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Faith Seeking Food: Animals, Factory Farms, and Catholic Social Teachingby Jesse Ramirez
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone
hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and
will dine with him, and he with Me. (American Standard Bible,
Imagine that Christ meant these words literally.
Imagine that accepting Christ as your personal savior required
lunching with him. Of course, if Christ were coming over today
for lunch, you would probably dust, vacuum, adjust the pictures
on the walls, pick your best outfit, comb your hair, jot down
a few questions about heaven. But what would the two of you
eat? Would you serve Christ fried chicken? How would you feel
about setting a plate of steaming, sizzling pork chops in front
of your savior? A few hard-boiled eggs wouldn't hurt, right?
Maybe a glass of milk to wash it all down?
Rethinking Aquinas: Why Animals Matter
Some Christians think the words "animal rights" smack
of wacky liberalism or of sentimentality. Such thinking presupposes
that animals are not proper objects of moral concern. After
all, in Genesis God commanded Adam to rule over creation. God
gave Noah "everything that lives and moves" for food
(Gen. 1:28). Therefore, according to this way of thinking, animals
exist exclusively as means to human ends.
This position, which I call the Utility Thesis, does agree
with some traditional Catholic theology. Expanding upon Augustine,
St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that "according to the Divine
ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for
themselves but for man [italics mine]. Hence, as Augustine says
]'by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their
life and their death are subject to our use'" ("Summa").
In other words, animals have utility value only.
Aquinas denied that animals are proper objects of moral concern
for at least two reasons: (1) God made animals exclusively for
human use; we ride, wear, work, and eat animals, and "there
is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is"
("Summa"). (2) Animals cannot reason. Since only rational
beings are proper objects of moral concern, how one treats animals
is morally valuable only insofar as such treatment affects rational
beings. For example, one should not torture animals only because
doing so may subtly influence one to torture humans, too. Points
(1) and (2) are central to the Utility Thesis.
Although Catholic theology is indebted to Aquinas, I think
there are good reasons to reconsider the Utility Thesis and
points (1) and (2).
(1') If God made animals solely for human use, then God would
care most about those animals that humans find most useful.
An animal's ontological worth would be equal to its usefulness
to humans. However, consider Jesus' words: "Are not two
sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall
to the ground apart from your Father" (Mat. 10:29). In
response to this passage, Richard Bauckham, Professor of New
Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews, argues that
"Jesus had selected a creature [the sparrow] which is valued
very cheaply by humans [
] on the basis of its limited
usefulness to them. Even a creature which humans think so unimportant
is important enough to God for it never to escape caring attention
(2') Moral philosophers have noted that one's views about the
moral status of animals often depend on how one responds to
this question: "What capacities must a being have if we
are to have duties to it?" (Regan, "Introduction,"
8-10). In other words, before one can decide if animals deserve
moral concern, one must first decide why anything deserves moral
concern. One must ask, "Why do I direct my moral attention
toward some things and not toward others? What feature do those
things I find morally important have in common?" As I mentioned
before, Aquinas thought the most morally relevant feature is
reason. Aquinas thought humanity should direct its moral attention
only toward other rational beings; since animals are not rational,
they don't count. Yet, as philosopher Tom Regan points out,
reason-based morality may exclude not just rocks, buildings,
and animals, but also people whose abililty to reason is negligible,
e.g., those with late stage Alzheimer's disease (Regan, "Reply,"
140-143). There would be nothing fundamentally immoral, according
to this moral rationalism, about torturing a nonrational person.
If only rational beings were proper objects of moral concern,
then torturing a person in late stage Alzheimer's disease would
be wrong only if it made one also want to torture a rational
person. But should Christians accept this? Christians, and many
others, would maintain that torturing a person with Alzheimer's
disease is just plain wrong.
What would be at the root of this judgment? How could Christains
justify their belief that torturing an Alzheimer's disease sufferer
is just plain wrong? Here one can refer to what Oxford's Revd
Dr. Andrew Linzey calls "theos-rights," or God-derived
rights (Linzey, "Theos-Rights," 134). One's "rights"
are those interests that everyone else is obligated to respect.
For example, when people claim to have a right to privacy, they
mean that they are interested in having privacy, and that all
members of society are obligated to respect this interest. One
can apply this thinking also to God. God also has rights.
An analogy may help here. Say you are homeless and some kind
citizen lets you live in her house. Even though she has invited
you in, the citizen is still interested in keeping her house
clean. This means that the kind citizen, as far as you're concerned,
has a right to a clean house. Since the house belongs to her,
and you are her guest, you are obligated to respect her interests
in keeping a clean house.
Similarly, since God created everything, it would be reasonable
to say that God has an interest in creation. God didn't create
the world and then take an eternal coffee brake; rather, the
Biblical tradition testifies to God's lasting interest in the
world. This means, then, that God has the right to have his
interest in creation respected. To put this another way, humans
are obligated, while we occupy God's earthly "guest house,"
to respect God's interest in preserving creation, which means
humans are obligated to respect God's rights over creation.
