Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of ecology and traditionally associated with a strikingly high regard of non-human creation. How fitting it would have been to celebrate with a freshly minted copy of our own Charlie Camosy’s new book For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, but alas, its release date has been delayed. I still want to use our feast today as an opportunity to talk about Charlie’s book and encourage you to add it to your collection.
When I first read the manuscript, I thought, “At last! A comprehensive, accessible text that introduces readers to the main ethical questions concerning non-human animals and illuminates some oft-forgotten parts of the Christian tradition that helps answer these questions.” Charlie’s book is exactly this. It is written for a wide audience with minimal references and non-technical language. It is perfect for undergraduates but should not be mistaken for a traditional work of moral theology scholarship. Yet, Charlie does not sacrifice careful scholarship for accessibility. Like all of his work, this book is thoroughly-researched and carefully argued. It also is illustrative of the “Camosy flair” for integrating rigorous scholarship with a deep sense of passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Also typical of Charlie’s scholarship, this is a book that strives to forge some common ground between unlikely allies: animal rights advocates and anti-abortion advocates. The book emerges out his own experience in seeking consistency in his pro-life stance with regards to non-human animals (NHAs). While “conservatives” have traditionally seen animal rights advocates as ridiculous, Charlie joins an increasingly larger number of pro-lifers who refuse to so easily dismiss the concerns of non-human animals, recognizing that a similar ambiguity about the moral status of pre-natal children (i.e. ought they to be treated as persons or not?) exists with certain higher NHAs. He writes, “A very serious kind of injustice involves a refusal to recognize certain individuals or groups as “the kinds of beings” to which we owe certain kinds of behavior. For instance, for most of Western history both women and peoples of color were put into the “other” category such that those in power didn’t have to think much about what they were owed.” Moreover, the pro-life and animal rights movements have a common basis: a preferential option for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized. The Christian tradition, Charlie argues, stands to gain only more consistency in turning more attention to NHAs, and a consistent ethic of life demands a critical re-evaluation of Christianity’s stance toward our furry brethren.
Charlie is thorough in combing the tradition for resources for Christians in examining the question of NHAs. First, he recognizes that the Christian tradition has often perpetuated what he sees as a dangerous speciesism in arguing for a privileged status of human beings over creation as created in the image of God and given dominion over the earth. But the speciesist tendency within Christianity he sees as revelatory of the human condition which is prone to abuses of power and exploitation, and not to the specificities of the Christian scriptures or tradition. Actually, Charlie argues, Christianity has a lot going for it that directly challenges speciesism. For example, he convincingly argues that God, not human beings, is the center and pinnacle of creation, and that all creation exists for God’s glory (he uses my man Thomas Aquinas to substantiate this point). He also argues that according to Aquinas’ hierarchy of being, angels are higher in the order of ontological perfection than human beings since they participate more perfectly in God’s reason by reasoning non-discursively (of course, Aquinas has a more complicated position regarding angelic hierarchy in light of the incarnation and his reading of Hebrews which establishes human beings as more perfect than angels in the order of salvation).
His argument for a more robust view of NHAs uses a careful re-reading of certain biblical texts. With regards to the Bible, Charlie deftly illustrates that the text is clearly more interested in humans than NHAs but that its view of NHAs is actually more subtle and complex than a speciesist reading indicates. For example, the permission God gives to eat meat in Genesis 9 is a concession made in light of human sinfulness, not part of God’s original plan. This is Charlie’s toughest chapter to argue, I thought. He wants to give careful attention to the Biblical texts as an appeal to a broader audience than just Catholics, particularly with regards to evangelicals. I don’t know if evangelicals are going to be overwhelmingly convinced, however. The real problem, it seems to me, with using the Bible as a basis for making moral arguments about contemporary problems is how rooted the Bible is on its historic context. It’s a tough sell to say that the Bible supports Charlie’s anti-speciesist arguments, though Charlie makes a noble effort to do so. At minimum, however, Charlie wants to be clear that the dominion given to human beings over creation is not to be understood in terms of domination. The biblical view of NHAs deserves a closer look than Christian speciesists and their opponents have usually given it, especially in light of the Christian tradition that supports a much more sophisticated view of the moral status of NHAs.
Charlie argues ambitiously that a more nuanced understanding of the Christian scriptures and tradition, combined with a realistic look at factory farming ought to lead to a serious re-evaluation of our practices, particularly eating meat. And this is a great virtue of this book–Charlie refuses to float safely at the level of theory but actually delves into practical implications of his theoretical arguments. Does the cruelty of factory farming and the ambiguous status of NHAs’ ontology support eating meat? Is the harm done proportionate to the benefit gained (which Charlie assumes is mainly perpetuation of habit and pleasure)? What are the implications for medical research on NHAs and hunting? These are critical questions and they demand Christians take them seriously, rather than dismissing them out of hand, or worse, laughing them off as “liberal concerns.”
Charlie is by no means closing the door on discussion, and indeed, there is much that still needs to be discuss. For example, although Charlie’s ecological assumptions about the place of human beings among the rest of creation are largely convincing, his challenge to speciesism is by no means exempt from its own challenges. It seems to me that speciesism is an ongoing part of the Christian tradition, as exemplified by this critical passage from Gaudium et Spes:
According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown (12).
Perhaps more important than challenging speciesism per se is emphasizing the corresponding responsibilities that accompany humanity’s exalted status. We have a responsibility to care for the poor and marginalized and that responsibility extends to all of creation, human and non, as an extension of and a cooperation with God’s own providential concern.
We should also not forget that St. Francis had more to say about the poor than about his animal friends, and concern for the poor cannot be separated from a concern for NHAs. The factory farms that create such an atrocious life for chickens and pigs often run on the back of underpaid workers who breathe the same foul air, are exposed to the same sanitary nightmares, and are often treated little better than the animals they tend. Charlie’s strongest point is that a consistent ethic of life demands we take the difficult step of finding those areas where we use our power to exploit and our own pursuit of happiness blinds us to the needs of those around us. For most of us, that will be the way we treat our non-human animal friends.
This is a book that needs to be on the shelf of every ethicist teaching undergraduates, Catholic and Protestant (Charlie is writing for a broader audience than Catholic moralists). Students will learn not only about NHAs but also about how to do ethics in a critical and non-partisan way by engaging Charlie’s text. Students will also learn that ethics is not just about certain moral quandaries that only impact us accidentally (like cloning or embryonic stem cell research) but also, and perhaps more importantly, concerns a critical evaluation of our own everyday mundane practices that either contribute or detract from us becoming the morally-integrated beings we desire to become.
St. Francis, pray for us.
(This is the part of a periodic series—You Should Read This—on works worth reading. Search “You Should Read This” for other entries.)