from Humane Religion

Aquinas, Animal Rights and Christianity

One of the greatest challenges facing those who are trying to reform a legal system which supports the brutal treatment of laboratory animals is the fact that they are classified as "things."  This means they can be tortured and tormented in ways so satanic and perverted that just the knowledge of what is taking place is sometimes unbearable.  And the legalization of such depravity derives much of its justification from Christian scholarship.

This scholarship reached its nadir in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.  His writings form a seemingly impenetrable barrier against the biblical message of God's love and concern for all sentient beings.  And seven hundred years after his death, Thomist theology continues to be used by religious spokesmen to justify the abuse of animals.

The CATHOLIC ENCYCLOLPEDIA informs its readers that "the visible world with which man comes in contact is divided into persons and non-persons.  For the latter term the word "things" is usually employed...animals, in contradistinction to persons [are] classed as things."  By arbitrarily relegating animals to the category of "things" theologians have effectively excluded them from the moral and ethical consideration due them as sentient beings.

Of course this is an absolute contradiction of the second chapter of Genesis which clearly states that both animals and humans are "nefesh chaya"--living souls.   But religious spokesmen frequently ignore the Bible when it conflicts with their man-made doctrines. St. Thomas was no exception.

He was so anxious to promote the belief that animals were a negligible form of life, that he refused to accept the Genesis account which teaches that animals, like humans, were created as nonviolent beings; that the garden of Eden was a peaceable kingdom.  Aquinas also refused to believe that this peaceable kingdom was vegetarian, although Genesis 1:30 reports that it was: "God all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures of the earth and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it, I give every green plant for food."

Although this verse of scripture could not be more definite, Aquinas refused to believe it.  Instead, he taught that "the trees and herbs were [not] given to all animals and birds, but only to some."  His refutation of the Bible and the insistence that God created animals as dangerous beings, violent and carnivorous from the beginning, bolstered his claim that man needed to dominate other creatures and use them for his own advantage.

Aquinas was a great believer in the power of observation and rational thought and in the SUMMA THEOLOGICA wrote that man's ability "to reason makes him like to the angels." But he was oblivious to the distortions created by his own subjectivity and prejudice.  In the same treatise in which he claimed angelic reasoning ability, he made the statement that man's dominion over animals consists of "making use of them without hindrance."  Hardly a heavenly outlook.

The same subjective reasoning led him to argue against those who claimed there was more than one world in the universe.  Absolutely untrue, Aquinas said: there can only be one world.  And he proceeded to prove this by what he claimed was the use of reason. It was this same kind of "reasoning" that led him to teach that "woman is [a] defective and misbegotten" male and to then propose that this might be due to "some external force such as that of a south wind, which is moist."

Because Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century and was a product of the religious and biological prejudices of his own time, his ignorance can be overlooked.  But the same cannot be said of contemporary religious spokesmen who continue to use Thomist theology to support the subjugation and abuse of other creatures.

Less than a decade ago, the revised CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH made the doctrinal statement that "animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity."  And the papal encyclical, Gaudium et spes, stated that "believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit."

This kind of teaching is not a Roman Catholic aberration: it also permeates Protestant Christianity.  Even those who have never directly studied Aquinas, or the various documents based on his theology, have integrated the follies of his theology into their own belief system.  This acceptance manifests itself in the contemporary teaching of many Protestant and Jewish spokesmen.

The newly formed Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, a coalition of "we Jews, Catholics and Protestants" issued the CORNWALL DECLARATION as its first public act.  In what it calls "reason--including sound theology" the declaration resurrects the theology of Aquinas, clothed in modern terminology.   Instead of referring to Homo sapiens as the apex of God's creation, the declaration calls humans the world's "most valuable resource."

It goes on to say "Humanity alone of all the created order is capable of developing other resources and can thus enrich creation, so it can properly be said that the human person is the most valuable resource on earth."  Then, leaving aside its claim of promoting "stewardship," the document reverts to using the "d" word, advocating dominion over the rest of creation.   "[Romanticism] leads some to...oppose human dominion over creation."

It seems obvious that those who signed a declaration which calls opposition to human dominion "romanticism" are unaware that for many centuries Christianity has recognized man's abusive and sinful treatment of God's other creatures.  As far back as A.D. 275, St. Basil, the Archbishop of Casesarea, asked forgiveness for this sinful dominion.  "Oh God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.  We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail."

It is not just the signers of the Cornwall Declaration who ignore the warning against brutality explicit in Basil's prayer.  Other reactionaries have risen to meet the threat now being posed to the sinful autonomy man has exercised over other creatures.   "A good steward does not coddle the resources entrusted to him" writes John Michael Beers in RELIGION AND LIBERTY.  In the same article he incorporates--and goes beyond--the Thomist doctrine of human preeminence.  Beers writes "[God] has entrusted His creation to the hand of man to do something with it.  THIS IS THE PURPOSE OF CREATION; that man develop what God created."(Emphasis added.)

In another article--Eco-Spirituality--Robert A. Sirico, another clergyman, assures readers that "the obligation to respect animals does not mean that we should relinquish our innate understanding that animals are, like all of creation, intended to serve in a subordinate position in the hierarchy of creation."  In this article Sirico also writes about changes in attitude that have lately taken place. He points out that "In 1965 the Church could state forthrightly that "believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit." He goes on to lament that "today, matters are different."

Because "matters are different" today, Sirico and many other churchmen are trying to nullify the leavening influence of the Holy Spirit, which is reaching beyond the hardness of hearts and minds that approve the subjection and exploitation of other species.  For them, Aquinas and other like-minded men of the past, continue to provide the rationale which previous generations also used to justify and systemize the brutal treatment of both human and animal beings.

Many of the civil laws that sanction this abuse have been based on the writings of those long-dead men whose self-serving claims of superiority and God given dominion allowed the exploitation of others on the basis of their race, their gender or their species.

Western civilization has finally recognized the immorality of slavery and is in the process of accepting female equality.  And although Christians were in the forefront of the struggle to end slavery, now they are notable among those reactionaries who still try to prevent women from assuming positions of leadership.  But it is in the struggle to end the suffering that humans inflict on animals, that the Christian churches have been most recalcitrant.

The current edition of the CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA teaches that "[There are] beings that may be treated simply as means to the perfection of persons [and] can have no rights, and to this category the brute creation belongs.  In the divine plan of the universe the lower creatures are subordinated to the welfare of man."

While many in the secular world are responding to an evolving, spiritual understanding that animals are not "things" to be used by men in whatever ways they choose, Christian spokesmen continue to uphold the ungodly doctrines that have made life on earth a hell for the millions of animals that are the target of human cruelty and greed.

The words of Jesus, spoken two thousand years ago, continue to bear witness against those who will not accept the revelation of God's love and concern for all creatures here below. "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." (Matthew 15:8,9)

Copyright 2000 by J.R. Hyland and Humane Religion

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