by Father Frank Mann
The Christian traditions of fasting and abstinence reach their apex during Lent when Catholics engage in self-denial (along with prayer, repentance and almsgiving) in a sure and certain hope to align both mind and heart with our Savior’s suffering and death. Historically, meat was considered one of the luxuries to deny oneself. For an increasing number of Catholics, abstaining from meat products is no longer limited to the six weeks from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (and likewise Good Friday) – but has become self-sacrificial and health-enhancing throughout one’s lifetime.
Eating animal flesh unequivocally encourages the pernicious cycle of killing innocent, sentient creatures. We personally may not wish ill for any animal and may even choose to be the guardian of a beloved pet. However, the unquestionable fact is that the more steaks we buy, the more veal dishes we order, the more burgers we throw on the BBQ, will definitively result in the needless suffering of countless animals who will have their lives grotesquely and prematurely ended.
Our insatiable demand for meat, and its ready supply and demand from factory farms, also undermines efforts to feed the world’s starving and malnourished humans by inefficiently using limited agricultural land to raise animals for slaughter, which could otherwise be more efficiently used to grow nutritious plants and grains for wider human consumption. This is not inconsequential in a world where 870 million of our fellow human beings are hungry, two billion are nutritionally deficient and 20 million die each year from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.
Our lust for meat is also compromising our own health. It’s inducing chronic inflammation in our cells, clogging our arteries, slowing our digestion, contributing to colon cancer and helping to make us fat. Among the growing chorus of medical professionals sounding the alarm about the deleterious effects of meat consumption on human health is Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., who notes, “If you step back and look at the data, the optimum amount of red meat you eat should be zero.”
Catholics are called to embrace truth. The truth about the products that we have politely renamed steak, sirloin, veal and sausage is that they are actually body parts taken from creatures capable of intelligence, emotions and even memories! These animals not only experience horrific and relentless pain when they are mistreated and mutilated but can likewise become frustrated and stressed when forced to live in conditions that prevent them from carrying out their natural behaviors. Animals likewise have the amazing ability to develop an array of complex and unique relationships with both humans and other animals. They “understand” the world around them.
Last summer, an international group of prominent scientists signed what is known as the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which strongly declared that “…animals are just as aware as humans and it is no longer something that we can ignore.”
Yet, these creatures often live their lives in miserable confinement before being horrifically ended on a factory production line of blood letting and bodily disassembly, too obscene to allow our children to see.
If this seems too harsh, ask yourself, why are we thrilled to show a child how vegetables are grown on a farm, or enjoy bringing them to an orchard to pick fruits yet shield them from seeing a slaughterhouse and the carnage going on inside? Imagine if packaged meat had pictures of that specific animal displayed before, during and after slaughter. Would one really purchase that particular meat product?
Perhaps song writer and musician Paul McCartney said it best, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, the whole world would be vegetarian.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, stated in his work “In God and the World” that animals “are given into our care” and “we cannot just do whatever we want with them.” In fact, “a sort of industrial use of creatures” is a “degrading of living creatures to a commodity (and) seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
The British primatologist, ethologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall, states in her book, “The Inner World of Farm Animals,” that “farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined and, despite having been bred as domestic slaves, they are individuals beings in their own right. As such they deserve our respect. And our help. Who will plead for them if we are silent?”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, eating meat is not necessary for human health. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, established in 1917 as the American Dietetic Association, issued the following position statement in 2009: “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
As uncomfortable as it may be for us to acknowledge, there is no denying the harsh reality of the fates that await different animals simply because our human cultures have grown accustomed to eating some while loving others – in spite of the truth that there is no metaphysical or moral difference among them as sentient creatures. Whether an animal lives in a jungle, on a farm or in a family home does not change the nature of the animals sentience. They are not “things.” They have the profound and wondrous ability to feel, perceive and likewise experience the mystery of “subjectivity.” All creatures are beings worthy of our loving protection, dignity, respect and care.
This has been the mandate of Pope Francis, who in a homily said, “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, protect creation.” That means, he explained, “protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St. Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
The Holy Father’s namesake, St. Francis, said, “Not to hurt our humble brethren (the animals) is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it.” The great saint of Assisi added, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
During this Lent (and beyond), let us pray that we will not so much be focused on the question “What is the right way to use and kill animals?” Rather, let us pursue the core ethical question, “Is it right to use and kill animals?”