The Gospel and animals

Animal flyer

So I was walking down the street today (June 27) to get to a lunch appointment when a guy came up to me while I was waiting at a red light. He handed me the above two cards, and then began to berate the Catholic Church for (in his view) not doing enough to protect the animals, despite Jesus having eliminated animal sacrifice.

Such is life when you walk around downtown Montreal in a Roman collar -- similar to a box of chocolates, you just never know what you're gonna get.

Coming back to my mystery interlocutor, after offering me his cards (as well as a piece of his mind) he took off in another direction. The whole exchange was less than 10 seconds, and as the light changed green I thought to myself, "Now I know what to blog about for today!"

So for what its worth, here is a brief summary of what the Catholic Church teaches about animals, vegan diets, etc.:

The message on the cards includes an exhortation to love animals, because (as the card says) God does. I have no problem agreeing with the general thrust of this message, and in fact it is part of official Catholic teaching. However, it must be lived in a balanced way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acts as a summary of Catholic doctrine, has this to say on the subject:

2416 Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.

2417 God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.

2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

I recognize that there are some who will object to some of these points because they affirm a special place for human beings within the animal kingdom (and indeed, within creation). However, that special status within the overall ecology of our world is definitely part of the Biblical perspective too (a subject for another blog post sometime).

Within the religious practice of the Catholic Church, there is nothing that mandates harm to animals. For example, as the guy who handed me those cards pointed out, the tradition of animal sacrifices found throughout Hebrew history was not carried over to Christianity. On the flip side, our official book of blessings does have prayers for the blessing of animals. I even got asked to bless a dog in a veterinary hospital once (a neat story for another day).

With regards to special diets, we know that many religions require their followers to follow such diets: kosher for Jews, halal for Muslims, various diets within Hinduism, etc. But for Catholics, there is no moral imperative in natural or divine law to eat certain foods or to avoid certain foods. The Torah does state that certain foods should not be eaten as they are ritually unclean, but the common Christian tradition says that Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). The vision of Saint Peter as described in Acts 10:15-16 uses the fact of all foods being clean as analogy to enourage the inclusion of new peoples and cultures in the Church.

While there is no moral imperative in natural or divine law to follow a specific diet, the Church does teach certain diets as part of the spiritual practice of penance. We are asked to avoid eating meat on certain days (Ash Wednesday and the Friday's of Lent, in particular), and to avoid eating more than one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Of course, this is just a minimum -- we can choose a more restricted diet if we wish. For the last couple of years, for example, I've followed a vegan diet during Lent, and I've gotten a lot out of the practice (a story for another time).

On the flip side, the Bible warns us that the following of a certain diet can also lead to a kind of pridefulness. The film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has a hilarious take on the subject (sorry for the mild swear at the beginning as the title character defends the honour of Toronto):

I must confess, I did not get any vegan powers myself when I followed that diet during Lent, but that's probably because I took Sundays off :-) And before I hear protests, no that was not cheating. To avoid falling into the pridefulness a religious diet can encourage, the Church actually suggests certain days where we are called to feast, not fast! We even call them "feast days", as opposed to the aforementioned "fast days", and Sunday is the essential feast day, even during Lent.

Coming back to the fellow who printed these cards, he is correct that the original plan of God described in the story of creation in the book of Genesis was, in fact, vegan. More than that, it was fruitarian, an even more strict form of veganism. However, we must remember that the story is highly symbolic in nature, and cannot be taken to be a simple outline of a plan of daily living. After all, Adam and Eve walked around naked too, and yet I don't think God is asking all of us to practice continuous nudism as a form of discipleship -- apart from the purely moral and aesthetic arguments against such a practice, it could get a bit chilly during a Canadian winter! Brrr!

That's enough for now. I've already got enough material for three more blog posts on these and related subjects -- so stay tuned!