Acton Commentary

Animal Rights and Wrongs


“Jesus was a vegetarian,” maintains a new publicity campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals . The 600,000 member animal rights organization that regularly protests against clothing made from animals, important, life-saving medical research that involves animal test subjects, and the “cruelty” of the circus, has begun erecting giant billboards across the country espousing its theology. These billboards feature a Moses-like figure with outstretched arms, and the words, “I said ‘Thou shalt not kill’ Go Vegetarian.” (Apparently, PETA organizers are unfamiliar with the Jewish requirement of eating meat on Saturdays and on most religious holidays or of Jesus eating fish with the masses during Passover (John 6).)

“By enlisting Jesus as its newest spokesperson,” says Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s Vegetarian Campaign coordinator, “PETA hopes to encourage Christians to adopt a vegetarian diet and follow His teachings by showing love and mercy for all living beings.” The billboards have been strategically located for greatest effect. Recent locations include Atlanta (for the Southern Baptist convention), Tampa, Florida (for the National Baptist convention) and St. Louis (to welcome Pope John Paul II to the United States last year).

This effort to use the Judeo-Christian tradition’s uncompromising respect for human life and dignity to advance the “animal rights” agenda goes straight to the heart of that tradition and raises a number of fundamental questions. Has the human person a unique dignity as a being created in the image and likeness of God, or are humans simply advanced animals of equal status to the other creatures of the earth? Does our stewardship obligation entail cruelty or care for God’s creation and creatures? What is the right relationship between man and nature?

Last October, the Acton Institute brought together twenty-five prominent clergy, theologians, ethicists, environmental scientists and policy experts to help answer these important questions. Out of this meeting in West Cornwall, Connecticut came the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship , a short religious statement on the environment. It offers a scientifically sound, economically informed, and theologically coherent vision that stands in marked contrast to that being offered by the burgeoning animal rights movement.

The Cornwall Declaration has already been signed by well over a hundred prominent religious leaders , including Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, Rabbi David Novak of the University of Toronto, and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things . Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant leaders are also working with the Acton Institute and the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship to develop Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition . This book, due out next month, more fully articulates the principles laid out in the Cornwall Declaration and speaks directly to the question of animal rights and the rightful place for the human person in the natural order.

Below is a sneak preview of the wisdom imparted by the Judeo-Christian tradition on these issues. Be sure to check back with the Acton Institute next month to obtain your own copy of Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition .

“The animal rights movement can best be understood by viewing it as an attempt to undo the opening chapters of the biblical Book of Genesis. The Torah and its accompanying oral transmissions insist that Genesis describes more of the beliefs underlying creation than its facts. Which is to say that the Bible’s central premise is that humans and animals are qualitatively different, a contention violently opposed by the animal rights movement…

The Bible teaches that the human person is the apex of God’s creation and all creation is there for the human to develop and use as a responsible steward. The principle at work here is of course precisely the same Biblical principles that prohibit tattooing, destroying the apartment you are renting, or even abortion. Which is to say that tenants do not have the same rights as owners. We as humans, do not own the world, our bodies or the habitations we rent. Thus, we may improve them but not destroy them… Our bodies are given to us by a gracious and generous God to occupy for a certain period of time. During that time they are to be treated with the same deference that a tenant should employ in caring for his rented premises. Similarly, we humans are granted use of the world and all it contains. We may hunt animals for food or clothing, build homes out of wood we cut from trees, and mine the earth to extract the minerals we desire. However, we may not wantonly destroy anything at all.“

-- Excerpt from “A Comprehensive Torah-Based Approach to Environmental Stewardship” in Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition (forthcoming)

“In thinking about our relationship with the environment, then, we must distinguish carefully between disordered human action, which harms creation and–by extension–human life and property, and properly ordered free and intelligent activity, which the Creator planned for the good of humans and nature alike. ‘As faithful stewards fullness of life comes from living responsibly within God’s creation.’ ( Renewing the Earth, III, A) Nowhere does the Bible suggest (as do some contemporary religious and secular environmentalists) that creation, undisturbed by human intervention, is the final order God intended. On the contrary, human beings, with all the glory and tragedy of which we are capable, are central actors in God’s drama. Indeed, in the Bible the human person and the natural world are never put on an equal plane. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord himself, while counseling his disciples not to be anxious and to trust in God’s Providence, assures them that God takes care even of the birds of the air, and adds: ‘Are not you of more value than they?’ (Matt. 6:26) The Bible frankly presents a natural hierarchy in the world: God rules over all, and we humans serve as his stewards, exercising our own form of dominion over everything, while being accountable to him for our exalted position, as the rulers of the earth.

We should be clear about what this does and does not mean. While all things have been subordinated to human beings, we rule over them as God himself does, for their and our good. But we do rule–and are justified in subordinating and using nature for human purposes. Thus humans bear “a unique responsibility under God: to safeguard the created world and by their creative labor even to enhance it.” (US Catholic Conference, Renewing the Earth, II, A) The true stewardship of creation, as admirably embraced by the Franciscan friars, entails the responsible use of the gift’s of creation. A good steward does not coddle the resources entrusted to him and let them lie fallow and undeveloped. Rather, he uses them, develops them and, most appropriately, attempts to the best of his ability to realize their increase so that he may enjoy his livelihood and provide stewardship for the good of his family and descendants…

In a sense, the love for our neighbor may be extended to the nonhuman world. But we will have to make judgements about many complex questions and inescapable trade-offs along the way. ‘One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.’ ( Catechism, No. 2418) We must always be on guard against two temptations that are repeatedly denounced in the Bible: making an idol of nature or creatures, and neglecting the needs of our human neighbor. So whenever there is an unavoidable choice between people and nature, like God, we must put people first.“

-- Excerpt from “The Catholic Church and Stewardship of Creation” in Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition (forthcoming)

“God, the Creator of all things, rules over all and deserves our worship and adoration (Ps. 103:19-22). The earth, and with it all the cosmos, reveals its Creator's wisdom and goodness (Ps. 19:1-6) and is sustained and governed by his power and lovingkindness (Ps. 102:25-27; 104; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3, 10-12). Men and women were created in the image of God, given a privileged place among creatures, and commanded to exercise stewardship over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:5). Fundamental to a properly Christian environmental ethic are the Creator/creature distinction and the doctrine of humankind's creation in the image of God. Some environmentalists, especially in the ”Deep Ecology“ movement, divinize the earth and insist on ”biological egalitarianism,“ the equal value and rights of all life forms, in the mistaken notion that this will raise human respect for the earth. Instead, this philosophy negates the Biblical affirmation of the human person's unique role as steward and eliminates the very rationale for human care for creation. The quest for the humane treatment of beasts by lowering people to the level of animals only leads to the beastly treatment of humans…

Some environmentalists reject this vision as “anthropocentric” or “speciesist” and promote a “biocentric” alternative. But the alternative, however attractively humble it might sound, is really untenable. People, alone of all creatures on earth, have both the rationality and the moral capacity to exercise stewardship, to be accountable for their choices, to take responsibility for caring not only for themselves but also for other creatures. To reject human stewardship is to embrace, by default, no stewardship whatever. The only proper alternative to selfish anthropocentrism is not biocentrism but theocentrism: a vision of earth care with God and his perfect moral law at the center and human beings acting as his accountable stewards.“

-- Excerpt from “A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship” in Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition (forthcoming)