At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
A Short History of Animal Advocacy in the Catholic Church
by Elaine Hutchison
St. Martin de Porres, 1579-1639
In the current Oxford dictionary, the primary definition of “advocacy” is “public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.” Long before it had this definition, advocacy was known by other meanings. In Old French, it was defined as "the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending," and in Middle English, the meaning was even more profound, "one who intercedes for another," and "protector, champion, patron."
It is by this last definition that we’ll find the roots of animal advocacy in the Catholic church. Although the history and contemporary face of the church have no conspicuous belief in advocating for animals, there is a long history of many individuals within the Church who supported animals, sometimes by sacrificing their lives for them.
Early Animal Activists of the Church
Many of the first Catholic animal activists that we know of may not have been the actual first individuals to act in defense of animals. We know of them only because their acts were recorded and only because certain records of Church history were preserved through the Dark Ages.
Here are just a few of these early champions of animals—there were many, many more. Saint Carileff (c. 540) stopped a hunt by protecting a bull from hunters. Saint Melangell (c. 600) saved a hare from a hunter and eventually becoming the patron saint of rabbits and hares, Saint Godric of Finchal hid a stag from a band of hunters, and Saint Brigid of Ireland gave sanctuary to a wild boar.
Their actions were almost all based upon sabotaging the hunting and trapping of animals. Historian Dr. Richard Ryder theorizes that this was because these early animal defenders were particularly opposed to the deliberate cruelty that is common to hunting and other blood sports. Those that defended animals by placing their bodies between hunters and the animal being hunted were sometimes killed for their efforts.
There were other saints, also numerous, who showed kindness to different animals in remarkable ways, most notably by showing mercy to less welcome creatures:
Saint Martin de Porres (c. 1579-1639) saw God in all beings. He would not eat animals, nor would he use them for profit or as beasts of burden. He had an unusual compassion for the weakest and most despised creatures. He believed that mice and rats behaved as scavengers because they were forced to live with so little food.
Saint Marianus (d. 473) was a shepherd monk who saved a wild boar from hunters, and he also had special talent in communicating with animals. After hearing him speak, the wolves and bears who threatened his flock left the pastures where his sheep grazed, leaving the herd unharmed.
Saint Stephen of Mar Sabe (c. 710-784) extended his caring to all creatures, including insects. He would save the worms he found on the ground and transport them to a place where they would be safe.
And of course, there is the well-known Saint Francis, born Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone in 1182, in Assisi, Italy. Despite his fame as the patron saint of animals, some scholars argue that he was not an animal advocate. There are, however, more than a few stories told by his brethren that substantiate his role as a protector of animals.
The famous story of him interceding to save a wolf that threatened the village of Gubbio is part of his legend, but there are several lesser-known stories as well. He saved rabbits from traps, paid for market sheep and freed them so they would not be slaughtered, threw fish that had been caught back into the water, and moved worms to the side of the road so they would not be stepped upon.
Although he saw God in all creation and all humans, the love he had for mankind was not a blind love—Francis was a passion-filled realist. He also saw the evil in man’s treatment of animals. In his Admonitions, he writes, “Be conscious, O man, of the wondrous state in which the Lord God has placed you. He created you and formed you to the image of His beloved son—and [yet] all creatures under heaven, each according to its own nature, serve, know, and obey their Creator better than you.”
The great irony of St. Francis’s legend of animal compassion is the way it is celebrated in today’s churches. When contemporary churches celebrate St. Francis on his feast day, they usually perform a “Blessing for the Animals,” and those animals are almost always pets.
Francis never advocated the keeping of pets—they were not allowed in the Friars Minor, the group of monks who lived with him. During his time, only rich people kept pets and because his band of monks had taken vows of poverty, he would not let them adopt the habits of the wealthy.
It is telling that the majority of the contemporary Blessings of the Animals ceremonies do not include all animals, which is how St. Francis blessed and praised them, but only the animals with which we share our homes. Today, animals in the wild, in fur farms, in the farmed animal industry, in fish hatcheries, and in zoos, are usually never mentioned in these blessings.
The effect that St. Francis had on the world was immense and long-lasting, but his legacy of caring for and interceding on the behalf of animals was lost in all the other aspects that the Catholic church celebrated about him. His ability to see God in all beings and in all nature was lauded but not practiced. And it never became doctrine.
