ASK Christians whether the Church cares about animals, and they’ll call on all the good stories of St Francis talking to the birds — and that wolf, too. They might just mention the Christian roots of the RSPCA. Then it kind of peters out. I am beginning to think that it is a bit of a scandal that Christians have, with some notable exceptions, been so quiet about our relationship with the animals with whom we share this planet.
Have they forgotten that Jesus pointed out that God keeps tabs on even the smallest creatures, like the five sparrows mentioned in St Luke’s Gospel (12.6)? Or that Jesus used the analogy of the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to describe how he wants to protect his followers (Luke 13.34)?
I have to admit that the New Testament is not awash with references to animals and how we should care for them. But shouldn’t the “merciful” of the Beatitudes extend Christian mercy beyond the human species? I think it urgently needs to do so.
Every year, more than 80 billion farmed animals are slaughtered for their meat, as well as trillions of fish. More than 190 million animals are used in experiments every year — some to aid medical progress, others for testing cosmetics or household products. Animals are hunted for “sport”, forced to entertain us in tourist venues, or trained to fight for horrific spectacles such as bull-fighting.
The science is now conclusive: animals are sentient beings. They feel physical pain and experience emotions from fear and suffering to pleasure and joy. We are not just talking about dogs, cats, cows, sheep, or those highly intelligent pigs. The evidence for the sentience of fishes is now overwhelming, too.
That surely places a huge ethical responsibility on Christians everywhere to reduce the burden of animal suffering, and to promote animals’ well-being. It is no longer adequate just to be a responsible and loving guardian of your dog, cat, or budgerigar. Wild animals need us to protect their habitats on land or water. Farmed animals need us to provide them with enriching environments, not cages and crates; they need to enjoy fulfilling lives.
ONCE Christians accept that their faith requires concern for the welfare of animals, the next question is where to start in challenging their widespread abuse and mistreatment. Professor David Clough, who holds the Chair in Theology and Applied Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, agrees that most farmed animals are kept in impoverished conditions that prevent their flourishing.
His Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare project, which has UK churches and Compassion in World Farming as partners, recommends that Christians urgently need to reduce their consumption of animal products, and stop consuming animal products from systems that do not provide good opportunities for the flourishing of farmed animals.
Perhaps we should look a little more closely at what happens in the world of the factory farm. We need only look at an intensive chicken farm to see the abhorrent ways in which we have come to treat the creatures that we rear for food.
The laying hens may be kept in cages so small that they cannot even spread their wings; the chickens reared for meat, the broilers, are not usually caged, but kept on the floor, maybe 20,000 or 30,000 in each shed. They have been bred to grow so fast that a fluffy yellow one-day-old chick will get to around 2kg in weight in just five or six weeks. The “farmer” can then send them for slaughter, and start yet another batch. More batches per year equal more profit per year.
Scandalously, growing so fast has destroyed the health and strength of these birds. Their skeletons cannot sustain the weight of muscle (meat), and many go lame before they even reach slaughter-weight. Figures of painfully lame chickens range from an estimated 27 per cent to more than 50 per cent. Many are fed antibiotics, ostensibly to keep them free of infections, but this encourages fast growth, too. (The over-use of antibiotics in farmed animals is a serious factor in the global health threat of antibiotic-resistance.)
Cows used for dairy production have also been bred for high milk-yield rather than for longevity. Most will produce far more milk than a calf would ever drink; so the calf is removed at a day old, and the mother cow is milked to capacity for our dairy products, our high-health yogurts and smoothies, our cheeses, and our plain old milk.
She will be milked for another nine months or so, being made pregnant again after three months. This means that, for about half the year, she will be both pregnant and lactating. She will never see her calf again; there is both a physical toll and an emotional toll for her to deal with. No wonder that most cows, whose natural life span is about 20 years, are likely to be culled after three calvings/lactations, worn out with the strains of production.
Proverbs tells us that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12.10). Can a factory farmer, keeping maybe 40,000 hens in cages, or 1000 pigs on concrete-floored sheds, really “regard” their lives?
THERE have been outstanding Christian saints (and many unsung heroes, too) who have made our relationship with animals a focus of their teaching and activities. These teachers and mystics needed no law or science to tell them that animals were sentient beings. They saw for themselves that animals were creatures of God and a means of knowing of knowing something of the divine.
St Bonaventure (1221-74), a biographer of St Francis, wrote: “For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom. Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honour your God” (The Soul’s Journey into God).
The unconventional Dominican friar Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1328) wrote: “A person who knew nothing but creatures would never need to attend to any sermons, for every creature is full of God and is a book” (Sermon on Sirach, 50.6-7).
More recently, the Lutheran theologian Professor Jürgen Moltmann declared, in Caring for Creation (1990): “Whoever injures the dignity of animals, injures God.” Have the animals in factory farms been left any dignity? Or the elephants used for tourist rides, or the dolphins leaping in the pool for our wonder? Or the decapitated “trophy” lions or giraffes?
Perhaps we could all take on board the words that Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, in which he called for a spirit of “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures but joined in a splendid universal communion”.
I would like to call on Christian leaders and all Christians to look anew at the creatures on this shared earth and to lead the way in making that “universal communion” a reality. Where to begin?
CreatureKind, the non-profit organisation that David Clough co-founded, provides resources for engaging Christians with the problems of animal agriculture and for encouraging churches and other Christian organisations to make practical changes in their consumption of animal products.
Perhaps we can all start to follow the beautiful example of St Isaac the Syrian, who wrote, in the seventh century, “What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals” (Homily 81).
Joyce D’Silva is the author of Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and practice published by Routledge at £29.99 (Church Times Bookshop £26.99); 978-1-03227-3-990.