In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus. Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast. For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians. Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death. Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.
Animals and Their Use
In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect. This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect. The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals. Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.
Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27). But this is really a two-edged sword. Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them. With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures. So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.
Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.” Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood. When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human. Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship. Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals. This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight. Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course, always assumes there is a proper use.
The question also needs to be properly framed. It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal. Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower. There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death. Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing. A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this). No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain. To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.
Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness. Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people. The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain. Pain is the greatest evil. But this is not entirely true. Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself. This is true in both humans and animals. It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose. That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth. Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily. The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain. This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.
The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer. There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection. As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.” We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?” The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz. They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering. Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.
The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it. At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans. When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals. The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made. Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man. If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
The Moral Case For Vegetarianism
All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism. In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29). Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1). The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated. For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life. Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3). In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.
Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state. With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy. Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification. We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed. In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.
Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic. It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death. The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death. How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.
All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation. Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act. This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods. Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice. It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.
For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience. But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday. Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost. Truly, something to be thankful for.