Akisha Townshend Eaton – senior policy and legal resource advisor for the nonprofit World Animal Net
I still remember what I was doing at the exact moment Pope Francis addressed the world for the first time. I was working as a legislative attorney at the Humane Society of the United States and had taken my lunch break in time to watch the streaming news coverage. My faith had inspired me to seek a career in animal protection. I was particularly inspired by St. Francis, who saw God’s goodness in even the smallest of creatures and the Reverend Dr. Andrew Linzey, whose work has centered directly on the ethical treatment of animals from a Christian perspective. At this moment, I was praying for a leader who would not only rebuild the church, but also inspire the world. I was also hoping that at this crucial time in history, we’d have a leader who stood up for God’s creation. When the name “Francis” was announced, I had to catch my breath. And I had to catch it again when in his very first homily, he emphasized the Christian call to care for God’s creation.
A year later, I was newly married, and my husband and I were zipping down the German Autobahn and underneath the Swiss Alps to make it in time to potentially meet Pope Francis for a newlywed blessing on our honeymoon. With only an afternoon to spare, we finally made it to Rome. We got up early the next morning, waiting in a crowded line to be admitted to the Wednesday General Audience. After it was over, he approached all the newly married couples to greet us individually, with a sense of joy we’d never before experienced. It enlightened our hopes our prayers for a happily married life. But we were also standing in the place of many, many others we knew who were hoping and praying for something else— a specific call for compassion toward God’s animals. With Laudato Si’, these hopes and prayers were realized in more ways than we would have ever imagined.
If read carefully, Laudato Si’, isn’t for the faint of heart. It gives a stark outline of numerous problems that threaten our common home and our own responsibility for the existence of these problems. Yet, rather than addressing a single issue in a vacuum, Pope Francis insightfully connects the dots to the problems that we may have never before considered to be interrelated. The encyclical is best read with an open mind and heart. If I see any one particular issue that the encyclical is about, I would say that it is relationships—relationships to the environment, to one another, to the systems we’ve built, and to all of God’s creation.
A significant amount of attention is given to the relationship we have with animals, and how this relationship is integral to, rather than separate from, our other relationships. Pope Francis is quite firm in his statements. He does not shy away from the significant and sometimes controversial issues of overfishing, animal experimentation and the destruction of animal habitats. At the same time, he emphasizes the wondrous beauty of all God’s creation that we tend to overlook. If we are to react with sincere hearts, it seems that a major conversion and reorientation of our lives in respect to God’s non-human creation are in order. In response, some of us have been asking whether we have a right relationship with animals. This question is so present throughout the encyclical that it’s difficult to summarize in a single post. However, I’ve attempted to come up with a few self-assessment questions.
- Do I include animals in my creation care vocabulary?
“In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance” (#76).
Perhaps including all God’s creatures as part of creation seems like a no-brainer. But how often are God’s animals (with the occasional exception of endangered species) mentioned in care for creation dialogue? Or to the extent we do mention animals, do we sometimes catch ourselves saying “animals and creation” at events such as the annual blessing of the animals, as if somehow the two were separate? When discussing climate change and environmental degradation, the plight of animals may be easy to overlook. But with the explicit inclusion of the suffering of animals in his encyclical, Pope Francis asks us to look. And he doesn’t pick and choose which animals to belong in the universal circle of kinship. They all do.
Along the same lines, integral ecology is the major theme throughout the encyclical. Thus, if we challenge ourselves to examine the root causes of many of today’s environmental issues in the framework of viewing all creation as one interconnected web, we begin to realize that issues like climate change cannot truly be addressed without also examining the elements of animal suffering in the systems that drive it.
Suggested resources: The Green Bible, and the Green Bible Devotional (Harper Collins)
- Do I endeavor to make animals as important to me as they are to God?
“’Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection…Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature…” (#69).
If one ever thought animals were not important or minimally important to God, Pope Francis sets the record straight in his encyclical on numerous occasions. We are reminded in the encyclical, that God forgets not even a sparrow. Pope Francis emphasizes that by their mere existence, other living beings give God glory (#69). Indeed in the creation story, we are reminded that animals, who were created before mankind, were pleasing to God in their own right. Pope Francis makes it clear that God not only is pleased by the whole of creation, but actually loves all beings that exist (#77); that it is not enough to consider different species them as mere ‘resources’ to be exploited (#33); that because all creatures are connected, that “they must be cherished with love and respect…” (42); and that God is not only intimately present to us but to “each being.” (80).
For those of us who grew up believing that animals were insignificant, a major paradigm shift is needed. We must ask ourselves whether we truly love what God loves. And to the extent do we do not act lovingly to all God’s creation, how much are we truly loving God?
Resource: For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action by Charles Camosy
- How do I show compassion to God’s non-human creation?
“Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God…”
The answer to this question may not be as easy as it seems. But since the encyclical urges us to take personal responsibility for our relationship with creation, we might begin with an honest stocktaking of all our direct and indirect relationships with animals. An example of a direct relationship is reflected in the interactions we have with our pets, which we often treat with great care and compassion. An indirect relationship would be reflected in our numerous interactions with the billions of invisible animals we never see, but that arrive to us in the things we use and consume. Thus, the vast majority of animals we interact with, we may never even think of. One challenge posed by the encyclical is to make these creatures more visible to us. And, truthfully, everyone can do a better job at doing this.
