Should We Rethink Eating Animals?

Perhaps our moral duties toward animals should, at the very least, lead Christians to return to our ancient practices of refusing to eat meat on Fridays and during the holy season of Lent.


By now many of us are aware of the interview in which Pope Francis urged pro-lifers to stop obsessing about abortion. The very next day after this interview was published, interestingly enough, the pope made a point of condemning abortion in very strong terms. The point Francis is making has been made by pro-life Christians for several decades now: because the root of our opposition to abortion lies with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it must be connected to a host of other very important issues.

Christians oppose abortion because, more generally, we are committed to standing for voiceless, marginalized populations who are threatened with violence. We stand with such populations because those in power find their dignity inconvenient, and will “other” them in an attempt to have their dignity ignored. The connections to abortion here are obvious, but our Gospel values also commit us to resist bullying and other violence directed against gays and lesbians, marginalization and even euthanasia of the old and sick, sexual violence against women and girls, the monstrous gap between rich and poor, structural violence directed against racial minorities and immigrants, and so very much more.

To the extent that pro-life Christians obsess over abortion, we not only do a disservice to the whole of the Gospel, we also paradoxically undermine our ability to effectively advocate for prenatal children. We allow ourselves to be caricatured as “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life.” We allow ourselves to be caricatured as part of a “war on women” rather than refusing to choose between women and their children. We allow ourselves to be caricatured as part of a political party which, frankly, doesn’t stand for the whole of the Gospel. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, however, we don’t actually lose anything by focusing on issues beyond abortion. On the contrary, a broad focus actually strengthens our ability to defend the lives of prenatal children.

And today, the feast of St. Francis, brings with it a new opportunity to consistently apply our pro-life values. In a new book I wrote for Franciscan Media, I argue that animals are exactly the kind of marginal and vulnerable population about which pro-lifers should be concerned. Like our prenatal children, they are threatened with horrific violence — particularly in factory farms. Also like our prenatal children, they cannot speak for themselves and their dignity is quite inconvenient for powerful others who would prefer, for example, to think of pigs as “pepperoni” and cows as “burgers.”

But some might ask “What dignity?” Don’t the creation stories of Genesis give human beings dominion over animals? And, for Catholics, doesn’t the Catechism say that we can use animals for food and clothing? But the creation stories of Genesis also explain that God intended human beings to eat a vegetarian diet, and non-human animals were created “because it is not good man should be alone.” The Catechism puts two strict limits on our use of animals: (1) we can only cause animals to suffer and die in situations of need, and (2) we owe animals kindness.

When pro-lifers buy and eat animals who are tortured and slaughtered in factory farms, we not only cooperate with a horrific and cruel evil, we make a mockery of our duty to show animals kindness. Furthermore, almost no one “needs” to eat factory farmed meat. Our meat-addicted society overstates the amount of protein required for healthy living, especially given that most of us can get more than enough from eating relatively cheap lentils, peas, beans, and nuts.

Nor would this concern be something totally new for pro-lifers. Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow of the pro-life Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote an important article for First Things titled, “Pro-Animal, Pro-Life.” A former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Matthew Scully penned a very important book in defense of animals called “Dominion.” From C.S. Lewis, to William Wilberforce, to St. Francis himself, we can point to multiple examples of hard core Christians who saw no contradiction between their faith and concern for animals. Indeed, perhaps our moral duties toward animals should, at the very least, lead Christians to return to our ancient practices of refusing to eat meat on Fridays and during the holy season of Lent.

Not all moral obligations are equal, of course. If I had to choose, I would say that abortion is more serious than the issue factory farming of animals. But, pro-lifers don’t have to choose. Again, standing for the dignity of non-human animals makes opposition to abortion more effective—and vice versa. Pope Francis appears to be leading pro-life Christians toward a more consistent ethic of life. On this feast day of the patron saint of animals, perhaps we can be more consistent in our concern for violence inflicted on vulnerable populations—both human and non-human.

Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. His new book is titled For “Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.”

Image via Jim Linwood.

Written by

  • larryclyons

    Except, the Bible says nothing at all about abortion. In fact the Bible, or at least the Old Testament does not consider the fetus to be a life until after it is born. The Bible clearly states that life and personhood begins with “breath”. With the creation of “man” in Genesis 2:7, God:

    “…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

    The Hebrew word for human being or living soul is nephesh, which is also the word for “breathing.” Nephesh occurs over 700 times in the Bible as the identifying factor in human life. Obviously, fetuses do not breath and therefore cannot be considered as human beings according to the Bible. Here is another verse that reinforces this conclusion. God says:
    “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
    (Ezekiel 37:5)

    God also tells Moses how to calculate the value of persons being offered to God:
    “If the person is from a month old up to five years old, your valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver.” (Leviticus 27:6)

    The fact that God assigns no value whatsoever to newborn infants or fetuses means that “God-fearing” anti-choicers are openly defying their God!

