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Exploring Christian Perspectives on Animal Rights
BALTIMORE - "There was a time when Rebecca, our eldest, was desperate to have a
pet," David Clough told me, when we met at the American Academy of Religion
conference, held in Baltimore before Thanksgiving. "And she was in the unhappy
position of having a father who had reflected ethically on the question at some
length" - a father with misgivings about the human use of animals, even for
Professor Clough had come from the University of Chester, in his native England,
to speak about "On Animals: Volume 1," the first half of a two-book project
situating animals in Christian thought. Summing up his argument for me, he said
that human and other-than-human animals "are created by God, reconciled to God
in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation" - and should be
treated accordingly. This belief has ramifications on everything from eating
meat (no, especially from factory farming) to keeping pets (maybe).
"Good theology ought to recognize one fundamental separation," Professor Clough
said, "between God and all God has created. We belong with dogs and cats and
hedgehogs and trees and rocks."
Professor Clough's project, a Christian perspective on animal treatment, is not
unique. Animal welfare or rights has become a lively topic among Christians here
and in England, including - surprisingly - some political or theological
conservatives. And as Christians ask how their faith requires them to treat
animals, they may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to
reconsider their views on Christians.
Professor Clough's book, which came out in 2012, is one of two recent, major
Christian treatises on animal rights. The other, published this year, is "For
Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action," by Charles Camosy, a
Fordham professor and a Catholic who has given up all meat but fish - "half
because Jesus Christ ate fish, and half because I am too weak to give up my
grandmother's tuna spaghetti sauce," he told me.
In "For Love of Animals," Dr. Camosy links his concern for animals to his
beliefs on abortion, arguing that the Catholic ethics of respect for life and
care for the vulnerable should make us reconsider how we treat animals. The
Catholic catechism permits meat eating, he told me, "but with two
qualifications: we owe animals kindness, and it's wrong to cause them to suffer
needlessly." The clear implication, he said, is that except for the poor who
can't get food other ways, everyone has a duty at least to avoid eating
Mary Eberstadt, a political conservative and a Catholic, wrote the introduction
to Dr. Camosy's book and has praised it in National Review <http://www.nationalreview.com/article/361648/case-moral-consideration-animals-mary-eberstadt>.
After being "in and out of vegetarianism for decades," as she said in an email
this week, she now eats fish. Her choices were influenced, she said, by the
vegetarian Leo Tolstoy's 1909 essay about a slaughterhouse, and by "Dominion:
The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy," the 2002
book by Matthew Scully <http://old.nationalreview.com/interrogatory/interrogatory120602.asp>,
a conservative who was raised Catholic and wrote speeches for President George
Although there is an old, small tradition of Christian vegetarianism, the modern
field of Christian animal rights can be dated to 1976, when Andrew Linzey <http://www.oxfordanimalethics.com/who-we-are/director/>,
a theology student at King's College, London, looked around at his fellow
Christians and was struck by how little they cared about cruelty to animals.
"I was puzzled by the indifference of my teachers to the issue and the general
thoughtlessness of Christians," Professor Linzey, who now teaches at Oxford,
said in an email this week. So he wrote "Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment,"
which was published in 1976, while he was still a student.
Although Professor Linzey's book caused a sensation in Christian circles, animal
welfare became mainly a secular cause. Christians focused on other battles -
from the right, against abortion; from the left, against war and poverty - while
some secular animal-rights activists were suspicious of Christianity, concurring
with Peter Singer's claim, in his 1975 classic, "Animal Liberation," that
Christian teaching about man's dominion had been an impediment to animal rights.
For several years, Professor Singer and Dr. Camosy have been in frequent
communication, and last year Dr. Camosy wrote a book about his fellow ethicist,
"Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization." Last month, the two
men spoke together in Maryland, at the national headquarters of the Humane
Society of the United States. As a result of their conversations, Professor
Singer says he has become somewhat more charitable toward Christianity.
"I think Charlie's helped me to see that that's overly negative," Professor
Singer said, referring to his depiction of Christianity in "Animal Liberation."
"It's not that the negative statements" - giving humans permission to use and
abuse animals - "aren't there, because they are, and were made by major figures
from Augustine to Aquinas and so on. But there is another side to it, and other
Christians have different interpretations of man's dominion."
That "other side to it" includes a shadow history of Christian support for
animal rights. Christine Gutleben, who runs religious outreach for the Humane
Society, noted that Christian reformers, including the antislavery activist
William Wilberforce, helped found what became the Royal Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in 1824.
"Any serious look at the history will uncover examples of Christian concern for
animals," Ms. Gutleben said. "Absolutely, Christianity is part of the solution."
Of course, these views are hardly mainstream, in Christianity or in society at
large. For every Rod Dreher, the Orthodox Christian blogger, and meat-eater, who
recently wrote a respectful post <http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-animal-cruelty-mills/>
about Dr. Camosy and the others, or Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic blogger who
also touted Dr. Camosy, there may be an Austin Ruse. Writing in Crisis <http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/must-christians-be-vegetarians>,
a Catholic magazine, in October, he called Dr. Camosy's views "deeply
"It's always offensive to lead the faithful astray," Mr. Ruse said, when I
called to ask about his choice of words.
But back to the important question: Did Rebecca, Professor Clough's daughter,
get her pet?
She did. Rebecca, now 15, can thank Mary Midgley <http://www.believermag.com/issues/200802/?read=interview_midgley>,
the English philosopher who wrote "Animals and Why They Matter." <http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/
animals_and_why_they_matter> Riding a train with Professor Clough, she
prevailed on him to consider a cat. "She said, ‘Surely a cat is O.K.,' "
Professor Clough recalled. "If you allow them to go outside, they can come and
go as they please. If they hate it, they can pick someone else, or go feral."
Of course, one has to marvel at the cat foolish enough to abandon the Clough
residence. She - the cat is named Mitsy - is unlikely to find more considerate