It should be noted that all the actions on behalf of animals by those who were commemorated in the Catholic church were committed by individuals—not a bishopric, not an archdiocese, not even a monastery or a nunnery. Although others might have learned and emulated the examples of these early animal activists, and even though there were vegetarian/pescatarian sects like the Cathars, there has never been a group of Catholics who featured animal advocacy as part of the practice of their belief.
The Official Church View in Modern Times
Throughout the centuries that followed the time of St. Francis, various popes would specifically deny the truths that St. Francis held so dear. Several would hold with the Descartes’s philosophy of animals as “meat machines” and Catholic doctrine would caution multiple times against establishing moral duties towards animals, a principle which continues to this day.
For example, the 1948 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia cautioned, “Societies for the protection of animals may be approved insofar as their objective is to the elimination of cruelty to beasts. Not, however, insofar as they base their activities, as they sometimes do, on false principles. (attributing rights to animals…or alleging a duty of charity, which in the Christian sense of that phrase, cannot obtain.)”
Animals would fare no better in the 1965 Second Vatican Council which stated the human person is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” and the subsequent 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church which said that animals are “by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
But even with the stern admonitions of the Church, a few recent popes made some extraordinary statements on the topics of animals having souls and going to heaven.
Pope Paul VI, whose papacy ended in 1978, reportedly comforted a young boy whose dog had died by saying, “One day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”
In 1990 during a private audience, Pope John Paul II said that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.” The Vatican did not publicize this, possibly because it was in direct opposition to Pope Pius IX. During his 19th century papacy, Pope Pius IX was the first pope to declare that animals had no souls or consciousness, and the first pope to establish the doctrine of papal infallibility.
In 2014, animal lovers applauded Pope Francis when he was quoted as saying that animals go to heaven. However, soon after this story appeared worldwide in all forms of media, it proved to be false. An Italian newspaper misquoted him and the translation into English distorted the story even more, resulting in an apocryphal quote that is still getting press today.
But only a year later, the hearts of both Catholic and non-Catholic animal advocates leapt with hope after the release of Pope Francis’s second encyclical, the Laudato Si’, on May 24, 2015. In addition to his commentary on taking care of the Earth, Pope Francis mentioned animals repeatedly, saying “…our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’” Elsewhere in the document he said, “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect.”
The Laudato Si’ also includes a stunning bit of text that seem to contradict the Vatican’s denial of Pope Francis’s do-animals-go-to-heaven comment. In paragraph 243, he writes, “Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.”
And there was another startling reference to animals going to heaven in the comments in paragraph 83. “Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”
Was it possible that Pope Francis would be the first pope to actively advocate on behalf of animals? After all, he was the first pope to take St. Francis’s name as his regnal name on his accession to the papacy.
Was his defense of animals and exhortations to treat both them and their environment well, a sign of even better things to come?
At the time of this article, that hasn’t happened. There were no subsequent comments regarding animals and the importance of protecting them in the months following the publication of the Laudato Si’. But there was one landmark comment that astonished the world. Pope Francis earned some backlash in January 2022 when he said that not having children and living with dogs and cats were selfish acts. Reverend Sarah Bowen of the Compassion Consortium, along with other animal advocates and animal rights organizations, made public announcements to refute this statement. With all the uproar that followed, one wonders if perhaps the pope wished, in hindsight, that he had phrased that comment differently.
In his most recent encyclical, the Laudate Deum released on October 4, 2023, Pope Francis barely mentioned animals. While writing about protecting the environment, he writes about the creatures that inhabit it but nowhere did he mention the appalling daily suffering and pain of trillions of farmed animals, nor did he mention how the farmed animal industry is a pivotal factor in the accelerated growth of global warming. Because global warming was the main theme of this encyclical, the omission was glaring—it’s as if he had chosen to ignore the issue completely.
But why? One can think of a dozen reasons, but the “why” doesn’t matter as much as the deed itself. In omitting farmed animals from his pleas for protection and preservation of the earth, Pope Francis turned the spotlight away from the core cause of the condition he wants to see cured.
His omission resembled the streetlight effect—the idea of searching only for something where it is easiest to look but usually not where it will be found. We can only wish that Pope Francis will someday stand under a taller street lamp, with a much brighter light that shines over all the animals in the world, including the ones on his plate.
