About ten years ago, I decided to give up eating meat. I didn’t do it for ethical, aesthetics, or health reasons. I liked meat, so it was a mild sacrifice, as a way of trying to grow spiritually and overcome a particular “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Cor 12:7). I viewed it as akin to a life-long Lenten Friday abstinence practice.
As with many ascetical practices, I found that it really bore fruit in my life, and I’ve continued with the practice ever since. I describe myself generally as a “non-meat-eater” or a “vegetarian”, although I still eat dairy and seafood (occasionally), so the technical term for my diet would be probably be “pesco-vegetarian”.
At the time, I really didn’t have any desire to become an ethical vegetarian. But I’ve become more curious about the arguments surrounding that philosophy. I read some of the writings of Peter Singer, the leading animal rights philosopher, and found them deeply disturbing. Singer and his followers seem to me to be profoundly anti-human, even to the point of advocating grave moral evil, such as the idea that unborn, newborn and handicapped children have no right to life, since they lack certain qualities of consciousness, and thus can be killed by their parents. As a Christian — and a human being — I find such positions to be abhorrent, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way.
So it was with great interest that I found a book by Prof. Charles Camosy, an authentically pro-life theologian at Fordham, entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. The goal of the book is to examine how Christians should relate to animals, particularly on such issues as factory farming and the use of animals in research. I had hoped that the book would present a convincing Christian view of the relationship between humans and animals in the plan of God. While there are many aspects of the book that I found to be excellent, I was disappointed in his basic argument.
As with many animal rights arguments, Prof. Camosy’s position seemed to rest on an assumption that there is “speciesism” in the way we treat animals. That term refers to an unjustifiable and invidious belief that humans are not just different from, but innately superior to animals in God’s plan for creation. But surely that is the proposition that he should be seeking to prove, not a self-evident principle on which he can base his entire argument. I found this to be a very unconvincing form of circular reasoning — he begs the question that he should be trying to answer.
I also found his use of Sacred Scripture to be implausible. There is no doubt that God created animals not just to be used by humanity, but as creatures who have the “breath of life” and are meant to be our companions (see Gen. 1). Yet there also can be no question that God specifically permitted the use of animals in ritual sacrifice and for food (see generally Leviticus). Prof. Camosy appears to reject this aspect of Divine Revelation, particularly by suggesting that the practice of ritual sacrifice was a carryover from pagan practices and was not the will of God. That is just completely unconvincing, and it is inconsistent with the essential role of ritual sacrifice in understanding the mystery of Jesus as the Paschal Sacrifice.
However, I also have to add that I found that Prof. Camosy makes a very compelling argument about the need for Christians to reject the horrors of factory farming. There is overwhelming evidence that modern methods of factory farming are unspeakably cruel to animals, and they are truly shocking to the conscience. Prof. Camosy makes a persuasive case that factory farming stems from a moral deficit that is inherent in a consumerist mentality that virtually amounts to an idolatry of profit. This represents, I think, one of the best argument against the moral legitimacy of eating meat, at least as it is produced by way of this particular structure of sin.
I wish that Prof. Camosy had not begun his argument with the rejection of human exceptionalism in the divine plan, and I wish that he had given proper emphasis to the principle that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That is actually the best argument for the ethical and humane treatment of animals, and even for the adoption of a vegetarian diet. If we are made in the image of God, then we must assume some aspect of His relationship with the creation that He loves, and to which he gave the breath of life. God is the ultimate steward of His gift of creation, and we are thus called to love and serve nature and animals, and to act with self-giving love to them.
I don’t believe that this role as stewards of creation requires us to forego meat in our diet, but it certainly requires us to take seriously our attitude towards our animal friends, and how we treat them. We are so accustomed to this in our homes. So many people love their dogs and cats and birds, and intuitively see the breath of life in them, and treat them very well. As Prof. Camosy points out, we need to extend that attitude of fraternity to the animals we cannot see, particularly those in factory farms and medical research facilities. That may require a change in lifestyle — and even our diet — but that’s the case with every aspect of our Christian discipleship.