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John W. MillerDecember 07, 2021
Photo: iStockPhoto: iStock

This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one when humans collectively eat billions of animals. The habit feels rooted in nature, and in our nature. How can it be a happy holiday if we are not feasting on turkeys, pigs, cows and lambs?

The threat of climate change, the expansion of the world’s population and its appetite for flesh, and other health and environmental problems caused by factory farming have provoked a new wave of questioning about the moral economy of our food production, especially of meat.

The carnivorous cravings of a world of almost eight billion people have radically changed the definition of life on this planet. As societies get richer, they get more meat-hungry, building up industrial food chains to put steaks on every plate, bacon on eggs, and chicken breasts on buns. The movement of a billion people in Asia into a modern middle-class lifestyle in the last few decades has amplified our consumption of domesticated animals.

The carnivorous cravings of a world of almost eight billion people have radically changed the definition of life on this planet.

The upshot: There are now some 25.9 billion chickens alive, a billion cattle, and about a billion sheep and a billion pigs, all numbers that have been rising and challenging our environment and resources. They are also crowding out wild animals. The biomass of domesticated animals is now dozens of times more than that of wildlife.

Our meat habit has also changed human agriculture and our consumption of resources. The amount of water needed to produce a calorie of beef is 20 times that of a calorie of a plant-based source. Over a third of global grain output now goes to feed farmed animals.

Meanwhile, meat-eating seems well entrenched. Only 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian, according to a 2018 Gallup survey, virtually unchanged from 1999. (By comparison, four out of 10 people in India consider themselves vegetarian.) Annual global consumption of meat increased to 42.9 kilograms per person in 2020 from 33.5 kilograms per person in 1990. And the United States has increased its imports of meat, hitting $8.5 billion during the first nine months of 2021, compared with $3.5 million during that period in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Church and the Vegetarian

The ambiguity of Catholic social teaching about animals can be demonstrated by telling the story of the girl who, a few years ago, wrote a letter to Pope Francis suggesting the leader of the church go vegan for Lent. The pope declined to make that promise but wrote back: “His Holiness Pope Francis has received your letter, and he has asked me to thank you. He appreciates the concerns about care for the world, our common home, which prompted you to write to him. The Holy Father will remember you in his prayers, and he sends you his blessing.”

There are a wide range of positions and motivations for Catholic vegetarianism and veganism, with some Catholics even arguing that the pro-life stance should extend to all animals. In 2019, the Catholic Global Climate Movement challenged Catholics to give up meat for Lent, as a way of helping preserve the environment.

[Related: It’s time for Catholics to go back to no meat on every Friday (not just during Lent)]

The church evolved in societies where people held feasts based around the roasting, grilling and smoking of, first, wild game and then domesticated cows, chicken, goats and sheep. Many Christians think that humans are meant to rule the planet, and so any degree of domestication is willed by God. But others point out that divine order, both in the Garden of Genesis and in scriptural visions of heaven, does not include any killing of animals. In Genesis, animals are created to be companions to Adam, not his food.

The word vegetarian was only invented in the 1840s, but the concept has been around since ancient times. The Egyptians and Greeks realized that meat was clearly dead flesh, in contrast to living plants, and was grounds for abstinence, for various reasons. Pythagoras, for example, taught that animals had souls that were immortal and reincarnated after death, possibly in humans. Some Egyptian priests, and later, Buddha and Pythagoras, chose to not eat meat. Later, religious movements like Hinduism, the Seventh-day Adventists and some radical Quakers made vegetarianism part of their creed. The Enlightenment also included a vegetarian movement. “Often the vegetarian creed has been one of dissidence, comprising rebels and outsiders, individuals and groups who find the society they live in to lack moral worth,” writes Colin Spenser in Vegetarianism: A History.

Pope Francis, along with many theologians, seems to be increasing calls for animal rights.

Now, Pope Francis, along with many theologians, seems to be increasing calls for animal rights. “Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures,” he wrote in “Laudato Si’.” “This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world.”

Current food systems are arguably just as damaging to ourselves and our planet as heavy industry is. The reworking of food systems around meat production has made the human diet change more in the last two centuries than in the previous million, say food historians. Soy, for example, was domesticated in China thousands of years ago. It was obscure outside of Asia until the 1970s, but now it has become one of the world’s most traded agricultural commodities, prevalent as a meat substitute and animal feed, and a cause of deforestation.

