Saturday, December 5, 2015

An Open Letter to Pope Francis Regarding Animals

Dear Pope Francis,

As a Catholic, I can’t tell you how happy I was when I learned of your appointment as Pope, especially your chosen namesake in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi who had a special kinship with nonhuman animals. In the spirit of St. Francis, I am writing to urgently ask you to expand the Church’s commitment to all God’s creatures, particularly those exploited and oppressed in the name of food, fashion, entertainment and science.

Currently, some 58 billion nonhuman land animals are bred and slaughtered every year for human consumption. Not only is this killing cruel, but it is also unnecessary. Furthermore, it is robbing the hungry of nourishment and doing irreversible damage to our planet.

Compared to plant protein, raising animal protein requires 100 times more water, 11 times more fossil fuels, and 5 times more land. In addition, growing crops to feed nonhuman animals to feed human animals—instead of feeding crops directly to people—is completely wasteful, inefficient and unsustainable for a population of 7 billion people that is expected to rise to 9 billion in less than 40 years. If the grain grown in the United States to feed livestock were instead fed directly to humans, it alone could feed 800 million people, potentially eradicating world hunger as we know it.

Factory farming is a large part of the problem, accounting for 99 percent of all nonhuman animal consumption, however, there is no way to raise other animals in a humane way as the end result is always the same—needless suffering and death. Organic and free-range farms are often just as abusive as factory farms and employ the same barbaric procedures such as debeaking, tail docking, dehorning, and castration—all without painkillers. Cattle have their horns cut off and their testicles cut out of their scrotums, and many are branded with sizzling-hot irons, resulting in third-degree burns. Pigs on organic farms often have their tails chopped off and their ears notched, and some have rings forced into their sensitive noses in order to permanently prevent them from naturally rooting in the grass and dirt. Chickens on organic egg farms usually have part of their delicate beaks cut off, causing acute pain and often death. In addition to widespread cruelty, free-range farms are completely unsustainable and cannot be duplicated on a mass scale to meet the current demand for animal flesh. And in the end, just as with factory farms, babies are separated from their mothers and innocent creatures are killed by caretakers with whom they had come to trust.

Technology has also diminished the value of other animals and has increased the ways in which they can be manipulated into machines and commodities. For example, the egg industry views male chicks as worthless because they are unprofitable for egg production, so hatcheries breed chickens and then divide the males from the females along an assembly belt. The males are separated and quickly discarded in one of three ways: they are gassed, suffocated in plastic bags, or tossed into a grinding machine—all within 72 hours of birth. This happens to 150,000 male chicks every day at just one facility.

The dairy industry is no better, manipulating and artificially inseminating cows to produce calves and milk—ten times the amount of milk they would naturally make—which is not fed to their hungry, malnourished calves but given to humans instead. Like male chicks, male calves are also futile to the dairy industry so they are immediately snatched away from their anguished mothers and shipped off to the veal industry. Many are too weak, sick or crippled to even stand and their value is so low (less than a few dollars) that they are often left for dead on a pile by the road.

The pursuit of efficiency in creating large quantities of nonhuman animal flesh has resulted in genetically-manipulated genes and mutilated bodies, creating painful joint and leg problems in pigs, heart disease in broiler chickens, leg problems in beef cattle, and turkeys who cannot mate since their body shape makes it impossible for their reproductive organs to come in contact. We have reduced other animals to mere things, cloning and breeding them at will, using them to satisfy our personal interests and appetites, and discarding them when they don’t. In the chilling words of one research scientist, “. . . we can design the whole carcass, if you like, from embryo to plate to meet a particular market niche.”

There is no morally justifiable reason to breed and slaughter nonhuman animals for meat, milk, and eggs, and doing so is destroying nature and human health. More and more people are waking up to the fact that the greatest contributor to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and most chronic diseases is animal products. What’s more, there has never been a better time to embrace a plant-based diet as more and more meat and dairy replacements are available to consumers than ever before. These vegan items are delicious, healthier, and don’t exploit other animals—a win-win-win! Hundreds of vegan cookbooks are now available that illustrate how nutritious and delicious foods can be using the abundance and variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes that God has provided in nature—even for those with a sweet tooth like me.

I have been a vegetarian for 21 years and a vegan for the last nine. I have educated myself over those years and make a point of avoiding all animal products, including beef, poultry, fish, milk products, eggs, and honey. Since doing so, I have found both my physical and spiritual health much improved. I awakened to the fact that, like humans, nonhuman animals are also God’s creatures and, as such, we have no absolute rights over them, only the responsibility to look after them as God would look after them, and to treat them as God would treat them. My diet now reflects this ethos. It is not enough to simply say that other animals matter morally and to be against animal cruelty while promoting and condoning behaviors that continue to cause nonhuman animals unnecessary suffering and death for mere pleasure, convenience or amusement.

As a Christian, I know that Christ spent his short life ministering to the powerless, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. Further, He stood against the principle that might makes right. The fact that billions of land animals and one trillion sea animals are slaughtered every single year unnecessarily for human consumption confirms that nonhuman animals are the most oppressed beings on our planet, and the most invisible. Farmed animals spend their entire short lives living in unimaginable conditions, often in the dark, constantly sick and injured, and surrounded by filth and their own excrements. They are robbed of their families and their lives, and they never get to experience what it is like to be loved and cared for—all they know is human brutality and indifference. 

As Christians, we have a unique opportunity to see the innocent suffering of Christ through the lives of other animals, who are no less innocent and who endure daily injustices simply for being born nonhuman in a human world. Surely, their constant agony and our callous disregard for them cannot please a God of love and mercy and justice. “The Lord says, I love justice and I hate oppression and crime.” Isaiah 61:8. The horrible things that we have done and have allowed others to do to nonhuman animals for us, are a crime and a sin that we have not yet awoken to—including the Church. Just as with racism, sexism and homophobia, we will one day look back disgracefully upon speciesism and our heartless treatment of other animals.

