Christians and animals

You're the lifter of the lowly
Compassionate and kind

Any­one who takes up the task of explain­ing the ethics behind veg­an­ism, draws their main argu­ments from the book Ani­mal Lib­er­a­tion by Peter Singer. Time to read this clas­sic from 1975 for myself. Singer is a util­i­tar­i­an, which means his ulti­mate goal is to min­i­mize the amount of suf­fer­ing in the world. Oth­er moral sign­posts, such as reli­gion and emo­tion­al con­sid­er­a­tions, have no place in his ethics. This can give a detached feel­ing to his argu­ments. But for me this does not affect the cen­tral idea: Ani­mals can feel pain, and we have to take into account their inter­ests in our deci­sions. I can eas­i­ly live with­out ani­mal prod­ucts, so why should I make an ani­mal suf­fer because I feel like eat­ing a ham­burg­er? (Not that I ever feel like that.)

In the book, Singer describes how con­cepts about ani­mals have devel­oped in the West­ern world. It is not a his­to­ry to be proud of. Even after the dif­fer­ence between humans and ani­mals became very small accord­ing to the evo­lu­tion the­o­ry, peo­ple con­tin­ued to treat ani­mals as if they were machines. In this post, I want to specif­i­cal­ly reflect upon think­ing about ani­mals in Christianity.


Chris­tian­i­ty in Europe empha­sized that humans have an immor­tal soul. This was an improve­ment when it comes to the val­ue of a human life, but it also caused a sharp dis­tinc­tion between humans and ani­mals. Thomas Aquinas uncrit­i­cal­ly took over Aristotle’s idea that the low­er beings were cre­at­ed to serve the inter­ests of high­er beings. In that world view, ani­mals are no more than objects that may be used by peo­ple. Today, the atti­tude of Chris­tians towards ani­mals is more nuanced and mixed, see this arti­cle from Preece and Fras­er.

This week, a Dutch news­pa­per fea­tured a sto­ry about peo­ple who are Chris­t­ian and veg­an. In it, pas­tor Hans Bouma shares his thoughts on some­thing that is prob­a­bly triv­ial to most peo­ple, but a real prob­lem for me: The fact that Jesus ate meat and fish. Bouma rec­og­nizes a moral pro­gres­sion in the Bible. Just as Paul does not con­demn slav­ery, but lat­er Chris­tians did, we can now draw the moral cir­cle wider than in the time of Jesus.

St Francis

St. Fran­cis­cus in een kerk in Brazil­ië (door Euge­nio Hansen, OFS)

Singer ends his chap­ter about Chris­tian­i­ty with St. Fran­cis, in his words “the out­stand­ing excep­tion to the rule that Catholi­cism dis­cour­ages con­cern for the wel­fare of non­hu­man beings.” Still, his love for ani­mals did not stop the saint from enjoy­ing his steak, because he kept to the idea that the pur­pose of cre­ation is to serve and sus­tain humans.

Of course, today we have our own Pope Fran­cis. In his encycli­cal he says that human beings do not have absolute domin­ion over nature, let alone that they are allowed to abuse it. This is not a new mes­sage from the Roman Catholic Church; Pope John Paul II wrote the same in 1987 (Solic­i­tu­do Rei Socialis). Fran­cis takes this a step fur­ther by say­ing that “each crea­ture has its own pur­pose” (para­graph 84). The tone is still pater­nal­is­tic and miles away from Singer’s posi­tion, but it gives me hope that a more holis­tic Chris­t­ian view of ani­mals is devel­op­ing. Today, the Pope gets the last word:

The ulti­mate des­tiny of the uni­verse is in the full­ness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the mea­sure of the matu­ri­ty of all things. Here we can add yet anoth­er argu­ment for reject­ing every tyran­ni­cal and irre­spon­si­ble dom­i­na­tion of human beings over oth­er crea­tures. The ulti­mate pur­pose of oth­er crea­tures is not to be found in us. Rather, all crea­tures are mov­ing for­ward with us and through us towards a com­mon point of arrival, which is God, in that tran­scen­dent full­ness where the risen Christ embraces and illu­mines all things. Human beings, endowed with intel­li­gence and love, and drawn by the full­ness of Christ, are called to lead all crea­tures back to their Creator.


Pic­ture of Pope: Made by / Kore­an Cul­ture and Infor­ma­tion Ser­vice (Jeon Han)