Skip to main content

Faith Seeking Food

Animals, Factory Farms, and Catholic Social Teaching

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, Rev. 3.20)

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?
For many Christians, faith has little to do with what's in the fridge. Lunch with Christ would raise issues far more problematic than choice of food. However, I propose that if the above-mentioned foods came from modern factory farms, Christ would not eat or drink them. I will argue that Christians are obligated to be morally concerned about animals, and that this obligation brings Christians into moral conflict with modern factory farms. Furthermore, I will argue that Catholic Social Teaching (hereafter "CST") should emphasize a theocentric basis for such obligation and conflict.

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 (42).
Bauckham suggests that God values animals more than humans do. While humans would hardly notice the death of a half-cent sparrow, God participates in the death of each one. Even after humans determine an animal's utility, such as one cent for two sparrows, there is value left over: theocentric value, i.e., God's value (Linzey, "Introduction," xv). Humans do not determine the value of animals. God does, and God's evaluation is not strictly anthropocentric; God does not determine an animal's value according to its usefulness to humans. This means animals do not exist exclusively for human use. An animal's life, and death, has ontological significance beyond human purposes.

(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 ability 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 Christians 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, disrespects God.

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 examining their actions toward animals in terms of right and wrong. Morally right action toward animals would acknowledge that (1') animals have value beyond human usefulness, 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.

Broiler Chickens

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 exercise, 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.

Egg Chickens

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

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 Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has found that "treated cows experienced approximately a 50% increase in the risk of clinical lameness" (Dohoo). With such pressure to produce more milk, dairy cows living on factory farms also suffer from mastitis, a painful udder inflammation. Three hundred thousand of the three million dairy cows infected with mastitis every year die (Paape).One might even say dairy cows are being milked to death: While nursing cows naturally produce about sixteen pounds of milk a day, cows in factory farms produce an average of fifty pounds of milk a day (Blaney).

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 of stewardship:
Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives […] it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation […]. Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. ("Catechism")
We even have to respect the natural world around us. We cannot use the different kinds of beings-animals, plants, minerals-simply as we wish. (Wojtyla)
Our use of [creation] must be directed by God's plan for creation, not simply for our own benefit […]. We show our respect for the Creator by our care for creation. ("Faithful Citizenship")

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:
Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity […]. It is contrary to human [my italics] dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. ("Catechism")

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 provocative. 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 and tails.

I acknowledge that the situation I have described is highly hypothetical. 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.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. The Summa Theologica. 11 Jan. 1998. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
1 Nov. 2004
Bauckham, Richard. "Jesus and Animals II: What did he Practice?". Animals on the Agenda. Ed.
A. Linzey et al. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Blaney, Don P. "The Changing Landscape of U.S. Milk Production." Economic Research
Service. Jun. 2002. United States Department of Agriculture. 1 Nov. 2004
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
"The Chicken Factory Farm." The Humane Society of the United States. 2004. The Humane
Society. 1 Nov. 2004
"The Dairy Cow Factory Farm." The Humane Society of the United States. 2004. The Humane
Society. 1 Nov. 2004
Dohoo, Ian, et. al. "Reports of the Expert Panels on rBST." Health Canada Online. 26 Mar. 2002.
Health Canada Online. 1 Nov. 2004
"Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility." United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops. 2003. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 1 Nov. 2004
"Gestation Crates: A Sow's Life." The Humane Society of the United States. 2004. The Humane
Society. 1 Nov. 2004
Holt, P.S. "Induced Molting And Its Potential Impact On Infections By Salmonella Enterica
Serovar Enteritidis Infections In Laying Hens." Agricultural Research Service. 14 Jul. 2005. United States Department of Agriculture. 1 Nov. 2004
Johnson, Andrew. Factory Farms. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Linzey, Andrew. Introduction. Animals on the Agenda. Ed. A. Linzey et al. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1998.
---."The Theos-Rights of Animals." Animals and Christianity. Ed. A.Linzey et al. New York:
Crossroad, 1990.
Paape, Max. "Researchers Develop Effective Mastitis Treatments." Agricultural Research
Service. 14 Jul. 2005. United States Department of Agriculture. 1 Nov. 2004
Regan, Tom. Introduction. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Ed. A. Linzey et al. New
Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976.
Regan, Tom. "A Reply to Griffiths." Animals and Christianity. Ed. A. Linzey et al. New York:
Crossroad, 1990.
Wojtyla, Karol. "On Social Concern." Catholic Social Teaching. Office For Social Justice. 1
Nov. 2004

This paper by SCU junior Jesse Ramirez, was presented at the 2005 Santa Clara University Student Research Ethics Conference.

May 25, 2005

More Bioethics Stories

  • Death Talk

    Death Talk

    Think now about the care you want

    New law “indicts” state of near-death care, doctor says.

  • Margaret R. McLean

    End of Life Ethics

    Margaret McLean, director of Bioethics, discusses California's new End of Life Option Law.

  • DNA

    The Ethics of Biodesign

    Some questions about helps and harms

    Synthetic biology, bioengineering, and biotinkering offer great promise with appropriate caution.