Causing Animals Needless Suffering Is Contrary to Human Dignity

Author: Marie Hendrickx


Marie Hendrickx

Experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only if it contributes to caring for or saving human lives

There is a suffering that borders on mystery, the mystery of the presence of evil in the world. This suffering is inevitable. There is another kind that belongs to the constitution of creation itself, which can be controlled. In the former case it was assumed by Christ crucified and he transformed it, making it, for him and for those who "follow" him, the way that leads to life in God. In the latter case, man is asked not to cause it without good reason and to stop it wherever possible. This duty applies to every individual and to others with whom the individual is in contact. Jesus' preaching and the apostolic writings are full of instructions of this kind. It is enough to cite the "golden rule" proposed by Jesus, which sums up the law and the prophets: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" (Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 6:31; Rom 13:8-10) .

Does something similar apply to the animal world? More precisely, are we morally bound to do everything possible to avoid causing animals suffering? One current of thought, which can be called "egalitarian" (for example, that of Peter Singer), refuses to admit that man has any rights over other living beings. According to this theory, whenever someone is faced with two conflicting interests, that of the best "endowed" living being shouldprevail, that is, the one more highly sensitive to and conscious of pain. From this standpoint, an adult person would certainly take precedence over an animal, but an animal would prevail over any human being in a state of "deficiency": comotose, mentally handicapped, a fetus whose ability to feel pain has not yet developed, etc. According to this "egalitarian" logic, an animal's vital interest would take precedence over any secondary interest of a human being.

Christian thought goes in a very different direction. Its centre is Christ and, in him, man. Strangely, it is precisely because of this dignity attributed to man that certain ecologists accuse Christianity of not considering the natural environment except as a context for human activity. Animals in particular seem to be reduced to the category of provisions. Man can draw on them according to his needs; he can use or even abuse them at will, as mere tools to which he has no obligations, since they themselves have no rights. The Catechism of the CatholicChurch seemsto confirm this view of things: "Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity" (n. 2415), and "God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure" (n. 2417).

This poses the following problems: does the right to use animals for food imply the right to raise chickens in tiny cages where they live in a space smaller than a notebook? Or calves in compartments where they can never move about or see the light? Or to keep sows pinned by iron rings in a feeding position to allow a series of piglets to suck milk constantly and thus grow faster? Does the right to use animals for clothing mean letting those with valuable pelts slowly die of hunger, thirst, cold or haemorrhage in traps? Does the right to use animals for our leisure mean the right to stab bulls with banderillas after tormenting them at length? Does it mean letting horses be disemboweled? Does it mean throwing cats or goats from the top of bell towers?

Before attempting to answer these questions, we should immediately note that the following sentence from the Catechism, which provoked violent protests to the point that the Catholic position was accused of supporting vivisection, was altered between the first edition and the official, typical edition. In fact, where the 1992 text said: "Medical and scientific experimentation on animals, if it remains within reasonable limits, is a morally acceptable practice since it contributes to caring for or saving human lives" (2417), it now reads: "Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives". What is the difference? Merely in the fact that the "since" has been replaced by an "if", that is, on condition that.... Credit is no longer given a priori to medical and scientific experimentation on animals "to care for or to save human lives" and thus to be morally acceptable practices. Before experiments can be legitimately carried out, their usefulness must be shown.

Before proceeding, we point out that these reactions to the Catechism were only partly justified, because the later version is only meant to clarify the meaning of the earlier edition. The admission a priori that experimentation on animals is not morally licit except for its usefulness to man presupposes that a prior effort of discernment has been made to consider it as such. It can therefore be said with perfect logic that the Catechism has also clearly indicated the criteria for a sound and sensible reflection on how one should treat animals: "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly" (n. 2418).

In what does human dignity consist? Because man is superior to animals? Genesis says that the human species alone was created in the "image" and "likeness" of God (cf. Gn 1:26). The Church's faith has often identified this "image" with reason, the specifically human dimension of intellect, which derives from a special participation in the divine intellect (cf. e.g. Gaudium et spes, n. 15). Animals certainly have an innate ability which enables them to find ingenious solutions in difficult practical situations, to direct their means to the ends which instinct has given to them. But they cannot go beyond themselves in order to understand an object as such or their life as a whole. In a word, they cannot "intuslegere", i.e., read into beings and things.

