from Humane Religion

Animal Sacrifice in Christian Churches

It really didn't seem possible.  Although the information sent to HUMANE RELIGION regarding animal sacrifice claimed to be factual, it didn't give a source for the article it quoted. The story was well-written and names of the priests and bishops involved proved to be accurate.  Still, the events being reported were so bizarre that the possibility of a hoax had to be considered.  And there was the lingering hope that the article was a hoax--that animals were not really being sacrificed in South Africa's Christian churches.

But it turned out to be a legitimate story.  And not only was it true, the London DAILY TELEGRAPH which reported these events, as well as spokesmen for the Roman Catholic church in which the killings are taking place, do not see these events as a story about the introduction of animal sacrifice into Christianity.  Both secular and religious observers view it simply as another instance of racial strife.  For them, the story is newsworthy only because the claim of racism has been made by a group of native, black priests, who support sacrificial worship.

A coalition of these priests claims that the hesitancy of Catholic leaders to give their blessing to animal sacrifices is simply another instance of the white colonial mentality that refuses to give proper respect to native practices.  These priests are supported in their demand for sacrifices by Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Bloemfontein who asserts that "Animal sacrifice has a special place in the scheme of things and is celebrated in almost all African families.  We have kept it out of God's Church for too long."

But faced with recalcitrant parish priests like Father Kevin Reynolds, who argues that animal sacrifice is "foreign to traditional Catholic theology regarding the Mass," the archbishop has offered a compromise.  Although Catholic theology does say that since the sacrificial death of Jesus 2,000 years ago, there is no longer any need to offer animal sacrifices to God, the killing can still be carried out.  But instead of offering the blood of the victims to God, it can be offered in honor of the African ancestors of participating Catholics.  (Ancestor worship is seen by the archbishop, and others, as the native equivalent of the Catholic practice of honoring its canonized saints.)  Archbishop Buti proposes that the blood of the slain animal--be it goat, chicken, sheep or cow--can be presented during the Mass as "a gift to the ancestors, not to God."

And what does the "Euro-centric" hierarchy in South Africa think about the sacrifice of animals in Catholic churches?  Well, Archbishop George Daniel, head of the Pretoria archdiocese for the past 25 years, doesn't seem to be overly concerned about it.  He allows that it could become a problem at some future date--if the tenor of the debate escalates--but says "we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it."

For him, killing animals in the churches is not sacrilegious, it is just another facet of the "incultration process."  This process takes place when the Roman Church and Catholics in a given country try to find a suitable accommodation between church requirements and traditional practices of the native culture. The incorporation of African music is presented as another example of incultration.  There were dissenters who fought against having native instruments and hymns as the background to their church services, but eventually people on both sides of the debate were accommodated.

But why does Archbishop Daniel treat the slaughter of animals in the churches as just another problem of incultration?  Why does he allow both priests and media to make this an issue of racial strife instead of declaring it a moral issue that has to do with the introduction of blasphemous worship into the churches?  Probably because he has no foundation on which to take such a stand: traditional Christianity has never rejected the animal sacrifice that is part of its biblical heritage.

Although prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah denounced animal sacrifices as abominations, those condemnations did not have an affect on either orthodox Jewish or traditional Christian attitudes.  Judaism continued sacrifices until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. and Christianity validated sacrificial religion in retrospect, saying that because Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial victim, killing animals on the altars of God was no longer "necessary."

Faced with an act that is considered theologically unnecessary rather than blasphemous, Archbishop Daniel would be hard-pressed to make animal sacrifice a moral issue even if he were inclined to do so.  But the only problem he seems to have with this travesty of Christian worship is the discord that might erupt in his diocese IF he decided to put a stop to sacrificial religious rites.  He wonders "what would happen to those priests who decide to continue with the practice of animal sacrifice if we ultimately ruled against incorporating this activity into any services."

We may never know what would happen if the archbishop decided to put a stop to the "activity" of animal sacrifices, because so far he has shown no inclination to do so.  And unless there is an outcry from Christian people of every persuasion against this violent and blasphemous worship, it will continue.

Copyright 2000 Humane Religion & J.R. Hyland

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