Our treatment of animals wrapped in inconsistencies

By  Scott Kline, Catholic Register Special
  • August 31, 2013

For the Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, by Charles Camosy (Franciscan Media, 136 pages, softcover, $16.72).

“You are what you eat from your head down to your feet!” So said Time for Timer, a character in public service announcements that appeared between Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s. He encouraged kids to listen to their bodies and to think about what goes in. After all, as Timer said, “You are what you swallow.”

In our diet-obsessed and generally narcissistic society, we are bombarded by advertisements for health “systems” that promote everything from high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets to natural, 10-step “detox cleanses” that claim to clean your blood, if not clog your toilet (I need not say more).

And yet, weight-related health problems — diabetes, high-blood pressure and heart disease — continue to plague us. We may be living longer, but we’re not really any healthier.

Michael Pollan, the food activist and bestselling author of A Defense of Food, takes the basic premise of Timer’s adage one step further. He argues that food is an important element of our social and cultural identity. He once said, “the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”
The way we eat also has profound moral meaning — it says something about who we are as human beings.

At a basic level, food is an expression of how we value and relate to God’s creation, especially water, plant life and non-human animals.

Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, has written a provocative little book entitled For the Love of Animals that challenges Catholics to consider not only what we eat but also how we relate to animals in light of Christian tradition. His concern is that we have become ethical slouches.

For whatever reasons, we have become a part of a consumer culture that shoves fast food at us through drive-in windows, serves us meat from plastic-wrapped Styrofoam containers and idolizes pets that tug so heavily on our hearts we couldn’t possibly leave them in the storefront windows.

Camosy believes a good starting point for our ethical reflection is a Christian concept of justice. It goes something like this: “Christian justice means consistently and actively working to see that individuals and groups — especially the vulnerable population on the margins — are given what they are owed. It will be especially skeptical of practices which promote violence, consumerism and autonomy.”

There’s no doubt that many readers will have a difficult time accepting Camosy’s basic premise. He maintains that non-human animals fit within this conception of Christian justice. Animals are not objects to be used and abused. To the contrary, animals are God’s creatures and have intrinsic value. They make moral claims on us, and in turn we owe them respect and the dignity of life.

Camosy acknowledges that, as a society, we have increasingly realized that animals must be treated justly. Take the famous case of football star Michael Vick, who in 2007 pled guilty to charges that he had been involved in a dogfighting ring and that he had hanged or drowned dogs that didn’t perform well. Moral outrage ensued. People were disgusted that he could treat animals like that.

But Camosy sees a troubling contradiction in this outrage. Why are we upset when Vick abuses dogs but we’re silent when it comes to factory farming, injecting chickens and pigs with growth hormones to enhance size and culling animals to keep livestock prices high? Camosy thinks questions like this point to an inconsistency in our ethical framework and moral values.

Drawing on Scripture, the Church’s teaching regarding creation, and recent papal statements — especially Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate — Camosy concludes that a consistent Christian principle of justice leads to vegetarianism, cessation of factory farming, hunting and using animals for research, as well as reconsidering how we relate to pets.

Many readers likely won’t be convinced by Camosy’s argument. Some may be troubled, as I was, that he equates our treatment of animals with mistreatment of people suffering the injustices of racism and sexism.

Nevertheless, this book achieves something important: it offers Catholics a chance to reflect on what we eat, how we relate to God’s creation and ultimately who we are.

(Kline is associate dean at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.)

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