The Moral Schizophrenia of Catholicism
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM Gary Steiner, CCA Catholic Concern for Animals
January 2019

I regret to report that Laudato Si' changes nothing in the terms of my assessment of Christian doctrine as it pertains to the moral status of nonhuman animals. If anything, the papal encyclical simply heightens the sense of moral schizophrenia with which the West has lived for thousands of years. I can only assume that this verdict is both surprising and disquieting to anyone who finds the encyclical uplifting.

Is it perhaps in light of the fact that we have single-handedly done vastly more vicious damage to our home than any other species? And are we really to write off this capacity for evil and harm as due to a turning away from God? Or might it perhaps be due instead to our having started from the proposition that human beings are categorically superior and thus enjoy prerogatives to use the natural environment that no other creatures (due to their putative inferiority) presumably have?

Only if and when we begin to see nonhuman animals as beings with genuine inherent worth and lives that have nothing to do with us can we truly find redemption. And that, I believe, cannot be accomplished within the parameters of orthodox Christian thinking.

Gary Steiner

Last week, as I was preparing my remarks for this conference, I came across an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which the author excoriated those who have branded a particular ornithologist a ‘murderer’ for having killed a rare bird he found on a research expedition on the island of Guadalcanal.1 The controversy surrounding this researcher's act reflects a fundamental ambivalence in our culture about the relationship between human beings and sentient nonhuman life - an ambivalence so deep and pervasive, so inextricably bound up with our entire conception of what it means to be human, that it isn't an exaggeration to call it a form of schizophrenia. As regards the way we treat nonhuman sentient life, Gary Francione has long written and spoken of our moral ‘schizophrenia’.2 When I wrote my first book on animal ethics fifteen years ago, I devoted a central chapter to the ways in which this moral inconsistency manifests itself throughout Christian tradition, particularly in Scripture and in the course of the Middle Ages in the West.3 That Pope Francis himself attributes a certain ‘schizophrenia’ to humanity in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si' (sec. 118) might lead one to suppose that the Church has significantly changed its views regarding the relative moral status of human beings and the rest of nature.4 But in fact the papal encyclical simply confirms the persistence of moral schizophrenia in Christian thinking about nonhuman animals.

That ornithologist on Guadalcanal was simply doing something that ethologists do all the time: locating somebody minding his or her own business, seeing that somebody not as a somebody but as a specimen, an object that can yield knowledge of use to human beings, capturing and killing it, and spiriting it off to a research facility to do whatever it is that ethologists do with dead birds at research facilities.

Moustached Kingfisher

The ensuing controversy was straightforward: on the one hand, opponents argued that this was murder plain and simple, that there was complete and utter disregard for the dignity and perhaps the rights of the bird who had been killed. On the other hand, as reported by the writer of the New York Times op-ed piece, the researcher and those who defended him offered the following ensemble of justifications: that the interests of human knowledge amply justify the taking of the occasional (presumably non- human) life, that people express this kind of outrage only when it's a ‘cute’ animal that gets killed, that the animal killed would certainly have met a more violent and painful fate if it had died in the wild, that this killing did not threaten the overall population from which this individual was taken, and that domestic cats kill lots more birds than ethologists do. One could even add on the ethologists' behalf that in all likelihood few, if any, of the people decrying the act of killing this one unnamed bird are vegan let alone vegetarian, which is to say that there might be more than a hint of hypocrisy in anyone who decries a killing of this kind while continuing to participate in a massive, society-wide assault on virtually the entirety of non-human sentient life on our planet.

