Should Every Pro-Lifer Be a Vegetarian?

by NR Interview
Considering Christian ethics for how we treat animals.

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. 

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 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, we hope, 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 a 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 a 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 would 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.

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