Does Catholicism require opposition to animal cruelty, including industrial farming?
For two years I taught social studies at an inner-city high school; for six years I ran a Catholic Worker shelter for homeless families. Then, almost 20 years ago, I became a full-time animal advocate, confident that such labor is integral to Catholicism.
As one might expect, I received plaudits from fellow Catholics for my anti-poverty and educational work but less support for my animal protection work. Most Catholics I've encountered seem to think of such do-gooding as fundamentally removed from religious imperatives.
Yet Pope Francis begs to differ.
"Living our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork," Francis wrote in his latest encyclical, "is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience."
On the day Francis released the encyclical, he tweeted, "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. #LaudatoSi."
Leaving aside the modern method of transmission, this statement is not actually remarkable. It's a quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
But what does it mean that we should not cause animals to suffer or die needlessly? Surely this admonition demands more of us than that we not personally injure and kill animals. I'm convinced that we are also obligated as Catholics to avoid paying others to kill or harm animals, absent some exceedingly compelling justification.
Put another way, "purchasing is always a moral — and not simply economic — act." That line also comes from the encyclical, in a paragraph in which Francis applauds consumer boycotts focused on pushing corporations to engage in more ethical practices.
Thinking about consumer choices in the context of animal rights, consider that by far the most needless suffering comes at the hands of the meat industry, which kills about 9 billion land animals annually. These creatures are treated in ways that would warrant cruelty-to-animals charges were dogs or cats similarly abused.
Most pregnant pigs, for example, spend their lives in crates so small they cannot turn around, and more than 90% of egg-laying hens are crammed into cages where they cannot spread a wing. In such devices, animals suffer both physical and mental
Chickens on some farms grow so quickly that their limbs and organs cannot adequately support their massive bodies, consigning them to a life of constant misery. At slaughter, workers "are literally throwing the birds into the shackles, often breaking their legs as they do it," to quote USDA inspector Stan Painter.
Just try watching one of the videos of factory farming and slaughterhouses that are readily available online: If what we are doing as a society to God's animals is not a sin, what is?
No less a moral authority than Pope Benedict XVI denounced society's "industrial use of creatures" on farms as a violation of "the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible." Or as Francis put it, "the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures."
In arguing that there is no difference between cruelty to a farm animal and cruelty to a dog or cat, primatologist (and proud vegetarian) Jane Goodall declared that "farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain … they are individual beings in their own right. Who will plead for them if we are silent?"
Francis could not have said it better, and those of us who take these concepts seriously should see them as a call to action.
For me, not only opposition to factory farming but also a vegetarian diet is a requirement of my faith. Since I don't need to eat animals to survive, I believe Catholicism dictates that I must not.
But this is not just an individual concern. Our faith also demands that we take a public stand on behalf of God's creatures.
It would be entirely consistent with the pope's encyclical if the church positioned itself on the forefront of the animal protection movement; if it endorsed measures aimed at stopping the worst abuses, and even announced that the faithful cannot in good conscience cause other animals to suffer for something so inconsequential as a momentary gustatory pleasure.
When the church does that, it will begin to fulfill God's promise of mercy for all creatures, as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures, the Catechism and Laudato Si'.
Bruce Friedrich is director of policy for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization that runs two farm animal shelters in California.