The indications of profound ambivalence in this controversy are multiple. I'm willing to believe that relatively few animal researchers possess the sheer indifference to animal suffering and animal interests exhibited by, say, Martin Seligman (of the learned helplessness experiments on dogs) and those researchers who conducted the baboon head trauma experiments at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s: by and large, people seem to acknowledge what Pope Francis in a few places calls the ‘intrinsic value’ of nonhuman life (sec. 118), and a great many people appear to have some modicum of real feeling and concern for nonhuman animals. But at the same time, the actual ways in which we treat these animals we purport to care for tell a very different story. Leaving aside the countless nonhuman animals used for experimentation, entertainment, and forced labour, the sheer number of nonhuman animals killed to feed humans is breath-taking: according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, every year over sixty billion land animals are killed worldwide for human consumption. According to one estimate, that's as many land animals in a year and a half as the total number of human beings ever to have existed.5 The ethologist Jonathan Balcombe has recently estimated that if we include fish and other sea creatures, the annual total likely exceeds a trillion.6 This extraordinary disconnect between our actions and our at least purported sentiments of concern for nonhuman animals is conspicuous - as are the lengths that researchers seem to feel the need to go to in an effort to justify or perhaps simply rationalize actions such as killing a perfectly healthy bird who was simply minding his or her own business.

Catholic Tradition

Now what has Catholicism got to do with this ambivalence that, I have suggested, is so deep and pervasive as to qualify as a kind of inconsistent attitude? In a word, everything. I'll spare you the lengthy history, but at its core the culture of the West is defined by a set of intersecting ancient Greek and Christian commitments about the place and prerogatives of human beings in the cosmic scheme. From Aristotle and particularly the Stoic philosophers we inherit the conviction that human beings are the only truly godlike sublunary creatures, in virtue of our capacity for detached contemplation. From Christian tradition we inherit the conviction that our proximity to God confers on human beings a special dignity that elevates us above the rest of the created world and that singles us out for the prospect of eternal salvation. It is against this background that Lynn White wrote that highly controversial essay in 1967, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.7 In it, White argued that the problems of environmental degradation we face are directly traceable to convictions built into Christian doctrine; in particular, White argued that Christianity ‘not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends...Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects’.8 In chapter 5 of my book Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents, I presented an extended reflection on Scripture and the writings of St Augustine, Origen, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, St Francis of Assisi, and St Thomas Aquinas, and I argued for the conclusion that White's analysis was essentially correct - that woven inextricably into Christian doctrine is a set of convictions according to which non-human nature is ultimately no more than a set of resources for the satisfaction of human needs and desires.

Laudato Si’ and Moral Schizophrenia

I regret to report that Laudato Si' changes nothing in the terms of my assessment of Christian doctrine as it pertains to the moral status of nonhuman animals. If anything, the papal encyclical simply heightens the sense of moral schizophrenia with which the West has lived for thousands of years. I can only assume that this verdict is both surprising and disquieting to anyone who finds the encyclical uplifting. After all, Pope Francis very clearly rejects the ideal of dominion and advocates a stewardship relation to nature (sec. 116) and in a number of places he decries what he calls a ‘misguided anthropocentrism’ (sec. 118, 122) and on one occasion an ‘excessive anthropocentrism’ (sec. 116). Moreover, as I mentioned a moment ago, the Pope himself employs the language of schizophrenia in characterising our relationship to the environment (sec. 118). On the most charitable reading possible, all this might point toward a vision of living in complete harmony with nature - a nature which, as St Augustine observes in the Confessions, exhibits a finite beauty that is a reflection of the infinite beauty of its creator.9 And yet there are a number of very clear signs in Laudato Si' that the Pope's call for harmony with nature stands in stark tension with some pointedly anthropocentric convictions that the Pope urges on his readers. In other words, in rejecting ‘misguided’ or ‘excessive’ anthropocentrism, the Pope is not rejecting anthropocentrism altogether but, in fact, is sanctioning a particular, surprisingly traditional form of it.

