October 21, 2013 4:00 AM
Should Every Pro-Lifer Be a Vegetarian? http://www.nationalreview.com/article/361710/should-every-pro-lifer-be-vegetarian-interview>
Considering Christian ethics for how we treat animals.
An NRO Interview
In his recent National Review Online essay, "Pro-Life, Pro-Animal http://www.nationalreview.com/article/359761/pro-life-pro-animal-matthew-scully>,"
Matthew Scully cites the new book by Fordham University professor Charles Camosy,
For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action http://www.nationalreview.com/redirect/amazon.p?j=1616366621>.
(Read Mary Eberstadt's introduction to the book here http://www.nationalreview.com/article/361648/case-moral-consideration-animals-mary-eberstadt>.)
In it, Camosy considers a Christian's stewardship obligations to the animals
among us, based on Scripture, tradition, and political and cultural evangelical
realities. You may not walk away from the book a vegetarian, but you will have
considered some challenging questions. Addressing some of them, Camosy (whom you
can follow on Twitter @nohiddenmagenta) talks with NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez
about For Love of Animals from Franciscan Media http://catalog.franciscanmedia.org/Product.aspx?ProductCode=B36662>.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do pro-lifers and animal-rights activists have
CHARLES CAMOSY: As a pro-lifer who strongly opposes abortion, one thing which
frustrates me to no end is that merely holding my position is often identified
with activism and extremism. "Oh, you're one of those people who blow up clinics
and yell at women," I'm told. Of course, over half of the U.S. identifies as
pro-life, so this caricature is unfair and irresponsible. It is nevertheless
used to good effect by some pro-choicers to marginalize the views of their
opponents in the public square. But something similar happens to those of us who
are concerned about the welfare of non-human animals. We are caricatured as
"animal-rights activists," and this conjures up similar images of extremism. But
there are many millions of vegetarians in the United States, and many millions
more who will only eat meat from animals who were treated well. So, one of
several things that pro-lifers and those who are concerned for animals have in
common is that our opponents, rather than engage our arguments, will often
simply try to paint us as extremists who shouldn't be taken seriously.
LOPEZ: Is your book an attempt at a bridge between pro-lifers and
animal-rights activists? Who is the audience?
CAMOSY: There are multiple audiences for this book, but the primary person I
want to reach is the skeptical pro-life Christian. Someone who believes,
perhaps, that concern for animals is in tension with traditional Christianity,
and that vegetarianism is soft, sentimental, and ultimately in conflict with
concern for human beings. In addressing these concerns, I also respond to the
secularist who wrongly believes that Christianity is to blame for the horrific
way in which we treat non-human animals. Christianity is not only not the source
of the problem; it is part of the solution.
LOPEZ: What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church have to do with a
CAMOSY: More than you might think! The Catechism does claim that animals may be
used for food and clothing, but with two important qualifiers. First, we can
only cause animals to suffer and die if we "need" to. Second, using the language
of justice, the Church teaches that we "owe" animals kindness. Given the
horrific conditions in which chickens, pigs, turkeys, and other animals are
raised and slaughtered, when we cooperate with factory farms by buying their
meat, we also make a mockery of our duty to treat animals with kindness.
Consider, for instance, that the lives of chickens in such farms are miserable,
short, and often terribly painful. They spend most of their pitiful lives in
almost complete darkness and in only about one-half of a square foot of living
space. So they reach full size and move to slaughter quickly, many chickens are
now genetically altered so they feel constant hunger and eat as much as they
can, as quickly as possible. Rather than formally cooperate with such evil, we
should refuse to buy meat from these farms - especially if we respect Catholic
teaching on our duty to treat animals with kindness.
LOPEZ: "About ten years ago I became convinced that, if I wanted to be
authentically and consistently pro-life, I should give up eating meat." That's
quite the leap. Do you ever worry it is a silly, unhealthy, and soft one?
