Animal suffering has been largely ignored by the church for a long time,” said Deborah M. Jones, general secretary of Great Britain’s Catholic Concern for Animals. “There has been virtually no teaching at all on the subject,” she said. “The church still thinks in an entirely anthropocentric way,” as if it is afraid that “by giving animals attention, we may be dethroning humans from their position at the ‘pinnacle of creation.’” But compassion is a seamless robe, which she insists should “extend to the whole of God’s creation,” not just to humankind.
Visiting the United States on a lecture tour that included a presentation at the Catholic Theological Society in Cleveland, Ohio, Ms. Jones said that she has been a strong advocate for animal welfare issues since childhood. When she saw a friend’s parents (farmers who kept hens in their yard) starting to confine the hens in tiny cages for the whole of their lives, she first became aware of cruelty to animals. Animal cruelty is one of the concerns highlighted in her new book, The School of Compassion: A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Gracewing Publishing).
Ms. Jones, a former high school teacher of English and classics and also a Catholic convert, studied theology for a year in Rome at the Regina Mundi Institute. After returning to England, she worked as a diocesan director of adult education and then as the editor of The Catholic Herald, a national weekly newspaper. Later she became involved with Catholic Concern for Animals and earned a doctorate in animal theology at the University of Wales.
Like other activists in the area of animal theology, she was encouraged by a statement made by Pope John Paul II during a public audience in 1990. “The pope said on that occasion that animals do have souls and, as fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit, merit respect.”
Animal Rights in the Catechism
Ms. Jones has found little in the church’s other statements to promote what she calls a more “animal-positive” way of thinking. “The church is terrific when it comes to social justice, the rights of the family and poverty in developing countries,” she said, but there is “a silence about animals.” Animal rights advocates are not saying that animals are equal to people, she explained, “but the catechism itself says that they [animals] are God’s creatures and man thus ‘owes them kindness.’” She applauds that particular paragraph (No. 2416) as “superb”: God “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.”
She is not a fan of the catechism’s next two paragraphs, however, which, as she puts it, “muddy the waters” with their references to the use of animals for food and clothing and for medical experimentation, an expression of the dominance of humankind over animal life that may have grown out of the understanding of “dominion” over animals suggested in Genesis. She has a different take on that notion. “Dominion is service,” she said, “taking Christ’s example. Our duty is to protect, nurture and cherish—to enable the flourishing of creation in all its aspects. In the modern context that means in the way we live, including our dietary choices and pastimes.”
Notwithstanding the catechism’s approval of animal experimentation with what she referred to as “undefined limits,” Ms. Jones finds the use of animals in medical experimentation disturbing. “There’s a debate in our organization about whether the opposition to it should be based on the cruelty aspect or the damage to humans; but in principle,” she said, “we’re against it. We [humans] have no right to use animals that way, especially when it causes them immense suffering.” She also pointed out that some drugs, tested on animals, subsequently caused problems in humans—like thalidomide, which caused many thousands of birth defects in babies around the world.
“How are we imaging God to [the animals], when they look at a person in a white coat who’s going to put probes in their brains or chop their skulls in half?” she asked. “This is certainly not the God of the first chapter of Genesis who brought them into being and…‘saw that it was good.’
“I do foresee a time,” she said, “when the instrumentalization of God’s creatures will be considered as abhorrent as, say, human slavery or child labor.” Ms. Jones finds encouragement in recent papal statements that talk “more about creation in an inclusive way,” but she concludes, “There is a long way to go yet before teaching on animals catches up with other concerns.”
Ms. Jones observed that a recognition of the rights of animals has been ongoing in Britain for much longer than it has in the United States. “We were the first to pass animal cruelty laws and the first to have a national society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, which was given a royal mandate by Queen Victoria,” she said. So far, too, England has not resorted to huge factory farms like those in the United States, which, in addition to being cruel to animals, produce foul runoff that has caused serious water contamination. Speaking of her organization, she said: “We prevented one proposed mega-farm in England that would have allowed for 8,000 head of cattle. The planning application was withdrawn because of opposition. Everybody was against it, even the farmers’ unions—everyone except, of course, the retailers.” The factory farms that exist in England tend to include grazing areas for cattle. “We don’t yet have zero grazing, thank goodness,” she noted, adding that laws throughout Europe are phasing out the use of tiny cages for chickens.
