Pope Francis on Animal Liberation

Jane Gray Morrison, Michael Charles Tobias | July 28, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Pope Francis’s “‘Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Franciscus On Care For Our Common Home’” (“Given in Rome at Saint Peter’s on 24 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 2015”), can easily be summarized by virtually any one segment of its 246 stanza entirety. We would suggest statement #71 as a fitting emblem:

71. Although “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Gen 6:5) and the Lord “was sorry that he had made man on the earth” (Gen 6:6), nonetheless, through Noah, who remained innocent and just, God decided to open a path of salvation.[1]

Even if the language is of salvation, of a “triune” God, and of the Lord – if interpreted through the insistence upon, or prescriptions of no faith, no religious orientation, not even the alleged neutrality of atheism; and forgetting the tired rhetorical schisms between politics, faith and science, in all “isms” – there remains in this provocative paean to the Earth an inherently good and viable embrace of all that transcends our personal biases.

Francis has effectively merged science, faith, transcendence, and a plethora of the trappings of Church history and catechism. Of the 172 citations, only three, relating to – Dante, Teilhard de Chardin and the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur – are not explicitly Church authorities. Nonetheless, the breadth of citations encompasses speeches, historic and philosophical texts, and environmental injunctions from a broad and honest multiplicity of inaugurations, exchanges, and serious conferences (e.g., the Rio Summit 1992), from New Zealand to Asia, each of them in the same camp as what is conventionally thought of as engaged environmentalism; of compassion in action.

By invoking Noah, this inspired reverie by the Pope may be summarized in two words: Animal liberation, a fitting and massive Church tribute to the very Patron Saint of Ecology [2], Saint Francis himself. Church history shows Noah protecting the animals of the ark day and night for a year (Gen). In Rabbinic tradition, during that year at sea all the animals abstained from sex so as not to overpopulate what was a strictly formulated size of the vessel. Learned debates regarding the boat’s size were sustained prominently throughout the Renaissance and did not cease to fascinate the world’s audience until the time of Darwin, at which point historians let rest the uncertainties with respect to just how many representatives of each species might have found lodging with Noah.

Of course, the Pope is not the first to equate the killing of animals with humanity’s own incorrigible self-destruction. Back in November (8th) 1997, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of some 300 million Greek Orthodox adherents, in speaking at an environmental symposium in Santa Barbara, declared boldly:

It follows that, to commit a crime against the natural world, is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation… for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands… for humans to injure other humans with disease… for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances… these are sins. [3]

Extinct Elephant Bird, Madagascar | © M. C. Tobias
Extinct Elephant Bird, Madagascar | © M. C. Tobias

Noah is said to have liberated animals from certain destruction: global annihilation brought upon biodiversity as a result of human greed, hubris, ignorance, vanity and violence, an only too real mythology – magnificently enshrined by such pictorial geniuses as the Flemish Renaissance master Jan Breughel the Elder. God is said to have forgiven Noah. And that forgiveness remained inchoate as a potent and viable template for the future of biology here on Earth.

Within such forgiveness is the corresponding injunction to do something towards renewal, the renaissance of life, the giving back of life, not just the taking of a precious gift, which has been our predominate penchant as a species, and as individuals.

Trapped Burro, Southern India | © M. C. Tobias
Trapped Burro, Southern India | © M. C. Tobias

This forgiveness gives every indication of our perception of some God-like force, whether one considers him/herself driven by faith, or by nothing; acting alone or in concert; a total narcissist or survivalist. It does not really matter anymore what characterization we choose as individuals with which to align ourselves. The writing on Earth’s walls are clear: each of us is zoologically related by birth to the biophilia that pervades that collection of forces and genes that gave us our birthright and self-consciousness, whether in the mind of a man, the man Noah, the Pope Francis, the readership – all of us.

It is our mission to join forces with those recipients of our intentions and actions. Every major ethical and indigenous tradition, going back at least some 70,000 years (to the cave of Shanidar 4 on Bradost Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan) has honored the implicit conscience that accompanies the love of others, of nature, or physiolatry in ancient Greek. This Encyclical is but the latest, perhaps most hard-hitting of documents within that outstanding legacy we think of as our humanity… Continue reading.

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.

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  • Geoffrey,
    We totally agree with all you’ve said, and it is echoed throughout our essay. “How bad does it have to get before we reach a tipping point?” you ask. You know, of course, that this is the essence of ecological relativity, where E (ecological health of the planet) = MC (manhkind’s -humankind’s – consumption) squared; a simplified version of the Ehrlich/Holdren IPAT equation of the mid-1970s.
    By E=MCsquared, of course, “ecological health” is also a relative index of biochemical performance: evapotranspiration, balanced pH, fertility, natural selection over a non-stressed time frame (read: the course of evolution with balance, and flux). Taken together, we can measure tipping points in accordance with the interstices between the known six mass extinction events in biological history. Hence, the Anthropocene now occurring makes it clear that we have hit a tipping point in our lifetimes.

