THE PLACE OF ANIMALS IN THE CATHOLIC FAITH


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Gn 9:1-13; Ps 102:16-21,29,22-23; Mk 8:27-33]

Today, people are not just promoting human rights but they are also promoting animal rights.  In their love for animals, those who hold an extreme position on animals elevate their rights almost equal to that of human beings.  The place of animals in the Catholic Faith is often ambiguous.  Do they have a soul?  Can we see our departed animals in the next life?  Will they go to heaven?  The good news is that the Church has never made a pronouncement on this question in a definitive and explicit manner.  This gives us room for theological speculation.  Indeed, we have differing positions among Catholic theologians and even popes on the matter of life after death for animals.   So this remains an open question.  In other words, revelation does not give categorical answers on this matter.   

Whether we like it or not, this world which we live in is a ruptured world.  Since the start of creation, when sin entered into the world through our first parents, the world has been divided, torn apart by selfishness and evil.  The paradise that God intended for humanity was never realized.  God wanted all of us to live a harmonious life, not just among fellow human beings but with the whole of creation.  He created the world in perfect order but man destroyed the order of creation because of pride, wanting to do things their own way.  This sin of pride, beginning with Adam and Eve who wanted to be like God without God, then spread to Cain, whose pride was hurt when God showed favour to Abel by accepting his gifts.

Indeed, when we look at the intention of God’s plan for creation, it was to be something peaceful and harmonious.  The Lord gave man authority over creation.  “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gn 1:28) Animals were meant to be the friends of human beings.  “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.”  (Gn 2:18-20)

It appears that human beings were called to be vegans in the mind of God.  He said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Gn 1:29f) After the sin of Adam, the Lord still presumed that man would be a vegan for He said, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Gn 3:18f)

But this harmonious relationship between man and animals was severed after the entry of sin into the world.  If Cain could kill his fellow brother, what will stop man from killing animals?  (Gn 4:1-8) It is significant that a curse was placed on Cain after he murdered his brother. “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  (Gn 4:11f) He became a nomad and no longer a farmer.  This curse is not the same as the curse that the Lord pronounced on Adam earlier when he was supposed to grow food from the ground.  (cf Gn 3:17-19) The situation worsened after Noah in spite of the cleansing.  “God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.  Be the terror and the dread of all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven, of everything that crawls and the ground and all the fish of the sea; they are handed over to you.”  Instead of living in peace with animals, now they were enemies of the wild beasts.  Then, they were vegans, but apparently God out of sympathy for humanity, since the ground was cursed and no longer could grow crops, God gave the concession to man to kill and eat animals.  “Every living and crawling thing shall provide food for you, no less than the foliage of plants.”

Yet the fact remains that this perhaps was not in the original plan of God.  That was why a special clause was added. I give you everything, with this exception:  you must not eat flesh with life, that is to say blood, in it.  I will demand an account of your life-blood.  I will demand an account from every beast and from man.”  Blood was considered to be consonant with life.  Killing animals for food was not the ideal but because of the need of human beings, it was permitted out of concession.  Indeed, in the Acts of the Apostles, St Peter was given the vision of four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  Then he heard a voice saying to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  (Cf Acts 11:15-10) Hence, it would be wrong to say that slaughtering animals for food is a sin, since man has been given dominion, which means stewardship over creation, which entails proper use of them.

A similar case in point is the question of divorce.  Jesus made it clear, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt 19:8) The ideal remains that “what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  (Mt 19:6) But we also know that the ideal does not always happen because we are all sinful and broken people.  That is why the Church, whilst maintaining the indissolubility of marriage, advocates compassion and understanding for those who are divorced and even remarried.  This is where we must evoke the law of gradualness.

However, there must also be a clear distinction between man and animals as well.  We are not equal.  God said, “I will demand an account of every man’s life from his fellow men.  He who sheds man’s blood, shall have his blood shed by man, for in the image of God man was made.”  Whilst we must respect animals and not allow them to suffer cruelly, they cannot be raised to the dignity of human beings.  “One can love animals; however one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons”.  (CCC 2418) This is because we are created in the image and likeness of God.  We share in God’s intellect and will.  We have a soul that is fully rational.  We can conceptualize ideas, know what is right and wrong, and the ability to determine our choices.  We also have a spirit that enables us to communicate with God and develop a deep friendship with God.  This is what we mean when we say that we have an immortal soul.

Animals also have a soul, but it is of a different level than human beings.  Soul in this instance refers to the animating principle that gives them life.  That is why they can grow and they can also feel and respond to external stimuli.  But they cannot choose or determine their lives like human beings do, although some of them have a high degree of intelligence and will.  Of course, with regard to the question of the soul of animals, there are also different views as well.  St Thomas Aquinas holds that “souls” of animals are extinguished upon death, unlike human beings.   However, Pope John Paul II during a public audience in 1990 taught that animals too are given the breath of life by God.  Indeed, the word “anima”, which means “soul”, is where the word “animal” is derived.  “However, other texts state that animals have the breath of life and were given it by God. In this respect man, created by the hand of God, is identical with all other living creatures.”  Of course, it does not mean that there is no distinction between the soul of a man and that of an animal.  Man remains unique because we are created in God’s image and therefore killing of another man is a grave sin.

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to hope that all animals will share in the transfiguration of heaven and earth, as scripture says.  Elijah’s chariot with horses were taken into heaven.  (cf 2 Kg 2:11f) Isaiah spoke of a restored creation when man and animals live in harmony. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;” (Isa 11:6-9  cf Isa 65:25) St Paul speaks of the fulfillment of creation when he wrote,  “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  (Rom 8:22-23) The book of Revelation says, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  (Rev 5:13)

This too is the hope of Pope Francis when he wrote in Laudato Si, “At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: ‘I make all things new’ (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.”  (# 243)


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved


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