In his recent National Review Online essay, “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal,” Matthew Scully cites the new book by Fordham University professor Charles Camosy, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. (Read Mary Eberstadt’s introduction to the book here.) 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.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do pro-lifers and animal-rights activists have in common?
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 chicken dinner?
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 for 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 for “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 who also don’t know much theology speak about animals . 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.