Consider the Pope's diagnosis of the root cause of our current ecological crisis: rather than being a product of fidelity to Christian ideals, the crisis is due to a ‘technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings’ and ‘no special value in human beings’ (sec. 118). The ‘technocratic paradigm’ has as its central figure a secular notion of the human subject, a being that uses ‘logical and rational procedures’ to gain control over external objects (sec. 106). This subject ‘declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion,’ thereby setting itself up ‘in the place of God’ (sec. 117). On the Pope's analysis, such a subject commits the dual error of viewing nonhuman nature as lacking in inherent value and viewing human beings as possessing no special worth. And while the first of these terrors is certainly true of contemporary Western consciousness, it is far from clear that the latter is true. It is hard to see how a being that arrogates to itself the prerogative of absolute dominion over all of creation could view itself as lacking special worth. You don't need to read any Heidegger on technology to know that the problem of modern subjectivity consists precisely in an overvaluation of the self, not an undervaluation.

But if this is so obviously the case, why would the Pope suggest that the modern subject represents a vision of the human being as lacking special worth? The reason is that, for anyone who acknowledges that there is intrinsic worth in at least some nonhuman beings, the use of such beings to satisfy human needs and desires requires a justification. The Pope is very clear in some passages of the encyclical that this is the case: he writes, for example, that all creatures ‘must be cherished with love and respect’ (sec. 42); and in a number of places he invokes his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, to underscore the Church's supposed long-standing commitment to the proposition that all living beings, as reflections of the goodness and beauty of their creator, merit genuine moral concern (sec. 10-12, 66, 221). Consider what this means for our uses of nonhuman animals: if we want to use animals to satisfy our needs and desires, then we have to reconcile this use with the demand that we cherish animals with love and respect. Implicit in the view sketched by the encyclical and by Christian tradition is the conviction that the sanction for limiting or modifying an obligation of love and respect cannot come from a mere human being but must come
from the divine creator. By the same token, given that God, on this view, is the source of all value, a secular subject by definition cannot possess any ‘special value’. The classical Augustinian view is that all earthly beings are ordered to God, and that human beings are unique among earthly beings in being capable of recognising this principle and using volition to act in conformity with the divine dictates. The ‘subject’ that the Pope describes is one who, in Augustinian terms, has ‘turned away’ from God. The road to redemption, as regards both our salvation and the environment, lies in turning back toward God.

But now what is it that we are turning toward when we eschew the secular subject and embrace the vision for righteous conduct prescribed for us by Catholic tradition? It is a vision of human beings as categorically superior to everything else in the created world, and as entitled to use nonhuman beings to satisfy our needs and desires. Thus the righteous Catholic is confronted with a very peculiar and seemingly insuperable challenge, namely, how to do things like kill animals for food or in the supposed service of human knowledge, all the while cherishing them with love and respect. Indeed it is here that the moral schizophrenia of Catholicism comes into sharp focus. On the one hand, the Pope suggests that Scripture calls for us to treat animals well, and he rejects what he calls ‘tyrannical anthropocentrism’ (sec. 68); he states that living beings are not ‘mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination’ (sec. 82). Thus the Pope sees ‘arbitrary’ domination to be the product of what he variously calls ‘misguided’, ‘excessive’, and ‘tyrannical’ anthropocentrism in the encyclical. Moreover, the only alternative to anthropocentrism that he even mentions in the encyclical is biocentrism, and he rejects that out of hand on the grounds that it ‘would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones’ (sec. 118). The implications of these statements are rather clear: it is not really dominion per se that is to be avoided, but rather ‘arbitrary’ dominion, which is to say that there is nothing wrong with using nature as a resource provided that we do not do so in a ‘Promethean’ spirit (sec. 116). The problem with biocentrism would presumably be that it fails to accord to human beings the superior status vis à vis the rest of nature that the Pope repeatedly attributes to human beings; biocentrism would treat human beings as just one natural being among many, with no special place or prerogatives. The upshot is that there is some appropriate form of anthropocentrism that avoids the Promethean excesses of secular humanism while maintaining reverence for God's creation.