CAMOSY: No, I don't. As I show in the book, pro-lifers oppose abortion because
of a prior, more general commitment to nonviolence and concern for vulnerable
populations. This becomes even more important when powerful others use violence
to kill certain vulnerable populations they find inconvenient, especially when
they cannot speak up in their own defense. That the 1.2 million prenatal
children killed in abortion every year in the U.S. need this protection rightly
receives the most energetic attention from pro-lifers, but something similar
should be said about non-human animals. Because we enjoy the taste of their
flesh, we prefer to describe pigs as "pepperoni" and cows as "burgers." Because
they are committed to reproductive freedom, pro-choicers prefer to describe our
prenatal children as "fetuses" and "clumps of cells." Though they are not the
moral equals of our prenatal children, animals do have significant moral value
as a vulnerable population, unable to speak for themselves, who can feel the
pain and suffering of the violence inflicted on them. If we carefully and
rigorously apply our pro-life principles without bias, it becomes clear that we
must do the hard work of resisting the sinful social structure of factory
farming. And doing so could hardly be described as "soft." Quite the opposite:
It takes discipline, rigor, and substantial countercultural commitment to live
in right relationship with animals.
LOPEZ: Why is living in right relationship with animals so important?
We're not exactly a nation of dog fighters. Surely you have noticed young
couples around New York City dressing their pets instead of having children.
CAMOSY: But many of these same people will, with virtually no concern their
welfare, leave pets in a cage all day long while they are at work. Much like
those who eat factory-farmed meat, they simply assume that animals exist for
their pleasure. Animals are understood to be mere things for us to do with as we
please. But this is a terrible theological mistake. Yes, the Genesis creation
stories tell us we have dominion over animals and all creation - but each of the
last three popes have explicitly taught that this means responsible stewardship,
not violent domination. In Genesis 1 we learn not only that our dominion over
animals is consistent with God giving humans a vegetarian diet, but also that
God creates animals "good," full stop, without reference to human beings. In
Genesis 2 God brings animals to Adam, not for him to eat their flesh, but
"because it is not good man should be alone." Christians and Jews, therefore,
should be leading the charge to see animals as objectively valuable, and not
just as mere things for us to use in whatever way gives us the most pleasure.
LOPEZ: Are atheists like Peter Singer right that Christianity is the problem
when it comes to being stewards of animals? If they're not, do you give them
credibility when you take their outlandish case so seriously?
CAMOSY: No, they couldn't be more wrong. The human race never needed religion as
an excuse to dominate and kill non-human animals. Long before Christianity, and
perhaps even before humans had the capacity for moral reflection, our ancestors
used animals as mere things for their own advantage. Most of the atheists who
blame Christianity for how we treat animals don't know much theology - though,
in their defense, they've had to listen to a lot of very loud Christians speak
about animals who don't know much theology either. Whether they deserve
credibility or not isn't really the point; their arguments need to be
challenged, not least because so much of the secular debate wrongly blames
"religion" for how we treat animals.
LOPEZ: Do you think you can convince Peter Singer that infanticide is
wrong by not eating meat?
CAMOSY: That's not why I became a vegetarian, of course, but I am working on
this! Animal-rights thinkers like Singer sniff hypocrisy from pro-lifers who
defend the dignity of prenatal and neonatal children, but then ignore the
dignity of animals who seem to be more sophisticated than even the smartest
newborn baby. Elephants mourn their dead, dolphins recognize themselves in a
mirror, and chimps can teach their children sign language. Pigs can play video
games, and even chickens can beat humans at tic-tac-toe. Now, I absolutely
insist that all human beings - including those who are prenatal, neonatal,
disabled, or injured - are worth more than even the most sophisticated non-human
animal. But I can also see how an animal-rights secularist could be confused by
self-described pro-lifers who are adamant about nonviolence with respect to
human beings, but then ignore and even directly benefit from the horrific
violence inflicted on animals.
LOPEZ: What's the deal with St. Francis and animals?
CAMOSY: It's complicated. Francis was certainly hyper-concerned for all creation
- and imitating this aspect of his holiness would be enough to strongly resist
our current practices with respect to animals - but historically we just aren't
sure about how much he was interested in specifically in the moral treatment of
animals. That a huge tradition of concern for animals grew up around his legend
and his order, however, is important - and is strong evidence that concern for
animals needed a theological and spiritual outlet. This tradition survives
today, as many of us recently brought our animals to Church to have them blessed
around the feast of St. Francis. The Church has accepted the connection between
concern for animals and Franciscan spirituality and holiness.
LOPEZ: How about St. Thomas Aquinas?
