The Fellowship of Life
The concept of animal rights is far from incompatible with the future of Christian ethics.
In recent years the theory that God has rights which may be violated when creation is needlessly harmed has acquired considerable momentum. However, the ethos itself has been around for some time. Cardinal Manning - a leading figure of the Victorian anti-vivisection movement - was known to defend animals on the similar basis of upholding human duties towards them.
There are no such ethical excuses necessary, however, for the exercise of decent conduct and compassion towards non-human beings.
In the 1920's and 30's, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral became the leading advocate of animals' rights (as it was then termed) although his apparent belief in the necessity of a meat-inclusive diet led to frequent tussles with the Vegetarian Society.
Dean Inge's main critic within the Vegetarian movement was an Anglican clergyman who produced a booklet on the matter which concluded: "...the gift of life carries with it the gift of the right of life with all other creatures of the divine power and grace".
It was the author's belief that life itself is inevitably precious to the individual bearer, regardless of species. In that sense, it seems unlikely that the Creator could be fundamentally indifferent towards the interests of creatures that have been bestowed complex forms of awareness and sensitivity.
Where "rights" inevitably conflict in our fallen world, we have a choice between the Cross, or vivisection laboratories; abortion clinics and just war battlefields. In the case of most forms of animal exploitation (such as the commercial breeding of mink for their coats) there is much to answer for and not to animal rights activists but the Creator of kindred life.
In 1970, the Bishop of Norwich wrote: "We speak of human rights. I think we should also speak of animal rights and natural rights, but there must be some radical re-orientation in current attitudes and thinking before these rights are recognised and respected."
It may not be possible to devise a perfect protocol for human interaction with the rest of creation but we can either respond to divine prompting or the law of the jungle. If anyone is interested in the growth of Christian animal rights advocacy over recent decades there is a website archive at: www.all-creatures.org/fol
Catholic Times (28/9/08)
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