Likewise the human will participates in a specific way in God's will. It bears in itself the desire above all to find its fulfilment in him. In its origin it is fundamentally oriented to the good. But since it is sustained by an intellect which can go beyond itself, it is free, that is, capable of embracing the desire that grounds it or of renouncing it, to let itself be fascinated by lesser, more fleeting, selfish or partial goods, and seeking immediate satisfaction, without considering the consequences for the future or for others. This is the tragedy of sin.

To have (at least virtually) the ability to perceive oneself and to act as an "I" to a "you" is specific to human beings. In his Son God made man a person, hence his interlocutor, even if we do not know how the Lord carries on this relationship with the weaker and more disabled among us. From this undeniable truth we can nevertheless be certain that somewhere God leaves room for the free response of each person (cf. for an analogous case, Gaudium et spes, n. 22).

If our dignity is to be like God, it follows that the more we behave like God, the more we are ourselves. We can and must thank God for the beauty of a kid, a cat or a dog, as we do for the beauty of the sun, the moon and the rain (cf. Canticle of the Creatures). But that is not all. The Little Flowers of St Francis also recount the episode of the wolf of Gubbio. This ferocious beast terrorized the region, The inhabitants asked Francis to intervene and he made an agreement with the animal; the farmers would feed it and, in return, it would no longer prey on their livestock. "And while Francis stretched out his hand to receive his pledge, the wolf raised its right forepaw and delicately placedit in his hand" (The Little Flowers, chap. 21).

This shows that holiness, the reconciliation of man with God, has a sort of magnetic force that attracts creation in a movement of overall reconciliation. This is clearly suggested by Holy Scripture. Does not the prophet Isaiah describe messianic times in these terms: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.... The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp ... for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Is 11:6-9)? The "knowledge of the Lord": the Hebrew word suggests something carnal, like a communion of life; knowing the Lord means becoming in some way consubstantial with him. It also means being perfectly reconciled with creation. The restored harmony with the Creator thanks to the messianic child will be expressed in a new harmony with creation, to which the animal world also belongs. At the time of our definitive encounter with the Beloved, our hearts will be like his, so that all our past affections, however humble they may be, will find their place, having been purified, made right and ordered to him. For God, nothing human can be lost, not even the simple ties we have formed with the animal creatures which filled, for example, our moments of loneliness.

If this is the case, we must repeat with the Catechism thatman is not justified in "causing animals to suffer needlessly". He should therefore refrain from doing so if he can avoid it, or if there are no serious reasons for doing so. The right to feed one's family or large populations can certainly justify it, but not the profit motive alone. Moreover, to take pleasure in the suffering of a living creature is always unhealthy.

Physical suffering is the tangible sign of an attack on life; life is expressed as the biological support of relations. Now even should this seem somewhat cryptic, two categories of relationships can be distinguished: those we have with people and those we have with non-personal beings. A being with whom we can relate as to an end is a human or divine person.

An attack on life, suffering inflicted on the human being who is an end in himself, is not morally justifiable unless it enables the one suffering it (and possibly others as well) to live better, to intensify and improve his human relations, to draw nearer to God. In the case of animals, suffering cannot be legitimately inflicted except under similar conditions.

The dynamic of relations in the world has been corrupted by sin. In his struggle with sin, the Christian will tend to restore to them the sense of grace, of reasonable love for all living beings.

This observation can help to clarify the problem of entertainment involving violence to animals. These shows are often a celebration of colour and movement, and it is understandable that crowds are fascinated by the sight of human intelligence triumphing over unleashed brute force. We can also understand that a sense of solidarity can result from them, of common feeling which, they think, justifies the sacrifice of the animal and the risk to man. But is this true solidarity? Do they really bring people together? Is there truly a collective purification of aggression in it? If the theory of "catharsis" were true, a society would be all the more peaceful the more brutal were its shows, Now we all know that the opposite is true. If this is so, every means must be used to achieve what represents the value of this entertainment without it being at the cost of the animal or the cause of excessive risks to man.

For, if holiness leads to reconciliation with nature, it is probable that reconciliation with nature, properly understood, fosters in turn better relations with God. Or, if the right relationship with God makes people just to others and kind to animals, kindness to animals could in turn reawaken sentiments of admiration and praise in the human heart for the great work of the Creator of the universe.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 January 2001, page 6

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