A Prayer: How Shall We Show Mercy To Animals?
Published: August 3, 2006
Lobsters have been making headlines lately. Some people claimed it was cruel to keep them in grocery store tanks because the animals sometimes starved to death while waiting to be purchased.
It is tempting to chuckle at people who are concerned about the wellbeing of lowly creatures like lobsters, when we live in a world with so many problems concerning human beings.
But surely it is important to show compassion to animals, even those destined for the supper table.
My own food journey has been long and winding. In childhood, I ate whatever my mom put on my plate, which often included hot dogs, hamburgers and pork chops, but in college I declared myself a vegetarian.
After a little research into factory farms, I was horrified by the way chickens and pigs were cruelly mass-produced like things on an assembly line and decided that eating meat conflicted with compassion.
After we married, my husband and I dined on tofu, vegetables, fruit and grains, and an occasional serving of fish.
One day, though, I had to face the truth: Meat substitutes were no longer doing it for me. I desperately craved the real thing, and I wanted it fried, grilled, roasted and broiled.
After all, I told myself, God had fashioned us with four canine teeth, which are designed to tear into flesh. Who was I to argue with God’s design?
A few years ago, we caved in and added poultry regularly to our diets. Still, we try to buy meat that comes from “free-range” farms, which means that the animals didn’t spend their lives in tiny, crowded cages.
Curious about the Catholic Church’s position on animals, I pulled out my trusty Catechism, which states that human beings are the only creatures fashioned in God’s image, and thus are considered the pinnacle of God’s creation.
Further, God entrusted animals to the stewardship of human beings and it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing (2415-2418).
But the passages include an important proviso about kindness:
“Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness.”
The Catechism also warns that it is contrary to human dignity “to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”
In an interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, emphasized that human beings should not “degrade” living creatures.
He specifically mentioned a delicacy called foie gras, which is produced by force feeding geese to enlarge their livers, and also mentioned hens that live so packed together “that they become just caricatures of birds.”
He said that this “degrading of living creatures to a commodity (contradicts) the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
An early Church father, St. John Chrysostom, emphasized the need to be merciful to animals:
“Surely we ought to show [animals] great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but, above all, because they are of the same origin as ourselves.”
Now that I am a meat-eater again, I struggle with figuring out how I can live according to the principle of mercy.
As consumers, most of us are far removed from the actual raising and slaughtering of animals. Still, we can avoid buying meat from factory farms and choose, instead, meat that comes from “free-range” or organically raised animals.
As with all moral principles, though, this one demands discernment. For one, there is the economic issue.
Since farmers need more land to raise free-range animals, the meat tends to be pricey, as do products like milk, cheese and eggs.
If we had a family to support, and if we were on a tight budget, compassionately produced meat might be just one more luxury that my husband and I could not afford.
In the United States, some folks go overboard with their pets, spending huge amounts of money on food, toys and even clothing.
But with farm animals, the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind” seems to apply. Many people are unaware of the suffering farm animals may have endured before becoming supper.
Each Catholic family has to make the decision about animals for themselves. It takes prayer and discernment, and some judicious reading of the Catechism, to find the way.
My own prayer is that society as a whole will discover more ways to apply the principle of mercy to the supper table. And perhaps Catholics will lead the way.
Lorraine V. Murray works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. Her three books are available at www.lorrainevmurray.com. Readers may write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Artwork by Jef Murray.