Pope Francis asks us to consider our individual purchasing and consumption patterns for the greater good (#203). An activity would be to jot down a list of everything used or consumed during the course of the day from meals, beauty products, clothing and household products, and determine how much of these things involve animals in their production. The research might be a bit tedious at first, but the results are sure to be eye opening. A further step would be to find out more about these animals. Where were they raised and under what conditions? Some answers may be surprising. For instance, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, more than 99% of farm animals in the United States are raised on factory farms. The vast majority of these animals are confined in small spaces barely bigger than their own bodies for their entire lives, and are undeniably deprived of the ability to live according to God’s natural design. Moreover, for those of us who have supported initiatives such as divestment in fossil fuels, it may be surprising to learn just how much these farms depend on them. A faithful response may involve taking steps to live more simply by reducing, refining and replacing the things we can do without, and being mindful of the things we purchase but never use. We can also become more conscious consumers, demanding more humane conditions for animals used for production purposes.
The simplest option for me has been to aim for a lifestyle that is most likely to cause the least amount of suffering to others. This has meant choosing or making “green” household products that are also not tested on animals, and choosing plant-based rather than animal-centered meals. I once assumed this lifestyle was only for more privileged people. But with a bit of creativity, I was even able to do these things during my AmeriCorps service on a very meager stipend. To my surprise, not only have these choices promoted a better existence for the animals, but also for the people who work to produce the things I use as well as the planetary resources used to deliver them. I admit, however, that I am far from perfect. Indeed, I realize that the very computer I am typing this blog on may have played a role in animal habitat destruction. As a computer is essential to my work, I can choose to keep it as long as possible rather than rushing to get the latest model. Or I can buy my next computer used. When making compassionate lifestyle choices, one can never be perfect. Instead we can only to strive to toward an evolving perfection, day-by-day and hour-by-hour. In doing so, we may also find that we are moving closer to our creator in His perfection.
Resource: School of Compassion: A Roman Catholic Theology, by Deborah Jones
- Do I view the problems facing animals as humanity’s problems?
“It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity’. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality.” (#92).
I’ve often been asked why I work to protect animals when there is so much human suffering in the world. One of my responses is that my work actually protects both animals and people, and perhaps people even more so! For some, it may be tempting to put animal matters aside when so much human poverty, despair and other social injustices prevail. However, the encyclical gives us at least two compelling reasons for re-examining this way of thinking.
First, Pope Francis discusses serious problems facing humanity at length and criticizes those who would prioritize saving other species while showing indifference to the human species (#91). At the same time, he strongly emphasizes the need for us to care for animals, rather than relieving us of this responsibility until all human problems are solved. Indeed, when considering integral ecology, he tells us that human dignity itself depends upon kindness to all creatures. It seems to me that it could only make sense that consciousness of and action around our relationships with the voiceless animals to whom God has entrusted to our care, helps us live up to some of the highest qualities of mankind. Second, Pope Francis tells us that where there is animal suffering, human misery often follows. This reality yet again highlights that as brothers and sisters in creation, when one of us suffers all of us do. Consider that animal abuse is often one of the strongest predictors of some of the most violent crimes against people. Or, to bring it to a more personal level, what happens to the dignity of those invisible low-wage workers who work with animals in such stressful, unhealthy and dangerous conditions that they begin to take their frustrations out on the animals and one another? What happens to our own dignity when we over-consume the products that we are paying them to deliver but become indifferent about the ways in which they are made? The answer seems simple: when we view any part of creation as nothing more than a machine to fulfill our desires, our souls, too, are at risk of becoming mechanical.
I’ve seen a lot of horrific animal suffering in person and in pictures. Though it’s not much solace, I often tell myself that at least their lives are short. But the spiritual damage inflicted upon individuals and society as a result of witnessing and participating in such cruelty is long lasting. To the extent we cause animal suffering with our own actions, animal problems are fundamentally human problems.
- What is my understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God?
“Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures…” (#67).
After the reading the earlier paragraphs one may wonder, “But weren’t we given dominion over the Earth?” “And aren’t we made in the image of God? Doesn’t that make us unique?” As explained in Laudato Si’ ,the answers to these questions are “yes” and “yes.” The encyclical confirms our dominion and highlights the uniqueness of the human person made in the image of God more than once. However, it also challenges our common perceptions of what both of these mean. Pope Francis addresses the concept of dominion directly, stating that, “ we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. He suggests instead that our “’dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (116). If we truly view consider ourselves to be in universal kinship with all creatures as St. Francis’ did, it becomes easier to accept these principles. Indeed, it seems that being made in the image of God, who is both almighty and all merciful, presents an enormous challenge and responsibility for us to endeavor to mirror his kindness and mercy to all of creation. Human beings, after all, are the most powerful creatures on earth. We can do anything to animals that we choose. Yet God chooses to be gentle and merciful. How transformative and redemptive would it be to follow His example with respect to animals we encounter, both directly and indirectly? How much kinder and more merciful would this make us to all whom we encounter?
For many, the encyclical marks a sea change for the way animals are viewed in the context of faith. However, with animal protection and other matters of ecological concern, Pope Francis, in many instances is re-emphasizing what’s already present and true in Catholic social teaching. And while some of us may be overwhelmed with the task ahead of protecting our common home and all its inhabitants, the encyclical ends on an inspiring note. It implores us to do something. Moreover, it gives up hope that we can restore our relationship with creation. If we can do just one thing to be more compassionate to God’s animals today, we’ve done one more thing than yesterday. And as we continue to grow each day in compassion toward all God’s creatures, we all benefit.
Suggested Resource: Will I See My Dog in Heaven? by Fr. Jack Wintz (don’t let the title fool you! It’s about the saving grace of God for all His creatures)