As a student of history, I know that God is the source of rights. As sentient beings, also made by God, nonhuman animals have intrinsic value and worth beyond what they can do for humans. I understand the moral ramifications of recognizing the rights of other animals, especially by an institution like the Church, but the Church is in a unique position to take an influential stand with those in bondage and to instruct the world that nonhuman animals are neither machines nor commodities—they are our brethren. While this may be a difficult thing to do, it is, nevertheless, the right thing to do.

As a Catholic, I am sad and disappointed with the Church’s failure to take justice for nonhuman animals seriously. For starters, I believe the Catechism’s teaching on other animals needs to be revised, specifically the seventh commandment titled “Respect for the Integrity of Creation.” Contrary to popular belief, loving both human and nonhuman life is not mutually exclusive. God’s great capacity for love should teach us that we don’t have to choose love for one over another. Rather, it is an inferior theology that seeks to limit God’s love.

Moreover, if nonhuman animals are God’s creatures and, according to the Catechism, “it is contrary to human dignity to cause [them] to suffer or die needlessly,” then there is no excuse for eating other animals and their secretions, wearing their furs, feathers and skins, and paying others to exploit them for our entertainment when all of these things are unwarranted and gratuitous.

Last year, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Wisconsin held its annual pig wrestling event. Despite an outpouring of criticism and concern for the pigs—who are punched in the face, body slammed, yelled at, and thrown around like potato sacks during the event—the local church dismissed any opportunity to reverse its course, gave the standard rhetoric of upholding “tradition,” and went on with business as usual. This blatant disregard for the lives of other animals made many people angry, including Catholics like me. Promoting events that use nonhuman animals sends the wrong message that they can and should be exploited and manipulated for whatever we humans desire. This could have been a teachable moment to parishioners about how we should respect other animals and treat them as we would want to be treated but, instead, the church turned its back on its own teachings of compassion, mercy and justice.

God’s second greatest commandment to us was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Is it not a great injustice to treat God’s creatures as little more than unfeeling, inanimate objects? Other animals are our neighbors, too, and condoning violence and cruelty against them, simply because they are not human and because we have made a habit of misusing them, is fundamentally unchristian. At the heart of the Christian Gospel, exemplified in Jesus Christ, is a basic call for peace, love and service to all, especially those who society has cast off and regarded as least worthy.   

With your standing, there has never been a better time for the Church—with its immense power and resources—to take the lead in making a more humane world. This is my cause, but it is also your cause, and it must be everyone’s cause. The plight of other animals is not just an issue of morality, but a matter of justice.

Please urge the Church and its body to take concrete steps to progressively disengage from animal exploitation in all its insidious forms: food consumption, clothing, entertainment (zoos, circuses, rodeos, aquariums, hunting), science, and vivisection.

As humans, we have been given a mighty responsibility of caring for this earth, which does not signify that we can do with it and its inhabitants whatever we please. I believe it underestimates and trivializes God’s greatness to assume—in His vast and diverse universe—that He should care for only one species. Sadly, that one species has shown little regard for all that God has created and has caused more destruction than any other.

As Catholics, the Church asks us to scrutinize our lives and to give up pleasurable things if they stand in the way of achieving some spiritual good. The Church must not continue to ignore the issues affecting other animals and the tolerated violence repeatedly perpetrated against them by all of us, every day through the choices we make for some pleasure, convenience or amusement. To continue in this participation and to turn a blind eye to what is happening diminishes our goodness and light.

Deeply ingrained social customs and habits constrain our moral action and awareness, and keep us from addressing issues which we prefer to ignore and sweep under the rug. The Church needs to bring other animals into consciousness through Gospel teachings, worship and ministry. To accept the status quo is choosing the wide and easy path. If we are to revere life, we must revere all life and that includes nonhuman life.

As you know, Saint Francis shared a deep love for God and nature. He loved animals and thought of God as a great artist who was best known through His creations. Francis believed that destroying any living creature was a sin against God and humanity. He called all his fellow creatures “sister” and “brother.” He forbade friars to chop down living trees, and he would pick worms off the firewood to keep them from being burned. In the winter he brought warm wine and honey to the wild bees. Once he traded his cloak for two lambs who were being hauled to the butcher. One of those devoted sheep followed Francis everywhere. Francis’s life was filled with similar incidents and interactions with nonhuman animals. He subsisted on roots and berries and recognized centuries ago what so many of us forget today: animals are our friends.

I hope you, Pope Francis, will change the Catechism’s teaching on nonhuman animals and take every opportunity within your power—with the help of St. Francis—to lessen and remove the unnecessary burden of suffering on the animal world. 

Bethany Cortale

This letter was originally sent to Pope Francis at the Vatican in October of 2014. With slight variations, similar letters were also sent to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Newark, the Diocese of Metuchen, and my local parish priest. To date, I have not received responses from anyone.


Jan Fredericks said...

Hopefully, Pope Francis will adopt Catholic Concern for Animals to have a program in every Church teaching our responsibility towards God's creatures. We read every 3 years Hebrews 4:13, BUT I've never heard a homily about it concerning all creatures. Our treatment of God's creatures affects and reflects our relationship with God, their Creator, who has compassion on every one of them. Jan, Founder/God's Creatures Ministry
Former Chairperson of Catholic Concern for Animals-USA

Anonymous said...

Great letter Bethany. I hope it helps people to open their eyes to the cruelty that they so easily endorse.

Keep up the good work.