In human history, “of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine, of which just three—rice, wheat and maize—provide 50 percent of all calories,” writes Dan Saladino in Eating to Extinction. “Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar (beet and cane) and you have 75 percent of all the calories that fuel our species.” The dependence on just a few types of food has been catastrophic for our diets and for the quality of our agriculture because aggressively harvesting the same crops in the same fields depletes soil quality.

Giving Up Meat for Lent

In 2004, the Catholic writer Celeste Behe decided that her family would forgo meat for Lent. She wanted, she said, to “embrace Lenten abstinence and practice penance as a family.” She was surprised at how good it made her feel.

“There were unexpected benefits,” Ms. Behe told me. “A greater awareness of God’s providence, more opportunities to practice mindful eating and more reasons to exercise creativity in the kitchen. I guess it’s no wonder that, even as I served the traditional Easter ham that year, I was dreaming up meatless menus to try out on my family.”

Seventeen years later, only two of Ms. Behe’s nine children eat meat. The rest of them are vegetarian or vegan. Ms. Behe quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that 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.”

The Catechism says that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

Philip Nahlik, a Jesuit scholastic at Loyola University Chicago, told me he became a vegetarian after being told in the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington how much water was required to make a single hamburger. “So far, it’s more [about] the environmental footprint than about animal rights,” he said. Others argue that animals simply should not be killed for food. “For me, it’s about a consistent ethic of life,” said Kathy Boylan, who mentored Mr. Nahlik in Washington and has lived at the Dorothy Day home since 1993.

In secular politics, vegetarianism has carved out a niche. Cory Booker may be the most prominent vegan in office, and the new mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, converted to veganism five years ago to cope with diabetic symptoms. Animal welfare and human health are “connected,” he told Grub Street. “It’s imperative to see that a plant-based diet is not only going to save our mothers and fathers but it’s also going to save Mother Earth.”

Meanwhile, there is a growing movement of serious thinkers, many of them Catholic or members of other Christian churches, who have been building a forceful challenge to the ethics and morality of the meat-based economy.

One of their leaders, David Clough, is a professor of theology and applied sciences at the University of Aberdeen. Dr. Clough, who is Methodist, is a vegan, in part, because it fits his vocation of Christian pacifism. “If I think about what it might mean to witness to the kind of existence that God wills for creaturely life,” he told me, “then it looks to me like not being prepared to kill other human beings and to avoid killing other animals [in the] breaking of a peaceable reign of God.”

Scientific understanding of DNA supports vegetarianism, Dr. Clough noted. “We share 98-point-whatever percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and 50 percent with cabbages,” he said. “This astonishing diversity of living creatures, and Christian theology gives us a reason to be celebrating and affirming that and attending to the connection that we have with the creatures that we share the planet with.”

Food theorists support a movement toward making meat a delicacy instead of a staple.

Even carnivores might be persuaded to make factory farming illegal, say activists. “If Christians started paying attention to industrialized animal agriculture, there ought to be a fairly rapid, fairly broad consensus,” said Dr. Clough. “Whatever we think about animals, we definitely shouldn’t be doing this to them.”

The new wave of pro-animal theologians does not always consider the killing of animals as morally akin to murdering human beings. But killing animals in the context of factory farming is more morally fraught. “Factory farming involves the torture of animals which are shaped into creatures almost totally different from the kinds of beings God created them to be,” Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham and author of For Love of Animals, wrote me in an email.

Dr. Clough noted that when pigs are freed from factory farms into the wild, “they adopt complex patterns of social life, use of territory and nest-building similar to those of wild boars. But modern industrial systems give pigs no opportunity to flourish as these creatures of God: They are raised in monotonous indoor environments in which their tails have to be cut off to reduce the incidence of biting injuries, sows are so closely confined they cannot turn around, and they never get to engage in their favorite activity of rooting in the earth.”

So what can we do differently?

Food theorists support a movement toward making meat a delicacy instead of a staple. Rules and subsidies that would support smaller farms and slaughterhouses could improve the treatment of animals. “We need to be realistic about what can be done in the short term here—and that means appealing to the wisdom of small farmers and returning animal husbandry to their farms,” Dr. Camosy wrote to me.

Another solution is the fake meat industry, now worth over $20 billion a year, which allows people to have something close to the taste of meat without killing animals. Dr. Camosy said he has become “almost evangelical about how good they are and how much suffering they can alleviate,” he wrote. “I challenge skeptics to try them with an open mind. They are so, so much better than they were even five years ago.”

Ms. Behe, however, stays away. “Why choose to eat something manufactured instead of something that was ordained by God to be food for his creatures?”

More reporting from John W. Miller:

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