Ultimately, respecting God's rights means respecting God.
Since humans are part of creation, respecting creation means
respecting other humans. Humans are obligated to respect an
Alzheimer's sufferer's theos-right not to be tortured, a right
derived from God's rights over creation. Thus, it is wrong to
torture a person in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease because
to do so damages a member of creation, violates God's rights
over creation, violates one's obligation to God, and, ultimately,
In the preceding argument, I have attempted to show that theos-rights
morality accounts for the moral status of the mentally handicapped
better than reason-based morality does. Any legitimate moral
system must account for all humans, and theos-rights morality
does just that. So, in response to the question, "What
capacities must a being have if we are to make it the proper
object of moral concern?" believers should respond with
"theos-rights." As a result, all beings that possess
theos-rights would be proper objects of moral concern. But this
argument is not about humans only: God has rights over all of
creation, and no Christian can doubt that animals are part of
creation. Animals, then, must possess theos-rights; animals
must be proper objects of moral concern and obligation. Like
humans, "animals can be wronged because their creator can
be wronged in his creation" (Linzey, 135).
Points (1') and (2') are key components of what I call the
Theocentric Thesis. The Utility Thesis reduces animal value
to human terms, and, as such, is too anthropocentric. The Theocentric
Thesis recognizes a sphere of value beyond human evaluation,
and, as such, acknowledges that "the promise of real theology
has always been [to] liberate us from humanocentrism [
from a purely human view [
] to a God-centered one"
(Linzey, "Introduction," xviii). Furthermore, the
Utility Thesis' emphasis on reason exemplifies what Linzey calls
the "difference-finding tendency" in Catholic thought,
by which one often hears how humans are "unlike animals"
(42). The theos-rights component of the Theocentric Thesis,
on the other hand, emphasizes the similarities between humans
and animals. Both are members of creation, a characteristic
that provides their primary moral value.
If believers accept the Theocentric Thesis-and I have tried
to give reasons to do so-they must begin examing their actions
toward animals in terms of right and wrong. Morally right action
toward animals would acknowledge that (1') animals have value
beyond human usefullness, and that (2') this value is grounded
in their theos-rights. For the remainder of this article, I
will take the position that morally right acts, in respect to
the Theocentric Thesis and its components, are those acts that
harm animals as little as possible.
The Theocentric Thesis and Factory Farms
Accepting the Theocentric Thesis puts believers in moral conflict with factory farms. The actions of factory farms are morally wrong because they harm animals. To support this point, I will examine factory farms' treatment of the animals I mentioned in the "luncheon" with Jesus, namely, chickens, pigs, and dairy cows.
In factory farms, broiler chickens leave their mothers instantly after they hatch ("Chicken Factory"). They live the rest of their forty-day lives crammed together with up to thirty thousand other chickens in "broiler sheds," where each chicken has about one square foot of personal space. They are injected with hormones to accelerate their growth; soon their bodies become too heavy for their legs. With no room to excerise, they develop leg injuries. The ammonia from piles of feces blisters their feet. The closeness in the broiler shed also allows for other diseases to spread easily.
Three hundred million egg-producing hens in the U.S. spend
their lives in "battery cages." A single battery cage
is about 45 by 50cm. Every battery cage holds about five hens,
each with a wingspan of approximately 75cm (Johnson, 26). Thus,
a hen's personal space is around the size of a page in a book,
a space in which she cannot even spread her wings. (Imagine
living in a closet in which you could not lift your arms.) As
Johnson explains, "[hens] cannot walk, fly, stretch, dust-bathe,
make nests or forage; all they can do, in fact, is eat, sleep,
and lay eggs" (124). Hens with such little space often
become aggressive; they peck and sometimes even eat one another.
The standard factory farm solution to this problem has been
to cut off hens' beaks.
To increase egg production, factory farms will starve hens for up to fourteen days. This practice is called "forced molting." According to a recent study, "approximately 70% of the flocks nationwide and almost 100% in California are molted annually[ ]. There are many methods to induce molt but feed removal until the hens drop a specific weight is the most prevalent molt strategy in the U.S" (Holt, "Induced Molting").
Breeding sows are confined to "gestation" (pregnancy)
crates. At about two by seven feet long, the crates do not provide
enough room for the sows to turn around. Sows eat, sleep, give
birth, feed offspring, urinate, and defecate in the same gestation
crate. While many people think of pigs as quintessentially "dirty"
animals, pigs in nature separate their feeding and living areas
from their waste areas ("Gestation Crates").
After sows give birth, their piglets are weaned as early as one week. From then on, the piglets will live in metal pens. Similar to chickens, pigs live crammed next to one another, and such closeness leads to stress, abnormal behavior, and aggression, e.g., tail biting. Factory farms' solution to this problem is similar to that applied to chickens: Cut off tails and sharp points of teeth.
Dairy cows live either in indoor stalls or in huge lots devoid
of grass ("Dairy Cow"). Like the previous animals,
dairy cows have little personal space and few clean places to
sleep. In factory farms, dairy cows receive doses of rBST, a
"veterinary drug" that increase milk yield.
