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Author: Jame Schaefer
Editor: Robert L. Fastiggi
Date: 2013
New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2012-2013: Ethics and Philosophy
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The word animal comes from the Latin anima, meaning breath or soul, and is used traditionally to refer to entities that are alive (animated). Though used colloquially in reference to nonhuman animals and pejoratively to unacceptable human behavior, “animal” is scientifically attributable to all multicellular living organisms with fixed bodily structures that are capable of moving independently, responding to stimuli, and reproducing. Humans fall within this category with other mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, crabs, earthworms, sponges, and many other types. Each kind is distinct in appearance and innate qualities, yet all are interconnected and functioning within the community of Earth that God made possible. This realization requires careful thinking about the human person as a distinct kind of creature among other animal creatures, about the nature of nonhuman animals, and about how humans should relate to them.

Historical Overview. Biblical, theological, and magisterial views of humans in relation to other animals have varied over the centuries. Foundational to these views has been the belief that humans and other animals are created by God, sustained in existence by God, and valued by God (Gn 1). Also foundational has been the understanding of humans as a unique kind of animal, endowed by God with the intellectual capability and freedom to make and execute informed decisions, the ultimate of which is orienting their temporal lives toward eternal happiness with God.

When reflecting on nonhuman animals, some theologians have considered them instructive, both positively and negatively, for human life (e.g., BASIL of Caesarea, c. 329–379). Others have emphasized from Genesis 1:26 that God has given humans “dominion” over nonhuman animals due to their usefulness in providing for the necessities of life, while God has retained absolute dominion over all (e.g., THOMAS AQUINAS, 1224–1274). Animals have intrigued some Church prelates, including ISIDORE, the bishop of Seville (c. 560–636), who catalogued and described domestic and wild animals in Etymologiae, a book that served for centuries as a depository of knowledge for students. ALBERT THE GREAT (c. 1206–1280), a natural philosopher, theologian, and bishop of Regensburg, detailed in De Animalia his many observations regarding the behavior of “beasts and birds.” Stories of the early Christian desert fathers, Celtic wanderers, and Germanic solitaries from the third to the eighth centuries convey their intimate relationships with nonhuman animals in their shared habitats. Although often romanticized, the stories about animals in the life of St. FRANCIS OF ASSISI (c. 1182–1226) display his sense of kinship with them and the goodness of God's creation.

Prominent throughout the patristic and medieval periods was the faith-based understanding that all creatures—animate and inanimate—constitute a “book of nature” that the faithful can and should “read” in order to discern certain attributes of God, especially God's goodness, power, and wisdom. This “sacramental” perception of the world was underscored by the twelfth-century theologian HUGH OF SAINT-VICTOR (1096–1141), who meticulously explored God's attributes as evidenced through the world, and by Aquinas, who viewed all creatures as conveying a certain kind of goodness and providing the best manifestation of God's goodness by functioning cooperatively with one another.

Although this sacramental sensibility of the world initially motivated some scientists of the early modern period to study God's “book of nature” (e.g., cosmologist Johannes KEPLER [1571–1630], and naturalist John Ray [1628–1705]), some philosophers interpreted the distinctiveness of humans as if they had nothing in common with other animals. For example, René DESCARTES (1596–1650) argued reductively that nonhuman animals should be viewed as complex machines because they do not have rational souls. As the sciences became increasingly specialized and scientists did not link their investigations to faith and trust in God, nonhuman animals were exploited as objects devoid of intrinsic or spiritual value and regarded as merely the property of humans to treat however they might wish. Experiments on nonhuman animals in the interests of human health and well-being abounded without sensitivity to their suffering. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society were founded to counter the maltreatment of animals in laboratories and elsewhere, to advocate rules that mitigate animal suffering, and to remain vigilant to assure that violations of these rules are corrected. Human duties toward animals, attention to animal rights, and the moral standing of animals before the law became prominent fields for philosophical inquiry.

Perspectives at the Intersection of Theology and the Natural Sciences. Today, moral theologians who work at the intersection of theology and the natural sciences Page 75  |  Top of Articlepoint to many problems that are attributable to the objectification of nonhuman animals. Among these problems are insensitivity to their suffering and failure to value them for their innate qualities and their roles in ecological systems. With animal rights advocates and biologists, these theologians point to the mushrooming of factory farms in which chickens, cows, and other animals are sequestered in cramped conditions until butchered for human consumption, and to the accelerated rate of species extinction due primarily to the overexploitation of animal species for economic gain and the destruction of their habitats for “development” projects. Pollution of the air, water, and land by toxins and other hazardous materials threaten the health and survival of nonhuman animals as well as humans, particularly the very young and old. Carelessly introduced species that are not native to ecological systems (invasive species) threaten the survival of native species. Particularly vexing are “greenhouse gases” emitted from industrial processes and automobiles that are forcing changes on the global climate, altering habitats, and disrupting the ranges of animals as well as plants.