    Whether human beings -and all other individuals of species and populations – can survive the human species, is THE question.

    The Pope is someone with a critical mass of influence to help mitigate this all-out extinction event we are witness to, by embracing family planning with the urgency of the other life-saving measures he pays tribute to in his 3rd Encyclical. It would help trigger other comparable “encyclicals” from all the other critical mass points that influence that drive the human species and its insatiable engines of consumption and consequent destruction.

    Thanks for your important comment.
    Michael Charles Tobias
    Jane Gray Morrison

  • Geoffrey Holland

    This Pope is really pushing the envelope, but not far enough. The United Nations now projects a human population at 9.7 billion by 2050. Humans are already putting way too much pressure on the biosphere’s ability to provide. Adding another 2.5 billion, each one requiring food, water, shelter, and personal security, in the next 35 years is just insane. The population of wild animals has dropped more than 50% just since 1970. Our oceans fisheries are being exhausted. It goes on and on.
    Are we too far down the slippery slope already? Sure, we have a lot of exciting technologies emerging that could make a difference, but population growth remains unchecked.
    The Pope has made a powerful statement about the human obligation to respect and protect the natural world, but the key driver behind the shredding of the biosphere is human population growth. On that issue, Catholic church doctrine is a big part of the problem. The Pope’s Encyclical is a step in the right direction, but his church must get real about reproductive choice. Encouraging people to ‘go forth and multiply’ is absolutely the wrong message.
    I always thought the worst consequences of our human hubris would come after I am dead and gone, but the unraveling seems to be happening a lot faster than I ever imagined. How bad does it have to get before we reach a tipping point?

  • Kris

    I’m very happy to see this article – thanks to the authors for this exploration and to Mahb for publishing. My “new age” channels brought the Encyclical to my attention – those circles are justifiably excited about its progressive slant and are focusing on the message of “oneness” and environmental stewardship. I read the Encyclical with great interest – especially the points about compassion for animals. As an ex-Catholic and mostly vegan-vegetarian, I haven’t yet had the courage to bring it up with my Catholic friends, the brunt of whom are committed meat and dairy eaters. This Pope continues to surprise and impress me and many of my closest friends. I look forward to more inspirational leadership from him.

    • Kris, thanks for commenting. We’re seeing a sea change amongst persons of all “denominations” worldwide who are embracing a common sense, No Kill ethic.

  • jane

    This is a heartfelt plea for us ‘ to do something’ before it is too late.
    However, I really do not think that this encyclical can achieve the importance that the authors attribute to it while the Vatican continues to maintain its frankly nonsensical and illogical stance on birth control and abortion.
    To be fair,the authors discuss this very thing and make the link-essential- between pro-choice and conservation.
    This could be adopted as a slogan to galvanise public opinion via various social networking sites perhaps: think of the Centre For Biological Diversity’s excellent condom campaign.
    I suggest that this be taken up and spread as a direct challenge to the Vatican and the various Greenies who are still in denial about the importance of human population pressure.
    The animal rights movement also needs to gain more acceptance within the mainstream of human concerns,rather than being dismissed as mattering only to ‘tree huggers’.
    For many years I have supported a humane research charity: The Dr Hadwen Trust, but sadly their pioneering work is still not well known.

    • Jane,
      We appreciate your referencing the Dr. Hadwen Trust (http://www.drhadwentrust.org/)
      which we are very happy to note is a strictly non-animal related medical research organization in the UK that also is deeply involved in vegan diets, as we understand it.

      As for your acknowledgment of the “link-essential- between pro-choice and conservation” – we obviously and absolutely concur (and have for our entire professional lives). This is why we’ve propagated the hope that a 4th Encyclical break-through is in the works. One focused on family planning at long last. An Encyclical that unabashedly and with hard-hitting, unambiguous data focuses upon the critical importance of pro-choice, with all of the access to the ingredients of choice that will help make an essential difference for the lives of hundreds-of-millions of women and their children. Without belaboring the vast technical, long understood literature on the subject, it would, at the very least, include subsidized over-the-counter cafeteria-style options for contraception; education for young women; FOOD for everyone, school breakfasts and lunches (not just lunches – but late afternoon nutritious meals would also help); partner counseling; the uplifting of the enormous burden and shadows implicit in well over 40 countries worldwide where oppression of women is altogether counter to what the Pope is trying to accomplish when he speaks about harmonizing with nature, etc. etc.

      The Pope is clearly sincere and abundantly heart-felt in his views on Nature at this point. Now, we would urge him to address what it is really going to take (read: the great work, as one example, of the UNFPA) about voiding all those underpinnings of the human condition that are providing fuel for the bonfire of maladies meted out by humans to most other species and habitat as our numbers continue out-of-control from 7.34 heading towards 9.5, even 10, possibly 11 billion.