ministry of Agriculture will ban all battery hen establishments and other vicious factory methods from farming and encourage free-range and humane projects in the rearing of livestock?

(Sr) M. Matthew Morgan OP

Dominican Sisters

See Interview: 

The Tablet


Sir: Sr Matthew Morgan Op (Letters, 21 October) highlights "a double scandal" in the practice of nuns keeping battery hens for profit.

In April 1986 the late Bishop Agnellus Andrew OFM warned the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales of the scandal caused by lack of action in such matters by the Catholic hierarchy and appealed to them for greater awareness of their responsibilities as stewards of God's creatures. Afterwards, at least three bishops promised him a new look at related evidence sitting on their desks.

Repeatedly since Edwina Currie's salmonella statement last year we in Britain, and our Church leaders, have seen television evidence of the barren and cramped living conditions endured by some of the 40 million chickens farmed intensively for our sustenance. Battery cages are being phased out in Switzerland, yet in Britain many of us are still too ashamed to condemn or demand action for fear of association with unsavoury extremists (who would not be there had we been courageous).

The Food Programme (Radio 4, 13 October) reported that 30 per cent of battery hens suffer broken bones "which must be very painful." Their facts were taken from a study paid for by the Ministry of Agriculture and published in the journal of British Poultry Science. One of the co-authors was Dr Neville Gregory of the Government's Institute of Food Research in Bristol.

Research in Denmark six years ago revealed the inevitability of broken bones because lack of exercise in intensively crammed conditions causes hens to have soft bones. "Even with extreme care 15 per cent of them, in other words 6-7 million birds, will suffer the agony of broken bones", says Professor Donald Broome, who has the Chair of Animal Husbandry at Cambridge.

Transport to slaughter creates many broken bones. It may be 24 hours before the birds are stunned and plucked mechanically. Television has shown turkeys hanging alive, shackled upside down for as long as six minutes like mailbags on slowly moving rails. Success by them in avoiding the stunning process brings the possibility of having their feathers stripped off while still alive. Viewers have seen hens pulled by their legs through narrow access apertures of battery cages and then stuffed manually into transport cages like non-sentient fillings for pillow cases.

As an aid to identifying, out of respect for the individual, with life in a battery cage, take a ruler and measure 400 centimetres. To improve living conditions, the Farm Animal Welfare Council pleads for a minimum 600 sq. cm. of floor space for each bird. This still denies adequate head space and ability to flap wings - a necessary exercise for building stronger bones. The European Community, says Derek Cooper, presenter of the Food Programme, requires 450 sq. cm. - less than the size of a foolscap sheet of paper; less than the size of three egg cartons placed side by side; or less in length than just 15 small communion hosts.

The problem lies in the vast quantities of animals now used in intensive production methods. Economic viability is paramount. If the Catholic hierarchy threw their weight against intensive farming countrywide, their opposition would constitute a considerable deterrent and remove any implication that they were party to the crime.

As the then Bishop of Northampton, Francis Thomas, wrote to the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare on 19 October 1987, "clearly there are moral issues here". In spite of this, two years later nuns have still till now been allowed to exploit God's creatures for personal income.

In Westminster Cathedral on 7 October 1984 Bishop Agnellus pleaded for theologians and philosophers to give more profound reflection to questions concerning animals. He asked: "Has perhaps the time come for a charter for the defence and protection of the animal world?"

Ann Dalton

Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts

The Tablet


(The following portion was edited for length but reproduced in the December 1989 edition of The Ark, journal of the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare of which Anne Dalton was Vice-Chairman)

Sadly, however, the greatest scandal of all must be charged to our authorities in the Catholic Church who permit such suffering in spite of strong evidence. As Catholics we all become blameworthy for so long as we allow our religious to pursue such "unthinkable practices". We now read that the Daventry nuns intend changing from chickens to chocolates as a source of income, following government and activist pressure.


Compassion requires imagination and an ability to identify, in humility, with the world of another so different from our own. "At its profound level it is the giving of self in love", were the words Bishop Agnellus Andrew O.F.M. drafted into the 1971 Vatican Pastoral Instruction on Communications (paragraph 11), which refers to Christ's ability to identify with the lives of others and to "speak out of the predicament of their time."

Paragraph 14 of the same accredited Instruction, in a chapter headed "Basic Points of Doctrine," quotes from another authoritative Vatican document "Guardem et Spes" which declares:-

"By the very fact of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order which man must respect. . . "

Intensive farming methods are a new phenomenon so perhaps many of us have been caught unaware. However, we cannot claim ignorance of the abuses we impose on pain-feeling creatures to satisfy our own human requirements (not all of which are vital). We have seen chickens crammed in battery cages on our television screens each time there is a new health scare. No excuse now exists for assuming that our eggs and white meat still come from pleasant old-fashioned farm yards, where hens cluck contentedly over wide areas, satisfying their God-given curiosity.

Intensive farming produces intense suffering. We have seen it with our own eyes. Yet because our Daventry nuns "rely on egg sales for income," we and our Bishops have condoned conditions which other countries reject. The Northampton monastery had 10,000 battery-caged birds and resisted danger to human life. A double scandal indeed as Sister Morgan O.P. protests.

Whatever happened to "Care of the Individual?"  

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