Dr Alma Massaro author, lecturer on animal ethics and member of the Italian Study Center for Christian Vegetarians (CSCV) speaks on whether animals have souls, challenging barriers to peaceable human-animal relationships and how to view animals through innocent eyes.
What first sparked your interest in animal concerns?
I recall, as a child, spending my summers at my grandparents in a little village on the hills surrounding the city of Turin. They were farmers and I had the chance to become familiar with numerous animals. They also had a cow and a bull. I was not allowed to enter their barn alone and could only stand on the doorstep looking at them. They were actually living in a “tie stall”, an environment which is deeply detrimental in allowing bovines to express their normal behaviour, Nonetheless, I was not aware of this at that time, and found myself fascinated by them, spending much of my summer time watching them from the doorstep.
I remember a day entering the main building of the farm and I saw part of a carcass of a big animal, already deprived of the skin, with the red flesh mingled with the white tendons and bones. I was shocked when I realised this carcass belonged to the cow. I was four and I did not realize immediately everything. My interest towards animals has been deeply influenced by my grandparent’s cow and bull.
What are the keys factors in considering the theological status of animals?
The Bible is quite clear about the theological status of animals.
We find in the Old Testament that animals has been created as companions to human beings, to answer to Adam’s need for relationship (Gen 2,18-19). They were so intrinsically connected to humans that they were saved from the Flood and were included within the Noahic covenant together with God and humans (Gen 6-9). Both the Old and the New Testament reminds us that the feelings and needs of animals are not alien from God who, rather, takes care of them (see, for instance, Job 38-39; Psalm 36,6 104,10-21; and Mt 6,26). Who are we to think we do not need to take care of what is important to God? What is valuable to God is valuable to us.
Christians long debated whether animals souls. Do they have souls? Why has this been an important matter for Christians?
If we look at the same English word “animal” there is no room for doubt that they have souls. The word animal comes from the latin anima meaning soul and breath: and having breath/soul is a trope for living being (about the connection of breath-soul cf. Gen 2:17). Therefore the main point is not if they have souls but if their souls are immortal. A great deal of literature has been written on this topic. Generally the demonstration – or negation – of animals afterlife has been believed to be the foremost argument for supporting – or oppose – their respect.
Humprey Primatt, an Anglican pastor who lived in the Eighteenth century, proposes a different argument which I personally find really intriguing. In his A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, after having asserted animal sentiency, he analyses the consequences of the opposite theory: animal non-future life. If one assumes that animals do not possess a future life, he observes, there is no reparation for animal cruelty; therefore, ‘Cruelty to a brute is an injury irreparable’. The belief in an animal afterlife is, for Primatt, a matter of belief, but it cannot affect our duties towards them – our ethics should be based on the very fact of their sentiency (cf. Humphrey Primatt, A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, (London: R. Hett, 1776, pp. 43-44).
What sort of relationship do animals have with God?
The Old Testament is quite clear in describing the individual relationship animals have with their Creator. We find God is solicitous to their petitions and prayers and in two occasions we find that animals together with their humans “wrapped sackcloth round their loins calling to God” (Jonah 3,7-8 and Judith 4,10). Animals, we find, glorify and worship God (Cf. Is 43,20 and Psalm 148).
There is old prayer that Saint Basil wrote for animals: “… and for the wild creatures, whom Thou hast made wise, strong, and beautiful, we supplicate for them Thy great tenderness of heart …”. God made them wise, strong, and beautiful: in some degree they participate to God’s divine attributes.
What sort of relationship should humans have with animals?
The same kind of relationship that they should have with other fellow humans: a peaceful and love-driven relationship, but with a peculiarity. We should not forget that humans received dominion over animals. This means that we have duties and responsibility towards them.
I think humans should do all they can do not only to prevent pain, in all its forms, but also to promote their well-being.
What cultural obstacles need to be overcome in order to improve human/animal relations?
I think there are two different kinds of obstacles. On the one side we have obstacles related to a biblical consideration of the human-animal relationship; on the other side we have problems related to a secular consideration. From the first point of view it is important to overcome the idea of dominion as a right to exploit. On the contrary we need to understand dominion as a matter of responsibility – the same responsibility we have towards the future generations. From the second point of view there are two cultural obstacles: the focus on rationality as the source of human superiority and the focus on a money-economy.
The combination of these three heterogeneous elements – the belief in the right to exploit, the idea of human superiority and the economy driven societies – is at the base of the contemporary mainstream negative human conceptualization of animals.
We need to become as children again in order to be able to look at others, animals included, with new, innocent eyes (Matthew 18,3).