When a Pope names himself after the most famous animal-lover of all time, and then chooses to write his first encyclical on ecology, expectations can become…um…rather high. Laudato Si’ did say several wonderful things about non-human animals. And especially given what it says about our relationship to creation more generally–along with its level of authority and popular attention–I don’t think its a stretch to say that could become the most important text written about animal concern since Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. 

But people often see what they expect or hope to see in a text, and this was certainly true in this circumstance. PETA pulled no punches in strategically flying aircraft with the following message in tow: “Pope’s Message Requires All to GO VEGAN.” Peter Singer tweeted something similar, “Great to see Pope Francis speaking out for animals! A vegan Pope is the logical next step.” The president of the Humane Society of the United States described the document as “Pope Francis’s Unreserved Embrace of Animal Protection.”

None of these strong claims are warranted by what’s found in the text. While the encyclical did say several hopeful things about animals, there were also several missed opportunities. Let me briefly highlight three examples of each.

Hopeful Signs

1. Intrinsic value. Gone forever, it seems, is the idea that animals are mere things for us to use as mere tools or objects. Good riddance:

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” (#33)

“Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable.” (#36)

“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (#67)

Creation has “an intrinsic value” which is “independent of [its] usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself.” (#140)

2.  Explicit skepticism of big agriculture. Given the amount of suffering that billions of animals undergo in huge factory farms,  it was great that the Pope lifted up “small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste.” (#129) These smaller farms are much better-able to care for their animals as the kinds of creatures they are.

3. Biomedical experimentation specifically addressed.  Here’s the quote: “the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives…human power has limits and it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” (#130)

Missed Opportunities

1. Where are the specifics?  This was a kind of missed opportunity several places in the encyclical. For instance, almost everyone agrees that there should be “reasonable limits” on animal experimentation–but given the general moral principles the Pope had laid out, what follows about certain kinds of experiments? With regard to which animals? On these kinds of questions, the encyclical lacks specifics. (In a recent article we wrote for America magazine, however, a professor of veterinary medicine and I do offer some specifics.)

2. No explicit reflection on factory farming. This was a huge missed opportunity, not only because of intrinsic value of the creatures who suffer so terribly in these buildings, but because it is perhaps the best example the Pope’s could have invoked to explain his central idea: integral ecology. The intense and horrific harm done to animals is one set of concerns, but the human/non-human interrelatedness of harms is overwhelming: too much animal fat in our blood causes heart disease and cancer. All kinds of chemicals and drugs necessary to maximize protein units per square foot in factory farms are getting transferred to human bodies. In particular, we are creating dangerous superbugs via huge amounts of antibiotics with which we douse these creatures. And, of course, factory farms are probably the most serious source of carbon emissions.

3. Where are the distinctions between creatures? The encyclical has very good things to say about God’s creation–things that needed to be said with this kind of platform and authority–but at times it appears that “creation” unnecessarily collapses into one big undifferentiated mass of stuff.  Here’s a representative example:

“We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism. Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (#92)

Any aspect of reality? Really?

I was being pushed on Facebook after the encyclical’s release to defend the value of the Ebola virus. And what about the skin cells I kill when I scratch an itch on my arm?  Is squatting a mosquito the moral equivalent of growing a pig in torturous conditions for profit?

These kinds of questions require careful attention to complex and controversial issues, so perhaps they go beyond the scope of this particular (and already long) encyclical. But moral theologians are beginning to give these issues the attention they deserve, and grounded in several of Laudato Si‘s foundational ideas about creation, technology, consumerism, and asceticism there are now wonderful (and urgent) opportunities to do even more.