    Moreover abortion is not murder. The only reference I found regarding what happens when a woman has a spontaneous abortion because of a conflict states quite plainly. A fetus is not considered a human life.
    “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life.”
    — Exodus 21:22-23

    The Bible however is quite clear on murder, the penalty is death except in cases of the above quote, then the killing of a fetus is a misdemeanor fine.

  • larryclyons

    Forgot to mention, I’m a member of the other PETA — People Eating Tasty Animals.

    This weekend I’ll be celebrating St. Francis with steak, hamburgers and hotdogs done on the grill. And veal scaloppini on Sunday.

  • letsgooakland

    This piece might be one of the most foolish I’ve ever read.

  • letsgooakland

    As soon as the baby is viable outside the womb, it is murder and virtually every court agrees.

  • practical

    If it is “viable” outside the womb, then let BE viable outside the womb at the responsibility of the one who insists it lives — and to provide financial and medical support to the woman until the foetus IS outside the womb.

  • tony55398

    Animals taste good. At least some of them.

  • 3vandrum

    “Our meat-addicted society overstates the amount of protein required for healthy living, especially given that most of us can get more than enough from eating relatively cheap lentils, peas, beans, and nuts.”
    I cannot agree more. Meat eating is an addiction. People would not give up eating meat even though it is totally unnecessary today Vegetarianism is ethically right position to take and does not have to be based on religious values alone. Other than Jains ( who do not believe in a creator god) no other religion takes animal rights
    seriously. Christianity, Islam and Judaism assume that God created all these animals for us to eat.

  • WmarkW

    In the West, we only eat the animals that themselves (or their wild equivalents) are killed for food in nature.

    We don’t eat hunters like dogs and cats; we eat prey animals like cattle, pigs, fish and chickens.
    It is part of their natural life-cycle to be killed and eaten.

  • tony55398

    I don’t like the modern factory farms of today. I grew up on a small Midwestern farm where the animals were allowed to pasture. They were given sufficient space to live and grow, but it’s government policies that led to the present huge Corporate agribusiness farms of today. The family farm is all but dead. When you grow up on a farm you realize that animals are just that, animals and not some lower form of human life. They do not think or understand like we do, they’re instinctive, they act like what their nature says they should, nothing else.

  • tony55398

    I should add to the above post that with the demise of the small farm that many small towns also disappeared because the large Corporate farms bypassed these towns with their product and so also, the jobs that small farms provided disappeared as well. The government supposedly pursued a cheap food policy, but the perhaps another reason was because the factories needed more manpower and that manpower was down on the farm, so in order to man the factories the small farm had to go and with it went the family farm and many small towns and a better and more humane way to raise livestock. Now we have corn on corn and antibiotic meat.

  • tony55398

    Just one more thing ethyl alcohol out of a food product, very, very stupid. Corn farmers are tearing up land that should never be planted, it’s an environmental disaster in the making.

  • tony55398

    And pouring on the fertilizer like there’s no tomorrow, witness the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi, not to mention the build up of soil in our rivers from runoff.

  • christopher1122

    If you kill enough chickens and pigs, I suppose, you can start to overlook their obvious moral status. Chickens regularly beat humans at Tic Tac Toe, and pigs are smarter than dogs. And at an even higher level, the great apes and dolphins and elephants are rational and self-aware creatures who even have a sense of justice…and even understand death and mourn their death.

  • christopher1122

    Not so. Both Christianity and Judaism assume that God created these animals “because it is not good man should be alone.”

  • christopher1122

    No, they don’t act “by instinct.” Chickens beat humans at tic tack toe. Pigs are smarter than dogs.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Christopher. I am interested in whether you genuinely think that animals were created after man, and for the purpose of keeping us company. I cannot see how this would logically have come about, especially given the fossil evidence, and gives a totally over-inflated view of man’s place in the ecosystem. When this happens, it gives us carte blanche to act with impunity, taking liberties with both the ecosystem, and the rights of our fellow animals to share it with us.
    In my view, (and that of biologists generally) each species occupies a certain niche, and that niche may be to provide food for the next tropic level. We can’t digest cellulose, so can’t exist on grass. Sheep and cows can, and make that energy available to the carnivores and omnivores in the next stage of the food chain. Humans are top predators, we have just adapted away from hunting for food as our brain development has allowed us to farm the animals instead. We do, however, have a moral duty to respect our fellow members of the food chain, as our ancestors used to.