It is precisely this coordination of aims that seems to me impossible in principle to achieve. In numerous passages of the encyclical, the Pope ascribes a unique dignity to human beings and asserts that we are categorically superior to all other creatures (sec. 43, 65, 69, 89, 119, 136, 156). He calls nature ‘the patrimony of all humanity’, effectively conferring some sort of ownership of nature on human beings (sec. 95). At one point he approvingly cites Romano Guardini's remarks about ‘the work of dominating the world’ (sec. 219) and in the next section of the encyclical he writes of ‘a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness’ and envisions ‘a splendid universal communion’ (sec. 220). How do you kill sixty billion land animals per year for food and do so ‘full of tenderness’? Or is the Pope suggesting that we should cease eating animals, given their intrinsic worth and their place in the ‘splendid universal communion’ that he envisions? In fact he is doing nothing of the kind. He very explicitly states that ‘intervention on plants and animals’ is permissible ‘when it pertains to the necessities of human life’, and he cites the authority of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support the proposition that experimentation on animals is permissible if it ‘remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives’ (sec. 130).
Consider for a moment the rhetorical function of terms such as ‘intervention’, ‘necessities’ and ‘reasonable’ in this connection. Nowhere in the encyclical is the Pope willing to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that the putative superiority of human beings over nonhuman animals and everything else in the natural world gives human beings license to kill harmless and defenceless beings who are entirely capable of managing their own lives without the violent ‘intervention’ of human beings. The Pope is quite explicit about the superiority of human beings over all other earthly creatures, a superiority that he asserts numerous times in the encyclical. Who decides what counts as ‘necessary’ or ‘reasonable’ for the maintenance of human life? Can considerations of necessity and reasonableness be made without giving due consideration to the violence we inflict on nonhuman animals?

What counts as ‘due consideration’ in such a reckoning, if we start from the proposition that human beings are categorically superior, which is to say that nonhuman animals are categorically inferior? And with regard to which specific capacities or considerations should we deem human beings to be categorically superior? Is it perhaps in light of the fact that we have single-handedly done vastly more vicious damage to our home than any other species? And are we really to write off this capacity for evil and harm as due to a turning away from God? Or might it perhaps be due instead to our having started from the proposition that human beings are categorically superior and thus enjoy prerogatives to use the natural environment that no other creatures (due to their putative inferiority) presumably have?

The Pope does have answers to some of these questions, if only indirect ones. He recommends serious consideration of small-scale food production, including activities such as hunting and fishing (sec. 129). And he suggests that we should avoid cruelty to nonhuman animals (sec. 92). Clearly the Pope wants to counsel a spirit of modesty and restraint in our use of nonhuman nature. But the Pope never so much as hints at the possibility that activities such as hunting, fishing, and the consumption of animal products are utterly unnecessary and unreasonable for almost the entirety of humanity; and when he counsels avoiding cruelty to nonhuman animals, the reason he gives for avoiding this cruelty is that cruelty to nonhuman animals makes us more likely to be cruel to our fellow human beings (sec. 92). That the Pope here is implicitly following and endorsing the logic offered before him by St Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant is telling: for both of those thinkers, human beings owe nothing directly to nonhuman animals but only to our fellow human beings.

Clearly the Pope wants to distance himself from the rhetoric of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, both of whom expressed harsh sentiments toward nonhuman animals. Augustine asserts that God gave human beings ‘lordship over...irrational creatures’, that this lordship entitles us to kill nonhuman animals, and moreover that the pain animals suffer when we kill them is of ‘little’ consequence to us inasmuch as ‘the beast, lacking a rational soul, is not related to us by a common nature’.10 Aquinas states in the Summa Theologica that, apart from the prohibition on cruelty, ‘it matters not how man behaves to animals, because God has subjected all things to man's power’.11 Indeed for Aquinas, nonhuman animals ‘are naturally enslaved and accommodated to the uses of others’, namely, to humans.12 The Pope places considerably more emphasis on a sense of kindness and gentleness in our dealing with nonhuman animals than either Augustine or Aquinas; but the question remains whether that can truly be anything more than an empty rhetorical gesture as long as we start from the fundamental axiom that human beings are inherently superior to nonhuman animals. After all, are there any genuine, bottom-line differences between Augustine and Aquinas on the one hand, and the Pope on the other hand, as regards the ways we are entitled to relate to nonhuman animals? Get to use animals? All are in agreement. Get to experiment on animals? All are implicitly in agreement. Get to kill and eat animals? All are unequivocally in agreement. Important to refrain from gratuitous cruelty? At least Aquinas and the Pope agree on this, Augustine exhibiting an ambivalence between a commitment to the inherent beauty of God's creations and the contemptus mundi for which Augustine is notorious. The papal encyclical resounds with a sense of deep concern for nature, but this sense of concern stands in a clear and insuperable tension with the proposition that anthropocentrism can be done ‘right’.

