What Catholics Believe About Animals

A few months ago I had the opportunity to speak with someone about the Church's teaching on the environment and stewardship and the role we as humans are called by God to play in relation to the rest of creation.  We talked about food choices and farming and chickens and balance with a whole lot of other stuff mixed in.  It reminded me again how beautiful and comprehensive is the Catholic Faith I love.  Long ago in college we were required to read the Catechism for a class and take a test on the whole thing.  It was difficult but life changing.  I highly recommend it to pretty much anyone, Catholic or not but especially if you're Catholic and have never read it!  It's actually a really beautiful read.  While I can't cite much from memory anymore, steeping myself in the actual legit teachings of the Church was so formative for my worldview and life choices later on.

Anyway, since our conversation revolved much around creation and food and how my faith affects our shopping choices, it's been on my mind the last few months.  It reminded me that the Church has something to say not only about creation as a whole but even specifically about animals.  I had this post going through my head weeks ago but given recent current events, it's become even more relevant and perhaps it's a topic that could use some better understanding within the Church and the rest of the world.

The Catechism has several specific paragraphs about animals within its discussion of the seventh commandment (2415-2418).  Here are a few key points:

Animals have their own dignity
Animals have a dignity inherent in themselves outside of humanity.  They give glory to God simply by their existence, the Catechism says (CCC 2416).  So whether they directly benefit humans or not, they are beautiful in and of themselves and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Animals Are Not as Important as People
That said, animals are still ordered toward the good of humanity and are under our authority (CCC 2415).  Traditionally we speak of man and woman being the "crown of creation."  In the Scriptures, the ordering of the creation narrative is very intentional and shows that human beings have the highest dignity of all the created world.  BUT humanity is charged with taking care of the rest of creation.  Being the highest of creation obliges us to guard and protect, not abuse and destroy.  We can therefore use animals for food or clothing or research if it is ordered toward the good of humanity, provided we treat them with their due dignity.

Our Treatment of Animals Matters Morally 
The Catechism is clear that the use of animals and the rest of the created world "cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives" and we should have a "religious respect for the integrity of creation" (CCC 2415).  This means that we have a moral obligation in respect to animals and the care of creation.  It's not optional and we can't pretend it's a matter of opinion or personality or just for those "other" types of Christians.  In Centesimus Annus 38, Saint John Paul II clearly laments the ways that human beings fail in their role as caretakers of the earth and created things and calls for us to remember that they are to be treated as gifts.  Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in Caritas in Veritate that we have an obligation to take care of the earth and creation (CV 51).  Mistreating animals, whether by abusing them OR by giving them more worth than humans, is a sin.

Killing Animals for Fun is Not Okay
The Catechism clearly states that "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly" (CCC 2418).  Unless we have a legitimate reason to kill an animal (self protection, food, clothing, etc.), it is degrading to US when we kill for the sake of killing.  All life is important.  In the order of creation, some is of more value than others but all life deserves to be treated with respect. One of my favorite quotes from Pope Francis in Laudato Si draws a clear relationship between how we treat animals with how we will treat people:  "It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. 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."  (LS, 92)

When We DO Use Animals, We Should Alleviate Unnecessary Suffering
We're allowed to use animals for own benefit whether for research, food or clothing.  Medical or scientific research must be within "reasonable" limits AND "contribute toward caring for or saving human life" (CCC 2417).  However, we are required to do what we can to mitigate any suffering that we can.  So we as Catholics can and should work for more humane treatment of the animals we use. We should also do what we can (as far as we are able) to make sure that the animals we eat or the products we use have taken steps to treat the animals with dignity.  This means that they should be raised according to the design God gave them, be killed with the least amount of pain and suffering possible, and used without unnecessary waste.

It's Not Okay to Love Animals with the Same Love or Resources as People
The Catechism states, "It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.  One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons" (CCC 2418).  So, take care of your pets and love them as animals and companions. Treat animals with respect.   Don't kill them for no reason.  They are a gift from God.  But never confuse the fact that human beings are more important and practically speaking need to trump animal life.  Don't let the love for animals become disordered.

We Don't Know if There Will Be Animals in Heaven
The Catechism doesn't directly address the question of whether there will be animals in heaven because, quite simply, we don't know.  They do not have the same type of soul that a human being possesses but that doesn't exclude the possibility that they could be there.  And despite faulty media reports, Pope Francis never said that they would be.

I am absolutely in love with this Faith that is so beautifully comprehensive.  I love that the teachings of our Church make sense.  I love the freedom that is to be found when we assent and the clarity that the eyes of faith give.  I love that the Church respects our intellect enough to trust that we can understand these truths and with grace, follow them.  I love that there is so much dignity and reason and profound beauty within the truth that it safeguards.  More than anything I love that the truths She teaches lead us to the one who is Truth Itself. And that, after all, is the whole point of it all.

(The Catechism's specific paragraphs on animals can be found HERE in paragraphs 2415-2418.  The entire Catechism is available free online from the Vatican HERE or in print here.)  

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1 comment

  1. Mary:

    Thank you for taking the time to share the teaching of the Catholic Church about the stewardship of animals. We are putting our 17 year old dog down today. It is time. He has been a joy and comfort for our family for which we will always be grateful.

    Fr BC