  • reformthesystem

    Prof. Camosy could have emphasized that Jesus and his disciples favored eating fish, and seemingly only ate bread with grape wine at the Last Supper. Muslims and many Jews abjure pig meat. Hindoos that are not vegetarian abjure cow meat. However, Korean men and many Chinese eat dog, and some cats, as well as snake and cold-cooked jellyfish, while in the Philippines people eat ants, Australians eat kangaroo, but maybe not platypus, and many Japanese drool over the meat of whales protected as an endangered species by treaty to which Japan is a party in spite of their claim in defense of violating that treaty that eating whale is part of their culture. While pro-lifers could be expected to be against cannibalism practiced in some cultures, maybe nobody eats skunk.

  • CCNL

    Tis a matter of evolutionary progress. Without meat, we would still be apes. And killing a pastured, small family farm animal still requires the same killing practices used in modern farming. My uncle was quite good a cutting off the head of chickens that were needed for dinner. And look at the Christian god, he sacrificed his son. Tis enough to vitiate all of Christianity!!!

  • reformthesystem

    As the great Cab Calloway used to sing, “A chicken ain’t nothin but a bird.”

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as “Should we rethink eating animals?”

    Jesus, God-Incarnate, was not a vegetarian.

    If one wishes to be a vegetarian than be one, if not, than don’t.

  • christopher1122

    Jesus, as far as we can tell, didn’t eat meat. And he most certainly didn’t eat factory farmed meat.

  • jorge_mt

    But where is the limit? If we are pro-life, shouldn’t we stop eating vegetables as well? Shouldn’t we stop killing bacteria? What about animals eating each other? They can because they are not aware so it’s just how it works for them? Then, should we allow flesh-eating bacteria to feast on us? Are viruses alive or not? If they are, given their behavior is not much more aware than growing crystals, wouldn’t that mean that everything that is mutable in the universe is some kind of life? Should we just bar ourselves from everything and let ourselves just die of awareness? Were does “need” begin? Does a child’s intelligence development depend on food? Everything suggests so – no proof has been ever submitted to the contrary. If this is true, then do we “need” to be smarter, or should be content with be dumber but more respectful of animals? Would we be asking ourselves these questions if we were dumber? Do we really believe an overpopulated world could be fed with just beans and soy? Should we trim down our numbers? Maybe start recycling ourselves? Soylent green?

    I have no problem in treating animals right. I had dogs and when they suffered, I suffered. I don’t want to know what happens at industrial farms or at slaughterhouses right now. But I also want answers, not just assumptions.

  • larryclyons

    he was a meat eater. After all he advocated cannibalism.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Jesus, as far as we can tell, didn’t eat meat. And he most certainly didn’t eat factory farmed meat.”

    As far as what is in the bible, it mentions that Jesus ate fish.

    As far as “factory farmed meat”, I don’t think there was much of that available back then, was it?

    Another thing, Jesus not only was a winemaker but He bypassed the grapes.

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    This article really changed my perspective. I never thought of things that way.

    Personally, I will never again eat animals with just sweet-and-sour sauce. I think I shall branch out into barbecue and occasional Cajun seasoning.

  • nanonano1

    Should we rethink eating animals?<<


  • FelicityHangnail

    No No No, folks……………..what we should be rethinking is whether we should be eating people….

  • jdVA

    “When you grow up on a farm you realize that animals are just that, animals and not some lower form of human life. They do not think or understand like we do, they’re instinctive, they act like what their nature says they should, nothing else.”


    With all due respect, Tony55398, a lot of people who grow up on farms become desensitized, which is what you go on to describe in your view of animals. There’s been plenty of science and studies of animals which show that they are regularly underestimated, and are known to be far more intelligent than people used to believe, and they don’t just act on nature’s programming.

  • leibowde84

    Jesus ate fish. Eating fish precludes him from being a vegetarian.

  • Afton1

    I don’t believe the issue is whether or not we should or shouldn’t eat animals. It’s how those animals are treated during their lives and slaughter. The life of a factory farmed animal is abysmal. A little compassion and respect when dealing with them can’t be a bad thing.