One sign of this confidence can be seen in the title of chapter 3 of the encyclical: ‘The Human Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, a title that echoes but crucially modifies the title of Lynn White's essay, which was ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. The shift from 'historical' to 'human' seems intended to signal that the core problem is not Christian metaphysics but rather the human being having gone the way of the Prodigal Son. If we simply turn back toward God, all will be well both with our fellow human beings (whose fortunes are the overwhelming focus of the encyclical) and with the entirety of nonhuman nature. Whether you find this proposal persuasive will depend entirely on whether you accept the proposition that human beings are fundamentally superior to all other created beings - a proposition for which, I have suggested, there is ample evidence to the contrary - and whether you accept Augustine's and Aquinas's confident assertion that animals ultimately share no genuine community with human beings. A number of times in the encyclical, the Pope appeals to a notion of ‘universal communion’, but when he does so he is at pains to stress ‘the pre-eminence of the human person’ (sec. 89).

Sooner or later we have to come to grips with the fact that arrogating pre- eminence to ourselves and concluding that this pre-eminence entitles us to do things like kill and experiment on nonhuman animals is fundamentally incompatible with anything even vaguely approaching an exhibition of respect or genuine concern for nonhuman animals. Think about it: When I referred to that unfortunate bird ‘simply minding his or her own business’, didn't you find that an odd way to characterise a nonhuman being? As if only human beings have business in this world, as if only we actually care about anything and have the capacity to manage our own lives? Only if and when we begin to see nonhuman animals as beings with genuine inherent worth and lives that have nothing to do with us can we truly find redemption. And that, I believe, cannot be accomplished within the parameters of orthodox Christian thinking.

© Copyright Gary Steiner 2018


  1. Kirk Wallace Johnson, "The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer," New York Times, June 15, 2018, harassment.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col- right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region.
  2. Gary L. Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, p. xxi.
  3. Gary Steiner, Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, ch. 5.
  4. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015. In the following remarks, references to this encyclical are in parentheses by section number.
  5. Hilal Sezgin, Artgerecht ist nur die Freiheit: Eine Ethik für Tiere or Warum Wir Umdenken Müssen, Munich: Beck, 2014.
  6. Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, p. 7.
  7. Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Ecology and Religion in History, ed. David Spring and Eileen Spring, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974, pp. 15-31.
  8. White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," p. 24.
  9. St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin, New York: Penguin, 1961, sec. 10, p. 80.
  10. St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, bk. 9, ch. 15, p. 942; City of God, bk. 1, ch. 20, p. 32; The Catholic and Manichaean Ways of Life, trans. Donald A. Gallagher and Idella J. Gallagher, Fathers of the Church, vol. 56, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1966, bk. 2, ch. 17, sec. 59, p. 105.
  11. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1-2, q. 102, art. 6, repl. obj. 8, Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis, 2 vols., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997, vol. 2, p. 905.
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2-2, q. 64, art. 1, resp. and repl. obj. 1, 2, The 'Summa Theologica' of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols., London: Burns Oats and Washbourne, 1920-25, vol. 10, p. 196.

Professor Gary Steiner is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University. He presented the following paper at the CCA Norwich Conference which challenges the consistency of Catholic attitudes towards animals, both before and after Laudato Si’.

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