For five years Fr. Donatello Iocco has been making vegan meals for himself daily. He encourages his parishioners at Toronto’s St. Ambrose Church to think more compassionately about the food they consume. Photo by Michael Swan

Animal welfare and the Church

  • February 19, 2021

Since watching a Netflix documentary on veganism five years ago, Fr. Donatello Iocco has never been the same. 

The film Vegucated explored the challenges of converting to a vegan diet. Viewing it began a lifestyle pivot for the Toronto priest that transformed him from a meat eater to now daily preparing his own vegan meals. Exposed by the film to the reality of slaughterhouses and animal farming for human consumption for the first time, he was convinced that Catholicism and animal welfare are part and parcel. 

“It just moved me so much seeing animals suffer and being so scared of the human hand,” said Iocco, pastor at St. Ambrose Parish in Etobicoke. “I think it was a day or two later that I decided not to participate in that anymore. Thinking about our faith of compassion and mercy, I found it difficult to navigate through knowing that was happening. It really tested my faith.”

At the time, Iocco was not seeing many Christians in Canada choosing a vegan lifestyle but has since seen a slight shift in the mentality of many believers. Iocco said he pastors a “vegan friendly” parish but emphasizes it isn’t about getting the congregation necessarily to give up meat but encouraging parishioners to think more deeply and compassionately about what they consume. 

“For those who feel sometimes that Christians don’t participate in (conversations around animal welfare), I want people outside the parish to come to our church and know there’s somewhere they can go to talk about it within our faith community,” said Iocco, who has heard of people leaving churches around the issue of animal welfare. “I just want to be a bit more open and for people to know there is a pastor in a church that is willing to talk about it.” 

As an impassioned new convert to the plant-based lifestyle, Iocco soon began preaching to his congregation about the virtues of compassionate eating, presenting statistics where possible, but admits he did receive some pushback. Some congregants were not ready for that message, even quoting the Old Testament and Paul in the New Testament to show eating meat is biblically permitted.

Recognizing the need for baby steps, Iocco, who hopes one day to see slaughterhouses abolished, focused his messaging more on the need for believers to think compassionately in all areas of life, including food. In some past years he has used Lent to encourage a 40-day plant-based diet and once held a Christmas party with an all-vegan menu. Over the years, several parishioners have reported converting to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.

“I remember in the beginning I was a little bit more urgent (with preaching about transitioning to plant-based living) because I was kind of going through it,” he said. “I understand it kind of takes (small) steps with certain people and obviously people have been open to it as well. If you’re always talking about it, I think there are people that don’t want to hear it all the time unfortunately. It’s a delicate matter at times because you are dealing with people’s palette.” 

Chris Fegan is CEO of Catholic Concern for Animals (CCA), an international charity working to advance Christian respect and responsibility for animal creation. He recognizes Iocco as part of the growing network of vegan priests helping to change the narrative around animal consumption.

Based in Essex, United Kingdom, Fegan — a vegan himself — has travelled the world meeting with Catholic leadership and hosting seminars to promote a culture of compassion for all of creation. The organization has leaned into the message of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, where the Pope critiques the impact of the culture of consumerism and irresponsible development on environmental degradation and global warming. The Pope stresses the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity and the necessity of economic growth to be accompanied by “authentic social and moral progress.” 

The CCA has made the manner of death animals suffer a high priority in its messaging given the human health implications of eating meat and the impact on climate change and social justice. It engages in advocacy discourse as it pertains to diet and the catechism requirement not to cause the unnecessary suffering or death of animals and encourages the Western Church to support a meat-free diet. Educational campaigns, presentations and seminars also educate on the suffering of animals used for entertainment and experimental purposes in laboratories, and stressing the need to preserve habitats for creatures in the wild and the remembrance of animals killed in war. 

The conversation varies around the world, said Fegan. For instance, on teaching in the developing world, Fegan says the vegan lifestyle might not be a practical or even a necessary conversation depending on the cultural relationship to wildlife. When interacting with clergy and parishioners in these places, he said the conversation can lean towards more culturally relevant topics such as the conservation of wildlife and the discouragement of blood sports. 

Though these are areas where animals are bound to end up as a food source, Fegan says they are still treated better than the factory farm system of developed nations.

“The lifestyle of a chicken say in Africa is far, far better while it’s alive than the lifestyle of the factory farm chicken in the United States or Europe whose lives are horrendous in industrial farming,” said Fegan. “The life of the chicken in Africa, even though its ultimate destination is going to be for somebody’s food, while it’s alive is far better than in the West. They look after animals because they need them, so it’s a different message tailored to where in the world, but the core teaching of concern for animals is still the same.”

Fegan hopes CCA teams that have given many talks in the United States and worked with animal welfare organizations such as the Humane Society will be able travel to North America in the near future to help move the global conversation forward. Their last visit to the U.S. was at the beginning of the Trump presidency but since then Fegan says it has been a “no-go area” due to that administration’s lack of support for progressive animal welfare policy. Fegan is hopeful that under Joe Biden the needle will shift, and they will soon be able to meet with policy makers in Washington. 

For Iocco’s part, during Lent this year, he has partnered with a local organization to distribute free vegan dinners (made with a fish substitute) to parishioners on Fridays. He looks forward to traction in the conversation picking up in Canada and is committed to continuing the work to let people know there is someone of the faith in Toronto they can connect with around this issue. 

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