Although the Laudate Deum did not specifically mention farmed animals, both Pope Francis and the Vatican offered a sliver of hope for them the day after its publication. Following a private audience with the pope on October 5, author and Farm Forward founding board member Jonathan Safran Foer gave a speech in the Vatican gardens in which he advocated food system reform and eating less meat as ways to avert the environmental damage that causes climate change.
In an email announcing this unique event, Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of the Farm Forward organization stated:
“By inviting Foer, who is known as a critic of factory farming and an advocate for reducing the consumption of animal products, to be among the first to interpret Laudate Deum publicly, the Vatican all but endorses a critique of industrial animal agriculture. This could signal the emergence of an unexpected new ally in the fight against industrial agriculture and its destructive effects on climate.”
As it was with the Laudato Si', the reactions to the Laudate Deum held a small glimmer of a better future for those whom Pope Francis called "God's creatures."
But to create a better world for animals, we cannot depend on Pope Francis or another Vatican Council to hand down the long-awaited doctrine that pro-animal Catholics and secular animal supporters have been wishing for. Individuals must make that effort. Within the Catholic church, that effort is coming from the church members themselves.
The group Catholic Action for Animals is asking that Catholics petition their bishops to instruct priests to bring the treatment of animals into their sermons. They believe the Pope “has made it clear that by receiving the Holy Spirit in Baptism all Catholics have the right to be involved in the decision-making processes of the Church.” They’ve begun a campaign to change the Church within the Church by forming Laudauto Si’ groups, groups which advocate the principles of animal rights within local parishes.
Catholic Concern for Animals spreads their message by “by informing and educating on the issues of Animal Advocacy among the Catholic world population at all levels, from the Vatican as the Catholic Church’s highest institution to individual Catholics throughout the world.” This group also works with secular animal advocacy groups and individuals.
Just like the animal advocates of the early Church, it seems that today’s Catholic laypersons and animal advocates will have to rely on their own actions and campaign on behalf of the animals to effect any change in how the Church views them and treats them.
And as they have always done, the animals will once more show both the Catholic church and the world that we are all one.
“Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air they shall teach thee. Or speak to the earth and it shall teach thee, and the fishes of the earth will declare unto thee. Who knoweth not that in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” (Job 12: 7-10)
Dr. Richard Ryder, Saints Against Hunting Animals, https://www.all-creatures.org, September 27, 2023
Dr. Richard Ryder, Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism, Berg Publishers, Rhode Island, 2nd edition, (February 1, 2000)
Dr. Holly Roberts, Vegetarian Christian Saints: Mystics, Ascetics, and Monks, Angeli Press, Rome, Italy, 2004
Norm Phelps, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, Lantern Books, NY, 2007
Thomas of Celano, Jacques Dalarun, Timothy Johnson, The Rediscovered Life of St. Francis, Franciscan Institute Publications, NY, May 1, 2016
Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, NY , tr(1982)
Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, 1965, paragraph 24
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, 2415
St. Martin Apostolate, Do Animals Go to Heaven, https://www.stmartin.ie/22812-2/, September 19, 2019
Pope Francis, Laudauto Si’, https://www.vatican.va, May 25, 2015
Lisa Levinson, Pope Urged to Reconsider Comments on Human Children vs. Animal Companions, https://www.idausa.org, September 27, 2023
Pope Francis, Laudate Deum, https://www.vatican.va, October 4, 2023
Catholic Action for Animals, https://catholicactionforanimals.wordpress.com, September 27, 2023
Catholic Concern for Animals, https://catholic-animals.com, September 27, 2023
Jonathan Safran Foer, Farm Forward Board Member, Jonathan Safran Foer, Encourages Meat Reduction at the Vatican, https://farmforward.com, October 5, 2023
Elaine Hutchison is a writer, historian, and an advocate of compassion for all beings. Along with acting as host for the Compassion Consortium Sunday service Compassion in Action segment, she’s also creating a website featuring sources for the history of Veganism, vegetarianism, and animal advocacy, as well as a podcast on Vegan History, both to be launched in January 2024. She lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, where she serves as staff to her rescue animal family of two dogs, a cat, and two horses.
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