Scientific discoveries about the origin and nature of the universe, life, and consciousness are stimulating some theologians to think more cogently about humans in relation to other animals and to argue for more humble attitudes and more responsible actions toward them. Evidence of a singularity from which the universe began expanding approximately 13.8 billion years ago points to the forging in the furnaces of stars elements that are essential to the formation of all organic bodies. Seminal efforts by naturalists Charles DARWIN (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), who proffered the evolution of species by natural selection, have been supported and refined by paleontologists and geneticists who have verified the continuity of humans with other animals over biological time, their similarities and dissimilarities, and the distinguishing characteristics of each species. Etiologists such as Mark Bekoff are contributing to these scientific endeavors by studying the behavior of animals and focusing on their emotions.

Informed by scientific findings, theologians whose research intersects the natural sciences are exploring the nature of the human in relation to other animals and building upon the diverse reflections over the centuries about the human as imago Dei (Gn 1:28). These theologians highlight the unique capacities of humans to discover the innate qualities of other animals and their needs for survival, to value and respect them by avoiding actions that hinder their survival or cause them undue suffering, and to act with gratitude and kindness toward the animals upon whom humans are radically dependent directly and indirectly for their health and well-being. These theologians emphasize the responsibility humans have to God for how they function in relation to all creatures that constitute God's ongoing creation.

Magisterial Perspectives. Recent popes have expressed concern about the welfare of nonhuman animals, how they are treated by the faithful, and how they are related to humans. Shortly after becoming pope, JOHN PAUL II (1920–2005) issued the bull Inter sanctos in which he proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi the “heavenly patron” of ecologists because he greatly appreciated God's diverse creatures. John Paul II advanced the medieval saint's significance on the 1990 World Day of Peace when he issued the first papal statement dedicated to the ecological crisis, a crisis that he considered “a moral responsibility” for all people to address. In his statement Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, John Paul II lauded the love St. Francis had for animals, their love for him, and his sense of “fraternity” with all creatures; St. Francis serves as a reminder of “our serious obligation to respect and watch over” all creatures with care and respect, the pope taught (1990, n. 16). At the Conference on Environment and Health in 1997, John Paul II explained that the “kinship” humans have with the “creaturely environment” God gifted to them as “both a home and a resource” should foster “a sense of gratitude to the Creator” and “an attitude of respect for every reality of the surrounding world” (1997, n. 4).

While expressing concern for animals and recognizing the human connection with all other creatures of Earth, John Paul II consistently emphasized the uniqueness and dignity of the human person. He pointed to the importance of Genesis 2:18–20 for understanding the human identity with and differentiation from other living beings (1979), and he criticized the “opposite and exaggerated positions” of “egocentrism and biocentrism” that seek to eliminate their “ontological and axiological difference” (1997, n. 5). Linking human dignity, scientific and technological ingenuity, and ethical responsibility as characteristics that distinguish humans, John Paul II urged openness toward a “comprehensive solidarity” of all people to assure sufficient resources for the most poor and vulnerable people in the present and for generations in the future (1997, n. 5).

Issued during John Paul II's pontificate, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the legitimacy of using animals “for food and clothing” (n. 2417) while teaching that animals are God's creatures who should be treated with kindness (n. 2416). Causing them “to suffer or die needlessly” is “contrary to human dignity” (n. 2418).

Joseph Cardinal RATZINGER voiced his concern for animals before becoming Pope Benedict XVI. He criticized factory farms in which animals were reduced to “a commodity” as exemplified by “hens so packed Page 76  |  Top of Articletogether that they become just caricatures of birds” (Ratzinger 2002, 78–79). Keenly aware of the adverse effects from misusing technology, Benedict XVI cautioned against assuming a “total technical dominion over nature” (2009, n. 48). “The natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure,” he insisted, “it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation” (2009, n. 48). He distinguished this Catholic theological view of other species and the natural environment from neopaganistic and pantheistic views that diminish the human person and fail to recognize the spiritual capacity of the human to transcend the materiality of the world and to use God's gift of freedom responsibly by caring for the world (2009, n. 48). In his Message on the World Day of Peace in 2010, Benedict XVI underscored “the indivisible relationship between God, human beings and the whole of creation” (2010, n. 14) and urged the protection of God's creation as a means toward achieving peace in the world. His thoughtful teachings and responsible applications in Vatican City have prompted people to call him “the Green Pope.”



Bauckham, Richard. Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011.

Bekoff, Mark. Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart. Foreword by Jane Goodall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Benedict XVI. Caritas in veritate [Encyclical Letter on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth]. June 29, 2009. .

Benedict XVI. If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation [Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace]. January 1, 2010. .

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John Paul II. General Audience [Original Unity of Man and Woman]. November 7, 1979. .

John Paul II. Inter sanctos [Papal Bull]. November 29, 1979.

John Paul II. Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation [Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace]. January 1, 1990. .

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Jame Schaefer
Associate Professor, Department of Theology
Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI (2013)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2762500040