Maria Forrestal FMM wonders if as a Franciscan she should be a vegetarian. How, she asks, should a Franciscan sister live out the attitude of St. Francis of Assisi towards animals and the whole of creation?
Over a year ago, I was approached by a young man when travelling on a local bus. He told me he was an agnostic and a vegetarian searching for truth and justice. He believes that the message of Christianity and the just treatment of animals – by which he means equal consideration of interests – are incompatible.
His questioning challenges me to reflect on my own attitude. Is being a follower of Jesus Christ an implicit demand to live a vegetarian life style? How should a Franciscan sister live out the attitude of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) towards animals and the whole of creation? If I fail to address this question, am I a credible Franciscan?
Many voices are raised today in the name of justice, peace and the integrity of creation, and great work is being done to address the problems of injustice towards the poor and the environment, but the animal world doesn’t seem to merit the same attention. Why? Are animals not worthy of the same care? How should we relate to them? According to Pope John Paul II, “Creation is like a first revelation, which has its own eloquent language. It is almost like another sacred book whose letters are represented by the multitude of creatures present in the universe” (Reflecting on Psalm 18, 29th January 2002).
Responsibilities towards creation
Reading the story of the Great Flood, I also see that when God made the covenant, it was between him “and you (man) and every living creature; that he would remember the covenant between him “and you (man) and all living creatures … the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on earth (Gen 9:12-17). Psalm 150 calls on “everything that has breath” to praise God. Do I pay enough attention to the fact that man and animals share the same Creator and the same “breath of life”?
Interdependence of creatures
After the Great Flood, the people were given to understand that killing was a grave matter and that they would be held accountable for every life which was taken (Gen 9:5). Is it necessary and justifiable to kill animals for food, particularly in rich consumer societies where there are so many alternatives available, to say nothing of modern dietary knowledge? The prophet Isaiah gives us a vison of peace and harmony between creatures and between man and animal (Is 11:6-9). What concrete and constructive steps am I taking to live in a relationship of peace and reconciliation with my brother/sister-creatures?
During a public audience in 1990, Pope John Paul II reminded listeners that “also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren”, that they are the “fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect”, and that they are “as near to God as men are”. His public statement give a clear and unambigious answer to the often vexing question; do animals have souls? It is sobering to recall that not too far back in history we find people asking the same question about women, slaves and black people!
The breath of life
On 12th November, 2000, Pope John Paul II reminded farmers of the true meaning of the command to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28) saying: “The famous words of Genesis entrust the earth to man’s use, not abuse. They do not make man the absolute arbiter of the earth’s goverance, but the Creatore’s “co-worker”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also speaks of man and woman as stewards of creation, and reminds us of our responsibility to treat animals with kindness (CCC 373, 2416, 2417, 2418 and 2457).
When I reflect on the life of Jesus today, I find myself becoming aware of how the manner in which he relates to animals is often overlooked. When God became man in Jesus, the Word became flesh in a manger (John 1:14; Luke 2: 7,16). He spent forty days in the desert where he was able to live amongst the wild animals without being in danger (Mark 1:13). He made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding an untamed colt (Luke 19: 30-38 and parallels). In his passion and death, Scripture tells us that he is “a worm, and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6), and that he “was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Animals obey God
In his message, “Peace with God the Creator – Peace with all of creation” issued on World Peace Day, 1st January 1990, Pope John Paul II calls on modern society to “take a serious look at its life style, to develop an education in ecological responsibility as a matter of urgency” and states that “the aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked“. He presents St. Francis of Assisi as an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation.
Respect for all creatures
As recently as 10th June 2002, Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (Orthodox Tradition) signed together the Venice Declaration, a document offering six “ethical goals” to “steer the earth towards our children’s future”. Together, they call on men and women everywhere, especially Christians, to an act of repentance – “in the most radical way, an inner change of heart which can lead to a change in lifestyle”. They also remind us of our responsibility as stewards of creation, and call on us to live in a spirit of gratitude, self-restraint and sacrifice in a world of rampant consumerism. Furthermore, they remind us that: “It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers”.
In his book, Animal Theology, under the chapter, “Vegetarianism as a Biblical Ideal”, Professor Andrew Linzey reminds us that killing is always a grave matter (Gen 9:5; Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17; Matthew 19:18-19 and parallels) and suggests that “it is now not necessary to kill for food as it was once thought necessary”, particularly in the rich West, meaning that “when we have to kill (for food) we may do so, but when we do not, we should live otherwise”. He goes on to say that “to opt for a vegetarian lifestyle is to take one practical step towards living in peace with the rest of creation”.
Andrew Linzey also reminds us that the modern vegetarian movement was strongly biblical in origin. Inspired by the original command in Genesis 1:29-31, an Anglican priest, William Cowherd founded the Bible Christian Church in 1809 and made vegetarianism compulsory amongst its members. According to Andrew Linzey, the founding of this church in the United Kingdom and its sister church in the United States by William Metcalfe, heralded the beginning of the modern vegetarian movement which has grown rapidly since the 1970s.
