Fr Terry Martin, a vegan and Catholic priest, reflects upon his passion for animal advocacy and urges Christians to think carefully about their relationships with God’s creatures.
“You must do it for the animals!”, the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey said to me. Linzey is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Now in its tenth year, the Centre’s annual summer school has grown into a popular and lively gathering of animal advocates, academics, and ethicists from all over the world. Accommodated in the very beautiful Merton College, Oxford, those present were invited to consider, this year, the ethical (and other) implications of animals and the media.
I have read much of Linzey’s breakthrough work concerning animals and theology/ethics, and trawling through the internet looking for some online studies around these issues brought me to the Centre’s website. Linzey is an avuncular, immediately-friendly networker and greeter of people. He tirelessly talked to participants, introduced them to one another, and worked the room with the grace of a seasoned vicar who’s attended many parish parties. He is also a formidable theologian, and his work around suggesting an ethical-theological approach to animals leads the field in a rather sadly neglected area of (what should be natural) Christian concern. So, it seemed that he was the right man for me to approach – and the Summer School proved the perfect opportunity to meet him and chat to him about my own research, prayerful reflection, and hopes.
My bishop has granted me a sabbatical year, and I have felt a real sense that the time during this study-leave needs to be given to the animals. Why might a regular Parish Priest want to be so concerned with animals? It seems to me that, as Catholics we, so often, ‘see through’ animals and are slow to face the ethical issues around who they are, and what God is doing when he creates them. Certainly, we love our companion animals and endlessly spoil them but, sadly, at the same time, so many animals are too easily unseen, forgotten or ignored – especially at festive times when, for example, we consume them in their millions. Fancy that, Christians – who believe that animals, too, are created by God – feasting on animal flesh to celebrate the wondrous mysteries of our faith!
So, the sabbatical will be a time to discover (for I’m sure it’s there) a systematic theology of animals in creation. I aim to happily navigate my way through the Thomist perspective, consider the concept of dominion and anthropocentrism, explore the Catechism of the Catholic Church and papal literature (not least Laudato Si’), look at the lives of the saints, scrutinise scripture, and search out every Catholic (and other Christian) contribution that I can. Approaches to the subject, within the Catholic Church, are regrettably few and far between. It’s as if the Angelic Doctor has had the last word and no-one dares to look at the issue again. I don’t know if I will discover anything new, but the journey will, no doubt, be an interesting (and challenging) one.
Linzey’s contribution to the God-Animal question is huge, and it was a pleasure to meet with him and to discuss some of these ideas.
The Summer School highlighted (unsurprisingly) the massive contribution which the media, in all its forms, makes to the exploitation of animals, whilst also reporting on the ways in which this same vehicle can be used to animals’ advantage. It is a complex and conflicted world out there, and animals often bear the brunt of human ignorance and unseeingness.
Christians need to have a louder, more strident voice in speaking out for the autonomy, God-createdness and moral right of animals to be treated as God would want them to be treated. This, surely, can never mean exploiting them for food, entertainment, fashion, experimentation, or in the myriad other ways that we so blithely and unthinkingly deploy their lives, their flesh, their bodily fluids, and their skin.
Catholics, with our strong emphasis on sacramentality and the sacredness of the created order (at least, in theory) might well be those who are called to a more conscious and positive contribution to this conversation. I aim to play my small part in the moment.
My concern for animals and for the rights that I believe, in God, animals have, has deeply affected my priestly ministry. My parishioners know about the stance which I take, and have begun to realise that I’m not just a passionate animal lover, but that I believe all Christians need to seriously question their own relationship with animals. What does it mean for Christians to neglect animals and to unconsciously buy-in to the abuse that animals frequently suffer? We know that the numbers of animals who die every year for food, for example, are mind-boggling, and Christians, sadly, play their part in funding and supporting this.
I understand that those who believe in God and who try to follow Jesus are not deliberately wanting to harm animals in any way, but I don’t understand why it is so hard for Christians (and others) to change and to make better, more compassionate decisions.
My choice to live a vegan lifestyle has somewhat separated me from other clergy! I get referred to as ‘the vegan priest’, the priest who talks about animal rights, the priest who is so passionate about the place of animals in God’s creation. I am not ashamed of my stance for animals, nor of my vegan lifestyle. My own bishop told me that he respected me for my choices. I don’t want to be tolerated, or understood, or respected. It’s truly not about me! I want Christians to consider their own position, and to ask themselves how being complicit in the ways that animals are so neglected and harmed in the world doesn’t motivate them to effect change in the name of Jesus Christ.
Currently, I am requesting my parishioners to sign a petition to Pope Francis, asking him to reassert the age-old ban on Catholics attending and supporting bull fights. Regrettably, in Spain and in some parts of Asia, bullrings have chapels attached, with Catholic priests in residence, who act as chaplains to these venues, blessing matadors and celebrating Mass for those who attend the horrific scenes that go on in bullfighting. Yet, in 1567, Pope St Pius V banned bullfighting ‘ad perpetuam rei memoriam’ (for the permanent record) for all Catholics, because of its “cruel” nature, declaring this custom as being “removed from Christian charity and piety”. Admittedly, this Papal Document (De Salute Gregis Dominici) was then modified by two successive popes to apply only to the clergy, but the matter remains clear: the Church has called on her followers to desist from participating in this shocking and cruel ‘sport’ for entertainment. How can it, for a Christian, ever be acceptable to intentionally harm and kill animals for human pleasure? That doesn’t seem, to me, to sit comfortably with the Christian gospel of compassion and love.
Pope Francis has shown, on a few occasions, that the mood of the Catholic Church towards animals may be slowly changing. In his encyclical on Creation, Laudato Si’, he states that “every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity’”.
As the world appears to be gradually but unremittingly expiring because of the over-use and exploitation of her resources by human animals, is it not time to stop, for God’s sake? Is it not time to end the cruelty and the factory farming and the mindless use of animals for human ends? To save the animals? To save the planet? To save ourselves?
We must do it, in the name of Jesus Christ. We must do it for the animals.
Fr Terry Martin is a Catholic priest serving in the Parish of Worthing and Lancing.