John Berkman and I are in the midst of an exchange designed to draw attention to the issue of cruelty to non-human animals–particularly from the perspective of Christianity and Catholic Moral Theology.  Check back in the middle part of each week (during the next month or so) for a new post on the topic.

John Berkman’s post on cruelty to non-human animals last week has, quite rightly, received a lot of attention.  For far too long almost all Christians have sat on the sidelines of this debate, and in the process we have allowed those who wish to keep the status quo to frame the debate such that those who wish to protect other animals are seen as extremists who have an anti-Christian point of view.  But this status quo, as John points out, is a level of barbarity and cruelty that is truly mind-numbing.  He is certainly correct that we should stand against animal cruelty with our words, and also that we should also do our best to refuse to participate in the radically sinful social structure of factory farming.

But the latest comment in the post’s thread raises a question that many people may have in mind: is factory farming really that bad?  And a related question: is PETA a reputable source for what is happening to non-human animals in these farms?  These are important questions, and PETA has stood for things that might make us call into question the veracity of its claims.  However, the documentation of factory-farming practices is such that we really don’t need appeal to outside groups for our facts.  Perhaps the most influential book on this topic, Animal Liberation, uses the industry’s own publications in support of the claims of non-human animal abuse.  A similar book, The Ethics of What We Eat, gives a first person account of actually visiting a factory farm. Though there are still some family farms left, they have largely been driven out of the market by large corporations which can produce the meat at a far lower cost, with the result that 99% of all animals killed for meat are raised intensely in factory farms.

No, the status quo in animal flesh production is well-documented, and it goes far beyond pigs.  Consider, for instance, that factory-farmed turkeys are bred with breasts so big that they cannot mate naturally and therefore must be artificially inseminated. The males are, um, manually stimulated by a factory farm worker to procure semen, and the hens are ‘broken’ so that inseminators can insert a straw of semen connected to the end of a tube from an air compressor into their bodies. Or consider that chickens often spend their entire lives in the darkness of a half a square foot of living space, which, because no attempt is made to remove their feces, is full of rotting, dirty, ammonia-charged litter.  And these practices, as bad as they are, are just the tip of the cruelty iceberg. I recommend reading both books above for more.

As John pointed out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically prohibits causing other animals to suffer and die needlessly.  Very, very few of us need to eat meat, and even fewer of us need to eat cheap factory-farmed meat.  For most of human history eating meat was rarely done, and we have learned much about the health benefits of avoiding animal flesh in our diets.  For instance, we know that eating meat greatly increases one’s chances of getting various cancers, and Bill Clinton’s going vegan is just the latest story highlighting the relationship between meat-eating and heart disease.  When one adds the fact that meat-eating contributes mightily to climate change, other ecological destruction, and radically inefficient calorie production, you’ve got a practice that is the opposite of “necessary.”  Indeed, depending on how one uses the word, it might be necessary to stop the practice.

So the reasons to avoid participation in the sinful social structure of factory-farming are many, but perhaps the best one of all was cited by John as coming from the mouth of then Cardinal Ratzinger: the practice is contrary to a Biblical understanding of right relationship between human beings and other animals. True, Roman Catholic theologians need to set a better example with our words and deeds in drawing attention to this fact.  We should be writing and speaking more about this issue and engaging in many different kinds of practices which resist the power of factory-farming in our culture. But is that all that needs to happen?  Where are priests preaching about this at Sunday mass and writing about it in bulletin messages (especially, perhaps, on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi the week of October 4th)?  Where are Bishops forming a culture of non-violence when it comes to treatment of other animals in their diocese (especially, perhaps, in the food that is purchased for official events)?  And dare we hope that the Bishop of Rome, well-known as an animal lover himself, will make a clear and direct statement about the logical implications of his view of the Bible on other animals (and that of the Catechism) for participation in factory farming?

Each day that goes by without action is another in which billions of other animals suffer needless, mind-numbing cruelty–while the overwhelming majority of Christians either stand on the sidelines or explicitly support the status quo.

For how long can this situation endure?