HSUS Christine Gutleben: Animal Cruelty Is Contrary to Human Dignity

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Pope Francis environmental encyclical

CHRISTINE GUTLEBEN is Senior Director of the Faith Outreach division of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which was founded in 1954 and has more than 11 million members. The HSUS Faith Outreach program works “on the premise that religious values call upon us all to act in a kind and merciful way towards all creatures.” About the encyclical, she writes …

Pope Francis, who chose Saint Francis of Assisi the patron saint of animals and the environment as his “guide and inspiration,” released the first encyclical in the history of the Vatican on environmental concerns. It is entitled “Praised Be” in honor of his namesake’s prayer, Canticle of the Sun, written in 1224, in praise of God’s creation: “Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures.”

This is a critical moment not only for Catholics but for everyone concerned about animals and creation. Pope Francis has effectively defined environmental issues as moral issues and called upon people of faith to take definitive action on behalf of God’s creation.

Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis highlights the connection between human and ecological flourishing. We are reminded over and over again that “all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

At The Humane Society of the United States, we work to highlight the rich history of religious concern for animals. While this encyclical is historic for its central focus on the environment, including animals, the Catholic Church has a strong theological foundation for the moral consideration of animals. A quick survey reveals explicit statements on animals from past popes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Catechism and many more.

However, Pope Francis’ encyclical stands out as a bold, beautiful and uniquely explicit call to protect God’s creation, His creatures and one another. Pope Francis clarifies the nature of our relationship with animals: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us…. we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (#67)

It is our sincere hope that these words inspire a thorough and honest look at the systematic abuses of animals and help put an end to the callous reference to “dominion” as a justification for factory farms, puppy mills, animal fighting, the fur trade and so many other unnecessary cruelties.

Pope Francis provides us with a clear and unambiguous understanding of our relationship with animals and our responsibilities towards them. He writes, “The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings…Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” (#68) The concept of relationship, which implies a balanced give and take, serves as a truly humane framework for how we ought to approach our dealings with other creatures.

Additionally, Pope Francis reminds us of the absolute value of other creatures beyond their usefulness to us: “we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes… ‘we can speak of the priority of being over that of being useful’” (#69). We are to see animals as creatures unto themselves and valued by God. In this light, practices such as the routine testing of animals for cosmetics, or the genetic manipulation of farm animals for high productivity, becomes gratuitous and wrong.

This historic encyclical underscores the clear, almost radical, statement from the Catechism on animals: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” (#130) He says in another place, “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’” (#92) If taken seriously, this unequivocal assertion of the value of animals has the power to transform nearly every industry involving animals. Discarding millions of live male chicks born to egg-laying hens, shooting wild animals for entertainment or breeding animals for frivolous experiments are obvious repudiations of this claim.

Pope Francis’ reflection on the beauty of God’s creation and our place within it is sure to provide us with continued guidance and inspiration. We will strive to understand it in its fullness and carryout it’s bold vision for a more respectful treatment of God’s entire creation. If indeed God is praised through His creatures, it is our duty then to help with their flourishing as well as our own.

If you care about animal welfare, share this commentary with friends—and visit the Faith Outreach department of the USHS. You’ll find many helpful resources.

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  1. Jan Fredericks says

    Still nothing done to teach people not to support animal cruelty. Only one Pope condemned bullfighting saying that it wasn’t good for the soul and people were excommunicated from the Church for attending them. Action is needed, not words which only gets lost. The Church needs a program for all Churches to follow. Only then will people know how much animals matter to God. Still waiting. Words don’t mean much unless they are actively taught in Churches and practiced.