In the early Church, the rule of St. Benedict (480-547AD) forbade the eating of meat in his community: “Except the sick who are very weak, let all abstain entirely from the flesh of four-footed animals”. It is also probable that several of the early Church Fathers lived on a vegetarian diet, for example: St. Jerome, St. Basil the Great, Origen, Tertullian and St. Clement of Alexandria. Trappist monks have being living on a vegetarian diet since 1966.
To be or not to be vegetarian
I think God may be using the encounter with the young man on the bus to make me to re-think the way I relate to his “living creatures”. It seems that I am being confronted with my own sinfulness, with an area of my life that needs redemption. Some changes have taken place since that encounter. I now include animals suffering torture at human hands in my prayer for all victims of torture. I have a greater awareness of the disrespect and irreverence shown animals when they are regarded simply as “dinner” and when their bleeding, butchered bodies are exposed in newspaper photographs. I try to avoid eating meat when I am free to chose an alternative. Small steps, but are they enough? My friend would say, NO! He would maintain that it’s a simple matter of justice, and that I am morally obliged to become a vegetarian. Need he stand alone: “Lord, do not stay silent; Lord, do not stand aloof from me. Up, awake, to my defence, my God and my Lord, to my cause” (Psalm 35: 22, 23). It seems to me that God is calling for warriors to stand in battle with my young friend …
With St. Basil (330-379AD), I pray for a new spirit and a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26):
This article first appeared in
Irish Missionary Union Report, 2003.So why am I not a vegetarian? Is it because I lack convinction? Is it apathy? Laziness? I cannot honestly claim ignorance! Do I fear the prospect of discomfort, conflict and opposition? Is compromise an option? Is it possible to silence the voice of conscience? When one considers the difficulty of producing enough food to serve the world’s population, a vegetarian life style eases the pressure that exists on the land. For example, over one quarter of the world’s surface is given over to grazing 1.25 billion cattle. Other food could be provided from this land, for example: nuts, fruit, vegetables and grain. A vegetarian requires from one-eighth to half of the land needed by a meat-eater, depending on the type of vegetarian life style one embraces. A vegetarian life style also helps reduce animal cruelty. As it is, animals are abused, mistreated, tortured and killed in a bid to meet the demands of human greed and arrogance! A vegetarian life style is healthier! The diet contains little fat and can reduce the risk of certain cancers by up to 40%, and heart disease by up to 30%. It can also help lower cholesterol levels, restrict the chances of suffering kidney and gall stones, diabetes and high blood pressure.Previous to this, Pope John Paul II had also spoken of one of the positive developements in modern society: that of environmental concern. Amongst other things, he spoke of the need to respect the integrity of creation and the cycles of nature. He specifically mentioned the need to have “respect for the beings which constitute the natural world”, and the fact “that one cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate, animals, plants, the natural elements simply as one wishes, according to one’s economic needs” (paragraphs 26 and 34; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis/On Social Concern 1987). What does this close identification of Jesus with animals tell me? When he speaks of loving our neighbour, our enemy (Matthew 5:43-48; Matthew 22:39 and parallels); when he identifies with the suffering, the weak and the voiceless (Phil 2:6-8); when he speaks of the coming of a new creation, is it correct to suppose that animals really don’t have a place in his thoughts? And if all of creation is to be released from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), how can anyone suggest that animals are not included? St. Francis of Assisi tells us, “Consider, O human, the wondrous dignity God has conferred upon you. He created and formed your body in the image of his Beloved Son, and your soul in his own likeness. Still, all creatures under heaven serve and know and obey their Creator in their own way better than you do” (Admonition 5).The Pope went on to say that “animals have the breath of life and were given it by God. In this respect, man created by the hand of God is identical with all living creatures.… The existence therefore of all living creatures depends on the living spirit/breath of God that not only creates but also sustains and renews the face of the earth”. It is interesting to note that Carlo Molari, then Professor of Theology and Dogma at the University of Urbino, said the statement “demonstrates the Church’s desire and deep concern to clarify present confused thinking and attitudes towards the animal kingdom”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) speaks of the interdependence of creatures and of the solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory (CCC 342, 344). I reflect on the commandment not to kill (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17; Matthew 19:18-19 and similiar passages). Can I honestly say I am promoting a “culture of life” if I sanction the killing of creatures created and loved by God? Reflecting on the Biblical texts, I have become more conscious of the often overlooked command: “I give you every seed-bearing plant … every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be your food … I give you every green plant for food” (Gen 1:29-31). Isn’t this suggesting that a vegetarian diet was part of God’s original plan for mankind? I see that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15). What are my responsibilities towards creation? Do I have the right to exploit it selfishlessly for my own needs? I am reminded that on the sixth day God created “living creatures” before he created man, and that he saw that his creation “was good” (Gen 1:20-24). Shouldn’t this tell me that animals have a purpose in themselves and are loved by God for themselves?