As the frenzy around the recent papal visit to the U.S. winds down, my husband and I are still remembering our own unique encounter with Pope Francis not so long ago. While on our honeymoon in Europe last year, we were among several excited couples to receive a papal blessing and face-to-face greeting from the Holy Father after a General Wednesday Audience at the Vatican. It was unforgettable.
Prior to trekking to Rome, we had been captivated by Pope Francis's appeal to young people and his advocacy for the protection of all creatures, an issue especially close to our hearts. As it happens, we had just attended a summer school on animals and religion at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. A number of young adults were there -- not surprising, given that millennials have ranked animal protection concerns as one of their top causes, right alongside cancer and education. Yet millennials of faith who care about animals have traditionally struggled to find a receptive ear in the church. When faced with the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the Holy Father, we felt as though we were standing in their shoes.
Considering Pope Francis's statements on creation care, especially in his encyclical on ecology, Laudato si' (Praise Be), we now have powerful support to affirm that our concerns about animals are not theologically misplaced. With numerous references to humanity's treatment of non-human creatures, the encyclical contains some of the strongest statements ever made in a single document in the history of the Catholic Church, even addressing controversial issues such as animal experimentation and rejecting the notion of dominion as absolute denomination over non-human creatures. This message of compassion is just in time-- never before in history have animals been subject to abuse by people and industries on such a massive scale. But to be sure, in many instances, Pope Francis is simply re-emphasizing the parts of the gospel and Catholic social teaching that have either been overlooked or misinterpreted.
As the season of creation wraps up this weekend with the Feast of St. Francis on Oct. 4 (which also happens to occur on World Animal Day), we must ensure that our consideration of non-human creatures continues after the popular blessings of the animals. Laudato Si' offers challenges especially relevant to the next generation of faith leaders:
Making room for all creatures in "creation care" vocabulary
In the backdrop of ever looming threats to our common home, faith-based eco-justice ministries are on the rise, with increasing efforts to attract youth and young adults. But mystifyingly, it isn't uncommon for animal concerns to be disregarded in the very places where they belong the most. If there were ever any doubt, in Laudato si'' Pope Francis states firmly that creation includes "every creature" that shares our common home. If nothing else spurs us into action to include our relationships with other creatures as a serious matter for discussion in creation care themed conferences, retreats, forums, publications, and ministries, the encyclical should.
Examining individual and collective relationships with animals as a morally relevant issue
More than once in the encyclical, Pope Francis speaks of animals as having inherent value, exclusive of human need. He emphasized this point again, last week at the United Nations, noting before the world's leaders that every creature has an "intrinsic value." Translated into everyday application, we'd do well to examine our own actions by looking at the ways we might be preventing nonhuman creatures from giving glory to God by their innate designs.
As religiously affiliated institutions of learning shift investment and purchasing practices that exploit the environment, so too might they consider re-doubling efforts to find alternatives to animal experiments on campus; compassionate food purchasing policies that do not support intensive factory farming; and course instruction that focuses on or integrates discussions around our treatment of animals to better prepare future leaders in the church and society. It's good to know that in a sense things have already gotten started. In recent years, Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institute in the U.S. switched to cage-free eggs, citing animal welfare concerns. Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University and author of For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, Charles Camosy has contributed to a newly released book emphasizing the interdenominational inspiration of Pope Francis to care for animals. And following Laudato Si'more than 175 leaders in Catholic higher education have signed a declaration of commitment "to study, promote, and act on the ideals and vision of integral ecology laid out by Pope Francis." While animals are not mentioned specifically in the declaration, one can only hope that they are given the due consideration the encyclical demands.
Linking animal suffering to other social justice issues
Pope Francis explores the plight of animals in depth alongside some of the biggest threats to humanity. This was likely no coincidence. He declares,
"We only have 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. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality." (#92)
The connections between mistreatment of animals, people, and planet are endless. Domestic violence, worker's rights violations, climate change, world hunger and poverty, and deforestation are all have significant connections to animal abuse. In his address to Congress, Pope Francis drew inspiration from four social justice figures in history who continue to inspire the youth of today: President Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Interestingly, the first three of these four figures are commonly associated with their own advocacy for the compassionate treatment of animals, with Thomas Merton once stating in a letter,
"God cannot look on 'objectively' while his creatures suffer. To imagine him doing so is to imagine someone quite other than God."
Laudato si' brilliantly connects the dots of social injustice while weaving in our relationships with non-humans. It is our job to see beyond the individual dots as isolated from one another. In the end, with respect our consideration of animals, just as with the many other issues in the encyclical, we are called to profound conversion. The question remains: will we rise to the challenge?