Youth Space – Ben Conroy
God seems to be putting a particular question in my way. Last week our parish held its first ever blessing of pets to mark St Francis’ feast day (remember when he was mostly known in the popular mind for his connection with animals?), then the first episode of the new series of Love/Hate ignited controversy by depicting a cat being machine-gunned to death.
Finally, I came across an extended essay in the American publication National Review. It was written by Matthew Scully, a speechwriter who has spent his life working for pro-life politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties, and opposing both abortion and animal cruelty (writing a book called Dominion on the latter).
The question raised in each case, whether implicitly or explicitly, was this: how should Catholics treat animals?
Scully thinks the answer should be clear. He cites Scripture, the Catechism, and Pope John XXIII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI to make the case that we have a duty of care and compassion towards our fellow creatures.
He then highlights the ways in which we are not living up to that duty of care, most notably the practice of factory farming. Many of the pigs we eat have spent their lives without enough space even to turn around. The vast majority of male chicks in factory farms are sent down a conveyor belt and ground up alive within a day of hatching. ‘Downers’, cows too ill to walk, are beaten, prodded and even bulldozed to the slaughter.
These are monstrous cruelties. So why are so many Catholics and pro-lifers so unconcerned? I can’t count the number of times I’ve conversed with people who dismiss animal welfare as a ‘squishy liberal cause’, and the most common reaction I encounter when I talk to pro-life people about animal welfare is “why would we focus on that when human babies are being killed?” I’ve always found this attitude, if taken at face value, to be profoundly strange – it seems to imply, in Scully’s words “a finite reserve of human compassion and goodwill”. Does the presence in the world of one great injustice invalidate any effort to right other, lesser wrongs?
The real root of the animosity, I think, lies in the fact that many animal-rights advocates are also pro-choice. But that is more an accident of politics than anything else. As Mary Eberstadt, a conservative, pro-life Catholic scholar, writes “the line connecting the dots between ‘we should respect animal life’ and ‘we should respect human life’ is far straighter than the line connecting (respect for animals) to anti-life feminism or anti-humanist utilitarianism”.
Scully writes that caring for animals “usually involves simply not doing bad things to them, and preventing wrongdoing by others. Cruelty issues like factory farming present specific moral choices. If we’re making the wrong ones, then to shift attention to other woes in the world is just as idle and evasive as when the abortion lobby tries it.”
Abortion abolitionists should be especially careful with the kinds of argument we embrace. Many of those who argue that animal welfare is of little to no importance tend to cite studies, often promulgated by huge agribusiness companies, that purport to show that animals don’t really feel pain. The screams of terror made by a pig about to be brutally killed are merely “avoidance behaviours” that “mimic the pain-fear response”. The connections with pro-choice arguments about foetal pain draw themselves.
I’ve heard Catholics appeal to the unique place of humans in creation to justify animal cruelty, or at least minimise its significance. This seems to get things backwards – if we truly are the stewards of creation, made in the image and likeness of God, then shouldn’t we act like it? These kind of arguments, in Scully’s words “always seem to end up with singular moral dignity but no singular moral accountability to go with it”.
Indifference is simply not good enough – though it’s often very convenient. In one of his most persuasive passages, Scully writes that the abortion culture and the culture of cruelty “are products of the same mindset and hardness of heart. They involve wretched things we don’t even want to think about. They rely on concealment of fact, denial, bluff, and euphemism, because it can take just a moment of real reflection — informed conscience — to undo years of propaganda.”
If the arguments made by the likes of Scully and Eberstadt are true, then we are all obliged to pay much more attention to care of our fellow creatures. That could start by doing something about factory farms – and by doing something, I mean refusing absolutely to buy from them, with a view to wiping them off the face of the planet. St Francis would, I think, approve.
Matthew Scully’s National Review Essay can – and should – be read at http://tinyurl.com/mh6txgu