CAMOSY: Another complex figure. Sometimes held up as the poster-child "bad guy"
for animal issues in the Christian tradition, Thomas is more complicated than
this. For starters, he is certainly anything but obsessed with the value of
human beings. Quite the contrary: He considers human beings to be the lowest of
the rational creatures - and spends untold pages discussing the reality and
nature of higher orders of angels. Furthermore, Thomas also insists that the
common good involves the good and flourishing of the whole universe, not just
that of human beings. So there are important resources for the value of the
non-human in his thought as well.
LOPEZ: Isn't "consistent" and "ethics" the kind of talk that leads men
to compromise? Isn't that very dangerous when we're talking about human life?
CAMOSY: Actually, I think the risk of compromise is worse when we give in to the
temptation to apply our principles inconsistently. We should never apologize for
zealously protecting our prenatal children from violence and death, but, perhaps
somewhat ironically, we undermine this goal if we focus only on prenatal
children. When we refuse to consistently apply our pro-life principles to other
issues we allow ourselves to be caricatured as "pro-birth" rather than pro-life.
We allow ourselves to be seen as part of a "war on women" rather than refusing
to choose between women and their children. Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but
we don't actually lose anything by consistently applying our principles beyond
the issue of abortion. On the contrary, consistently applying our principles
actually strengthens our ability to defend the lives of prenatal children.
LOPEZ: You write that "a genuine concern for justice means that we must
risk rethinking our familiar and comfortable ways of seeing the world." Is that
the unfolding story of Pope Francis? Is that a mandate of Christianity?
CAMOSY: If you are leading a comfortable life, then it almost certainly isn't a
Christian one. Pope Francis has challenged us in numerous ways, but perhaps his
most important challenge is to return to the radical call of the Gospel message
of Jesus Christ. This message doesn't cohere with American political categories,
or our consumerist lifestyles, or anything that is of our 21st-century secular
culture. It is rather about cultivating a Jesus-like, self-sacrificial love with
a preferential option for the most vulnerable: the immigrant, the poor, the
prenatal child, the persistently unconscious, the human embryo in frozen
storage, the racial minority, etc. Given the amount of injustice in which we
participate daily in the social structures of the developed West, we must allow
ourselves to be checked by our own principles (and, hopefully, our Church
community) to make sure that our lives are orientated toward the holiness
demanded by the Gospel.
LOPEZ: "Being a Christian isn't easy in our culture." Is that a whine?
CAMOSY: Many of my friends and family say, "Charlie, I can't read your stuff on
animals because I know it will force me to change." The prospect of living in
just relationship with animals seems too difficult for them to consider. But why
is this? At least if we take our call to be Christians seriously, isn't this is
exactly the kind of difficulty we should expect to face? And furthermore,
shouldn't we see this challenge, not as an intimidating and scary proposition,
but rather as a golden opportunity for the Church to be the Church? Shouldn't we
expect that our Christian communities make just and ethical food available to
their members? Our churches can and should create ways for us to reconnect to
the means by which our food comes to our plate - perhaps by organizing local
markets from small farmers on church property. Even simply knowing that we are
part of strong, close-knit religious community of people struggling together to
consistently live out our common principles would make the burden easier to
bear. Isn't this part of what Lent used to be about? Perhaps concern for animals
offers Christians the chance to be less soft about our fasting traditions.
Perhaps we should return to refraining from meat during the entire reason of
Lent and on every Friday outside of Lent. It would be a nice first step toward
living in right relationship with animals, and reclaim an ancient practice from
our tradition at the same time.
LOPEZ: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
CAMOSY: Fifty billion animals are tortured and killed in factory farms every
year. Fifty billion. Concern for the horrific treatment and mass slaughter of
such animals is not an issue of the left or the right, nor is it an issue
opposed to the dignity of human beings. Virtually no one needs to eat
factory-farmed meat, and, indeed, the huge amount of meat in our diets is one of
the important causes of heart disease and cancer. That such large numbers
animals are doused with antibiotics is also likely to cause even more
drug-resistant disease. Furthermore, our factory-farmed meat is often made
artificially cheap on the backs of poor and desperate immigrant workers.
Pro-life Christians are committed to standing on principle, against a culture of
violence and death, in favor of vulnerable populations. It is high time we
include concern for animals as part of this commitment.
- Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.