Born Jorge Bergolgio, he took the papal name of Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, shown behind him in this image from Brazil.Luca Zennaro / European Pressphoto Agency
By now many of us are aware of the interview in which Pope Francis urged pro-lifers to stop obsessing about abortion. The very next day after this interview was published, interestingly enough, the pope made a point of condemning abortion in very strong terms. The point Francis is making has been made by pro-life Christians for several decades now: because the root of our opposition to abortion lies with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it must be connected to a host of other very important issues.
Christians oppose abortion because, more generally, we are committed to standing for voiceless, marginalized populations who are threatened with violence. We stand with such populations because those in power find their dignity inconvenient, and will “other” them in an attempt to have their dignity ignored. The connections to abortion here are obvious, but our Gospel values also commit us to resist bullying and other violence directed against gays and lesbians, marginalization and even euthanasia of the old and sick, sexual violence against women and girls, the monstrous gap between rich and poor, structural violence directed against racial minorities and immigrants, and so very much more.
To the extent that pro-life Christians obsess over abortion, we not only do a disservice to the whole of the Gospel, we also paradoxically undermine our ability to effectively advocate for prenatal children. We allow ourselves to be caricatured as “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life.” We allow ourselves to be caricatured as part of a “war on women” rather than refusing to choose between women and their children. We allow ourselves to be caricatured as part of a political party which, frankly, doesn’t stand for the whole of the Gospel. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, however, we don’t actually lose anything by focusing on issues beyond abortion. On the contrary, a broad focus actually strengthens our ability to defend the lives of prenatal children.
And today, the feast of St. Francis, brings with it a new opportunity to consistently apply our pro-life values. In a new book I wrote for Franciscan Media, I argue that animals are exactly the kind of marginal and vulnerable population about which pro-lifers should be concerned. Like our prenatal children, they are threatened with horrific violence—particularly in factory farms. Also like our prenatal children, they cannot speak for themselves and their dignity is quite inconvenient for powerful others who would prefer, for example, to think of pigs as “pepperoni” and cows as “burgers.”
But some might ask “What dignity?” Don’t the creation stories of Genesis give human beings dominion over animals? And, for Catholics, doesn’t the Catechism say that we can use animals for food and clothing? But the creation stories of Genesis also explain that God intended human beings to eat a vegetarian diet, and non-human animals were created “because it is not good man should be alone.” The Catechism puts two strict limits on our use of animals: (1) we can only cause animals to suffer and die in situations of need, and (2) we owe animals kindness.
When pro-lifers buy and eat animals who are tortured and slaughtered in factory farms, we not only cooperate with a horrific and cruel evil, we make a mockery of our duty to show animals kindness. Furthermore, almost no one “needs” to eat factory farmed meat. Our meat-addicted society overstates the amount of protein required for healthy living, especially given that most of us can get more than enough from eating relatively cheap lentils, peas, beans, and nuts.
Nor would this concern be something totally new for pro-lifers. Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow of the pro-life Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote an important article for First Things titled, “Pro-Animal, Pro-Life.” A former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Matthew Scully penned a very important book in defense of animals called “Dominion.” From C.S. Lewis, to William Wilberforce, to St. Francis himself, we can point to multiple examples of hard core Christians who saw no contradiction between their faith and concern for animals. Indeed, perhaps our moral duties toward animals should, at the very least, lead Christians to return to our ancient practices of refusing to eat meat on Fridays and during the holy season of Lent.
Not all moral obligations are equal, of course. If I had to choose, I would say that abortion is more serious than the issue factory farming of animals. But, pro-lifers don’t have to choose. Again, standing for the dignity of non-human animals makes opposition to abortion more effective—and vice versa. Pope Francis appears to be leading pro-life Christians toward a more consistent ethic of life. On this feast day of the patron saint of animals, perhaps we can be more consistent in our concern for violence inflicted on vulnerable populations—both human and non-human.
Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. His new book is titled For “Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.”