I recently taught a three-week adult faith formation class at my church on The Moral Status of Animals. We were a small but very engaged group, and had some great discussions.
We started out with what I called the “Three Things.”
- Thing #1: There is no Pure Land. This side of paradise, there will always be some degree of suffering in this world, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
- Thing #2: Everybody’s gotta eat. Herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, every living thing has to eat something.
- Thing #3: Nature is brutal. Even if there were no humans at all, there would still be suffering in the world because nature is brutal all by itself.
Later we decided we needed to add Thing #4: It’s complicated.
We talked about the sentience of animals, how to reduce their suffering in the world, and why that is important. We read a series of bible verses about God’s care and concern for animals, and found it pretty powerful when read all together. Sure, we read, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father” and move right on to, “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31), forgetting completely the first part, because everything is all about us, right? But reading so many verses specifically about animals and the natural world can’t help but give a pretty good idea of God’s opinion about it. (Hint: God thinks its very important.)
We talked about factory farming and the practices of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the legal status of pets and livestock. We took a look at statements about animals made by theologians throughout the ages, and then we discussed Darwin and the recent book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a prominent Catholic theologian. We wrapped up with a few videos of animal rescues noting that people will put their own lives in danger to rescue an animal, and a short discussion of Laudato Si, by Pope Francis.
It was only after the class was over that I realized the paradox we live under. Remember Thing #3? Nature is brutal. Nature doesn’t care about the lives of individuals. Nature only cares about LIFE. “Life finds a way,” as the character Ian Malcom says in the film, Jurassic Park. This was clear when we discussed the scenario of the pelicans who lay a spare egg. In most cases, the spare chick dies, unloved, unfed, unprotected. That’s pretty brutal. But should something happen to the first chick, they have a spare. That’s nature, survival of the fittest in any given environment or condition.
On the other hand, we believe that God does care about the individual, whether human or animal: pull your neighbor’s ox out of the well, rest your animals on the Sabbath, a righteous person has regard for the life of his/her beast. God knows every little bird that dies. Even the hundreds of thousands of those pelican chicks every year.
So this is the paradox that people of faith live with. Both nature and God care about life in general, but nature doesn’t care about the individual and God does.
We ended the class by saying together this prayer by Pope Francis at the end of Laudato Si:
God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!