Saturday, December 7, 2013

1217. On Christian Perspectives on Animal Rights

By Marc Oppenheimer, The New York Times, December 6, 2013

BALTIMORE — “There was a time when Rebecca, our eldest, was desperate to have a pet,” David Clough told me when we met at the American Academy of Religion conference, held in Baltimore before Thanksgiving. “And she was in the unhappy position of having a father who had reflected ethically on the question at some length” — a father with misgivings about the human use of animals, even for companionship.

Professor Clough had come from the University of Chester, in his native England, to speak about “On Animals: Volume 1,” half of a two-book project situating animals in Christian thought. Summing up his argument, he said that human and other-than-human animals “are created by God, reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation” — and should be treated accordingly. This belief has ramifications on everything from eating meat (no, especially from factory farming) to keeping pets (maybe).
“Good theology ought to recognize one fundamental separation,” Professor Clough said, “between God and all God has created. We belong with dogs and cats and hedgehogs and trees and rocks.”
His project, a Christian perspective on animal treatment, is not unique. Animal welfare is a lively topic among Christians in the United States and England, including — surprisingly — some political or theological conservatives. And as Christians ask how their faith requires them to treat animals, they may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to reconsider their views on Christians.
Professor Clough’s book, which came out in 2012, is one of two recent major Christian treatises on animal rights. The other, published this year, is “For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action,” by Charles Camosy, a Fordham professor and a Catholic who has given up meat — though he still eats fish, “half because Jesus Christ ate fish, and half because I am too weak to give up my grandmother’s tuna spaghetti sauce,” he told me.
In “For Love of Animals,” Dr. Camosy links his concern for animals to his beliefs on abortion, arguing that the Catholic ethics of respect for life and care for the vulnerable should make us reconsider how we treat animals. The Catholic catechism permits meat eating, he told me, “but with two qualifications: we owe animals kindness, and it’s wrong to cause them to suffer needlessly.” The clear implication, he said, is that except for the poor who can’t get food other ways, everyone has a duty at least to avoid eating factory-farmed animals.
Mary Eberstadt, a political conservative and a Catholic, wrote the introduction to Dr. Camosy’s book and has praised it in National Review. After being “in and out of vegetarianism for decades,” as she said in an email this week, she now eats fish. Her choices were influenced, she said, by the vegetarian Leo Tolstoy’s 1909 essay about a slaughterhouse, and by “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” the 2002 book by Matthew Scully, a conservative who was raised Catholic and wrote speeches for President George W. Bush.
Although there is an old, small tradition of Christian vegetarianism, the modern field of Christian animal rights can be dated to 1976, when Andrew Linzey, a theology student at King’s College, London, looked around at his fellow Christians and was struck by how little they cared about cruelty to animals. “I was puzzled by the indifference of my teachers to the issue and the general thoughtlessness of Christians,” Professor Linzey, who now teaches at Oxford, said in an email this week. So he wrote “Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment,” which was published in 1976, while he was still a student.
Although Professor Linzey’s book caused a sensation in Christian circles, animal welfare became mainly a secular cause. Christians focused on other battles — from the right, abortion; from the left, war and poverty — while some secular animal-rights activists were suspicious of Christianity, concurring with Peter Singer’s claim, in his 1975 classic, “Animal Liberation,” that Christian teaching about man’s dominion had been an impediment to animal rights.
For several years, Professor Singer and Dr. Camosy have been in frequent communication, and last year Dr. Camosy wrote a book about his fellow ethicist, “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.” Last month, the two men spoke together in Maryland, at the national headquarters of the Humane Society of the United States. As a result of their conversations, Professor Singer says he has become somewhat more charitable toward Christianity.
“I think Charlie’s helped me to see that that’s overly negative,” Professor Singer said, referring to his depiction of Christianity in “Animal Liberation.” “It’s not that the negative statements” — giving humans permission to use and abuse animals — “aren’t there, because they are, and were made by major figures from Augustine to Aquinas and so on. But there is another side to it, and other Christians have different interpretations of man’s dominion.”
That “other side to it” includes a shadow history of Christian support for animal rights. Christine Gutleben, who runs religious outreach for the Humane Society, noted that Christian reformers, including the antislavery activist William Wilberforce, helped found what became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in 1824.
“Any serious look at the history will uncover examples of Christian concern for animals,” Ms. Gutleben said. “Absolutely, Christianity is part of the solution.”
Of course, these views are hardly mainstream. For every Rod Dreher, the Orthodox Christian blogger, and meat-eater, who recently wrote a respectful post about Dr. Camosy and the others, or Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic blogger who also praised Dr. Camosy, there may be an Austin Ruse. Writing in Crisis, a Catholic magazine, in October, he called Dr. Camosy’s views “deeply offensive.”
“It’s always offensive to lead the faithful astray,” Mr. Ruse said, when I called to ask about his choice of words.
But back to the important question: Did Rebecca, Professor Clough’s daughter, get her pet?
She did. Rebecca, now 15, can thank Mary Midgley, the English philosopher who wrote “Animals and Why They Matter.” Riding a train with Professor Clough, she suggested he consider a cat. “She said, ‘Surely a cat is O.K.,’   ” Professor Clough recalled. “If you allow them to go outside, they can come and go as they please. If they hate it, they can pick someone else, or go feral.”

Of course, one has to marvel at the cat foolish enough to abandon the Cloughs. She — the cat is named Mitsy — is unlikely to find more considerate treatment.

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