Ms. Jones describes reliance in the United States on industrial-modeled animal production as “sin on a large scale.” “It insults the Creator of all life by treating creation in such an abusive way. Christians need to mobilize to be a ‘sign of contradiction’ in the face of this gigantic-scale horror.” Education at all levels, preaching, writing, campaigning, “all lawful means,” she insisted, “should be used to prevent animal industrialization for the sake of the animals and the health of the nation and the planet.”
She is familiar with U.S. animal rights groups, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and has been in touch with one of its leaders, Bruce Friedrich. “I’ve crossed swords with Bruce,” she said, referring to what she called PETA’s shock-tactic use of religious imagery, “which we find distasteful and counterproductive.” She gave an example of a picture of the Madonna cradling a piglet. “I’ve nothing against piglets, just the inappropriateness of the image, causing scandal rather than changing minds and hearts.” Although she acknowledged that PETA’s tactics do appeal to young people, “we in Catholic Concern for Animals take a more orthodox approach to efforts aimed at opposing animal cruelty.” But, she admitted, “it is good to have both approaches” in order to achieve similar goals.
Gender issues also play a role in how people regard animals. “Maybe because women have evolved to be more nurturing, all animal welfare societies have a gender imbalance,” said Ms. Jones. If the church were not so “gender imbalanced” in its governance, she suggested, perhaps concerns more often held by women might be higher up on the hierarchy’s list of priorities.
The fur trade is an area in which advocates have made significant progress in both the United States and England, she said. The demand for fur is shrinking, but she warned: “It may come back as fashions change. All it takes is a few designer label names to bring fur back.” While some people may not want to know where their fur is from, others think they are wearing faux fur when it is actually real, as in fur trimming, she said. “China knows of our antipathy to fur and so they might be using real fur, like cat fur, while calling it faux.”
Ms. Jones also addressed the issue of the extinction of certain wildlife species. “Because of war, habitat poaching and the whole degradation of the environment, there will be no more big cats in a few decades,” she said, meaning that lions and tigers will be wiped out, along with other species, “except for the few kept in wildlife refuges.”
“As religious people,” she concluded, “we should see this situation as blasphemy: we are betraying God’s creation.” Regarding ways of countering this betrayal of God’s creation, she spoke of liturgy as a means by which the church might present a more positive view of animals and their place in creation. For example, “Liturgies could be developed for people grieving over the loss of a cherished pet,” she said. “Blessing services, too, could also serve a useful purpose, praying not just for pets, but for farm animals, too. But at present, I find little in the church that is helpful.”
She had other practical suggestions: “Reverence animals by not eating them,” she said, adding that a reduced- or no-meat diet also “will enable all the world’s people to eat” by returning grazing land to agriculture. Consumers can also reverence animals “by not treating them as units of production or means of entertainment, by not causing them to suffer or be killed unless for absolute necessity…by rendering obsolete the term vermin and by learning to cooperate with nature instead of trying always to conquer and overwhelm it.”
Avoiding prescription drugs that have been tested on animals may prove difficult, she noted, but consumers have a role to play in animal welfare. “Where choices can be made in the purchase of any product, consumers can influence manufacturers to produce cruelty-free products,” she said. “Individuals can feel helpless in the face of mass markets, but collectively they are more powerful than they realize. If all Catholics chose humanely produced goods, the world would change.”
In addition to her work with Catholic Concern for Animals, Ms. Jones also portrays them in her own painting, which is virtually an “obsession” with her, she said. Among artists whose work she admires is the 18th-century American Quaker Edward Hicks. His various representations of what he called the “peaceable kingdom” illustrate the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the lion and the lamb co-existing in peaceful harmony—“the realization,” Ms. Jones said, “of what we should all be working to bring about in the world.”
Ms. Jones’s book concludes with a poem by an English Jesuit scholar, Robert Murray, called “The School of Compassion,” which suggested her book title. The poem tells of a passerby who has “learned in the school of compassion” to find the holy in the animal kingdom. Coming upon the torn remains of a squirrel beside a country road, the passerby reverently places the lifeless form among “the roots of a wayside oak” and makes the sign of the cross over it, asking it to “remember me in the peaceable kingdom.” The gesture reflects a sense of the holy that Ms. Jones perceives throughout the whole of animal creation. It is a sense that informs all her work.
Listen to an interview with Deborah M. Jones.