The Imperatives of Factory Farms
I find several imperatives operating in factory farms' treatment of chickens, pigs, and dairy cows: i) Speed up animals' natural development. ii) Pack as many animals in as little space as possible. iii) Remove animals from their natural environments. iv) Restrict animals' natural behaviors. v) Regard animals as objects of nearly unlimited manipulation. Each imperative harms animals; together they constitute a great harm. By "harm," I mean an inversion of the Theocentric Thesis and its components. Factory farms treat animals as though they were only as valuable as the packages of thighs, breasts, sausages, eggs, and milk they eventually become; factory farms deny animals' theos-rights, e.g., the right to live in an environment to which one is well-adapted. (The latter is tantamount to saying that God has a right to see his creative design respected.) By applying the Theocentric Thesis and its compenents, one recognizes factory farms' treatment of animals as morally wrong.
CST, Stewardship, and the Theocentric Thesis
Does CST also establish factory farms' treatment of animals
as morally wrong? I think so. Note these examples of CST's explanation
In the above passages, CST asserts that humans have moral obligations
to animals, that simply using animals is problematic, and that
respecting God means respecting God's creation. This suggests
that CST's notion of stewardship uses the Theocentric Thesis-though
not explicitly-and so condemns factory farms' treatment of animals.
However, CST also asserts an anthropocentric, utility-based
notion of stewardship, sometimes in the same texts in which
the authors use theocentric reasoning:
We should realize that our natural resources are limited. We
should be aware of the consequences of the use of those resources,
the pollution of our world, with its serious consequences for
our [my italics] health. (Wojtyla)
In our use of creation, we must be guided by a concern for
generations [of humans] to come. ("Faithful Citizenship")
In these passages, CST emphasizes that creation is useful,
and that treating creation as a proper object of moral concern
matters mostly for humans (echoes of Aquinas).
I am not claiming that CST contradicts itself by using both
anthropocentric and theocentric principles of stewardship. Nor
do I think that only theocentric stewardship condemns factory
farms' treatment of animals-one can certainly argue that anthropocentric
stewardship produces the same conclusions. Rather, I want to
note a difference in emphasis. Within the canon of CST, stewardship
is primarily anthropocentric and only secondarily theocentric;
the second set of quotations is more representative of CST than
the first. When one searches the online databases of CST for
terms like "creation" and "stewardship,"
one finds few references to animals. One gets the impression
that stewards care about Earth's natural resources and little
more. I think these features of CST demonstrate that CST explains
stewardship mainly as an indirect means of promoting human welfare
rather than a direct means of promoting creation's welfare.
CST's notion of stewardship is primarily anthropocentric because CST itself is anthropocentric, i.e., CST is fundamentally concerned with humans and human dignity. Since great throngs of people are poor, powerless, hungry, and without dignity, CST is certainly justified in using this entirely human situation as a starting point. Nonetheless, I think theocentric stewardship is more comprehensive, and thus better than, anthropocentric stewardship. The more narrowly one focuses the light of interpretation, the more shadows one must necessarily create. The narrow interpretive light of anthropocentric stewardship threatens to cast a shadow over the deep truth of creation's inherent, God-centered value. Theocentric stewardship, on the other hand, brings to light a more inclusive starting point: All members of creation, and especially sentient members of creation, are morally worthy primarily because of their theos-rights and value to God. With the Theocentric Thesis as its core, stewardship could still promote human dignity and human interests in preserving creation, but such would be secondary concerns. A believer's primary concern would be direct service and obligation to God's creation and thus service and obligation to God. I think this notion of stewardship is closer to the believer's true mission in life.
Opening the door to Christ means opening the door to a host
of moral concerns and obligations. I have argued for a theocentric
framework in which animals are proper objects of these moral
concerns and obligations, a framework that puts Christians in
moral conflict with factory farms. I have also argued that CST's
notion of stewardship should be primarily theocentric, lest
it possibly hide the supra-utilitarian, God-derived value of
creation, and especially of the animal members of creation.
So what could Jesus and you eat if Jesus were coming to lunch?
Christian vegetarians like Linzey might argue that Jesus and
you would have to eat vegetables or tofu, because Jesus would
not eat any meat at all. I find this position provacative. However,
I suggest that Jesus and you could drink milk and eat chicken,
pork, or eggs as long as the animals lived as free from harm
as truly possible. In other words, Jesus and you could eat animals
and their products if the animals were allowed to develop at
a natural pace, have plenty of space, live in their natural
environments, express natural behavior, and keep their beaks
I acknowledge that the situation I have described is highly hypotethical. But I have taken the high road of abstraction only to lead my reader back to the most familiar and everyday of places: The supermarket, the kitchen, the refrigerator, and the dinning table. Here is where the decisions for which I have argued must be made.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. The Summa Theologica. 11 Jan. 1998. Christian
Classics Ethereal Library.
This paper by SCU junior Jesse Ramirez, was presented at
the 2005 Santa Clara University Student Research Ethics Conference,