Dr Deborah Jones is vice-president of the Animal Interfaith Alliance, vice-chair of Catholic Concern for Animals, and a fellow of The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. She holds a doctorate in animal theology and is a past editor of The Ark, the Catholic Herald and a past deputy editor of Priest and People. She is author of The School of Compassion: A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Gracewing 2009).
This encyclical Laudato Si – is, in the words of Chris Fegan, general secretary of Catholic Concern for Animals – a gamechanger. It has taken the whole issue of animals, our treatment of them and their relationship with us and with their Creator, from total neglect to being placed at the forefront of theological discourse in the Catholic Church. It is, in the words of the Guardian, ‘the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years’.
I always like to see what opponents think, and was not surprised to see this on a so-called ‘traditionalist’ Catholic’s website: ‘Having wasted over an hour of my life, I now can say that I have read Laudato Si’. It is the Pope’s latest verbose tome of an encyclical, which espouses global warming alarmism, calls for international organizations to police climate change, and waxes poetic about people leading animals to God. In short it is as if Al Gore, Karl Marx, and Teilhard de Chardin wrote an encyclical.’ Well, there’s a tribute if ever there was one!
An encyclical is an open letter, usually addressed to a section of the Church, such as bishops, but this one, the second of Pope, or Friend (I like this Quaker title – and I’m sure he would too!) Francis, Bishop of Rome, is addressed to all people, everywhere. It is not doctrinally binding, very few teachings are, but presents ideas that the 1.5 billion Catholics worldwide are obliged to take seriously. It is an important and inspired contribution to official church teaching, specifically the Church’s social teaching – which itself is something that has influenced politicians, theologians and economists since the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891 made the first shot across the bows of unrestrained capitalism.
But there is more to this document than just a critique of current politics and economics, more than just a warning of the consequences of environmental damage to our earth, water and air. It is really about, as the question is put towards the end, ‘What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?’
The Vision of St Francis of Assisi
There is something very positive, very heartening about Pope Francis’ thesis. It is a realisation of St Francis of Assisi’s vision that all created beings are interconnected, all interrelated, all touched by God and oriented towards God. From the first words, there is this debt to the insight of that thirteenth century holy man: St Francis reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. Then there is the description of all the harm that we have done by our irresponsible use and abuse. From the start the encyclical says that ‘We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will’. This is the attitude that the Pope is trying, in this document, to overturn. He calls it at one point ‘tyrannical anthropocentrism’. You’d really think this has been written by one of us!
The emphasis is two-fold: concern for both our common home, the earth; and for the poor of the world, those who suffer most from the economic systems and cultural lifestyles that abuse the earth. It is up to each of us, he says, to put pressure on politicians, but also to use our consumer power and our collective power of opinion, to bring about the necessary changes in society. But before the culture as a whole can be changed, there needs to be a change of heart in every person. He is calling for a cultural revolution that starts with all of us. Let me just mention some of the references to the treatment of animals in this document:
References to the Treatment of Animals
As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet’ (LS:9).
‘By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously’ (LS:11).
‘Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right’ (LS:33).
The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator’ (LS:83).
Not only are we people the brothers and sisters of each other, but all other created beings are kin to us, all are gift, each flower and bird ‘imbued with [Christ’s] radiant presence’ (LS:100).
It actually admits that ‘we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute dominion over other creatures’ (LS:67).
‘Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism [that is, putting human beings at the centre] unconcerned for other creatures’ (LS:68).
The very fact of the multiplicity and variety of species of animals, birds, fish, insects and plants calls us to wonder and worship. The bishops of Brazil noted that ‘nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus [place] of his presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creatures and calls us to enter into relationship with [God]. Discovering this presence leads us to cultivate the “ecological virtues”.’ (LS:88).
Thus, any loss of biodiversity brought about through human action is to be lamented and where possible, prevented. Uncontrolled fishing, cultivated wetlands, coral reef depletion – all are part of our human destructive tendency which must be resisted. Concern for the environment, other creatures and the human race are all interconnected. ‘We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”’– quoting the Catechism, n.2418 (LS:92).
‘The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures’ (LS:240).
He places ‘the fur of endangered species’ in the same list as human trafficking, organized crime and the drug trade. He calls for close attention to genetic engineering, saying that ‘any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God’ (LS:132). He goes on to apply the precautionary principle to all GM developments.