When it comes to animal welfare, the average Christian often displays a staggering lack of Christian values. Most Christians will say they love animals and wish them no ill; yet when addressing basic questions of animal welfare, they do not give the answer that Christian faith demands, but rather an answer born of the disordered, excessive culture in which we live, one shockingly unimpeded by the checks of religion: I’m at the top of the food chain. I’ll eat what I want to eat. What do I care if they live in cages? They’re just pigs. A majority of Christians may even suspect that concern for animals as a part of God’s creation is akin to idolatry and that to care for creation is somehow to displace God.
It is not, however, a displacement of God to concern oneself with the just treatment of what the Creator has made. In fact, it dishonors the Creator when one ignores the welfare of what has been created. In taking the time to fashion every last being in its rightful place and in attending to detail in placing each one just so, God demands that we who are blessed with a capacity to harness the earth’s resources do so responsibly. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives.”
Yet few Americans acknowledge any moral imperative beyond the maximum economic value of a resource. Rather, the feeling is that all of creation is ordered to our use, and that the only question we need consider is what that chicken or calf or rabbit can do for me. Creation, then, is seen as having no purpose beyond the serving of our needs. We forget we ourselves are a part of creation. So we do our best to keep it from encroaching on our mechanized lives.
Who Is the Master?
Few want to be reminded that we live within nature. We shield ourselves from the things that nature does, harboring the feeling that when nature does what it is supposed to do, such as rain or snow, it is inconveniencing our civilized way of life. Yet our place in creation is not that of master. The natural world is given to us by God in exchange for our responsible occupation of it. As the catechism puts it: “Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute...it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” Creation owes us nothing. Rather, we owe creation reparation.
What many Christians fail to recognize is that most violations of the integrity of creation stem from a continuing desire to reorder creation in the way we would like it to be. So we genetically engineer crops to operate according to our demands, and we treat animals as if they have no right to fresh air and grass. In winking at questions of animal welfare, in stating that we are masters and that animals are at our disposal, we continue egregiously and willfully to commit that same first sin.
It is not the consumption or use of animals that constitutes the problem but the methods used to treat them. In his book Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Intelligent human beings are not only required not to squander or destroy…natural resources, but to use them with restraint.... In his treatment of animals in particular, since they are beings endowed with feeling and sensitive to pain, man is required to ensure that the use of these creatures is never attended by suffering or physical torture.”
Down on the Farm
In all likelihood, though, we seldom give a thought to the means by which Sunday dinner arrives at our table. One Web site (www.factoryfarm.org) explains: “While many of the techniques utilized on factory farms were developed to make production more profitable, other techniques were implemented to increase efficiency and safety. However, these practices often cause discomfort, pain, and stress to animals, while inhibiting their natural, instinctual behaviors.”
According to the Web site, pigs, weighing 500 pounds fully grown, are born and raised in spaces only 20 inches across. They have no room to turn or lie down. They are forced to defecate in this same space; and contrary to expectation, animals do not defecate where they eat and sleep when they have a choice.
In nature, pigs root, forage and build nests; in the modern factory farm, they have nothing but a concrete floor. Tumors, sores and legs fractured from lack of movement are common. Chickens face a similar fate. They are crammed into cages so small they cannot extend their wings and are housed in buildings without windows, depriving them of sunlight.
Such conditions are widespread. In a paper entitled “Farm Animal Health and Well-Being,” prepared for the Minnesota Planning Agency Environmental Quality Board, Marlene K. Halverson relates: “All farm animals except pastured species and those in enriched, extensive confinement are denied the possibility of performing species-specific natural behaviors, such as dustbathing (an important grooming activity for chickens) or nest-building (an important maternal activity for sows).”
When an animal is denied an opportunity to act or behave in the ways God created it to do, it is no longer living in natural conditions. That is a violation of the harmony of creation. Our attempt to circumvent nature and God’s creation is nothing less than the sin of pride.
Our Christian Duty
Though it should be evident that none of this activity is in keeping with God’s intentions for creation, for many Christians it remains a nonissue. Why? If, as the Bible tells us, not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge, how can we justify contempt for that sparrow? Animal welfare and questions of ethical farming practices cannot be dismissed with charges of idolatry. More to the point, when one person chooses to abstain from meat derived from animals raised in unnatural conditions, while a second demands to be served only the tenderest, juiciest cuts of sirloin, it is not the first who is raising up idols.
As Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Centesimus Annus: “Instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature....” That stark observation should prompt in us a renewed sense of commitment to God’s creation and a soulful consideration of our relationship to it.