You’ve probably seen the stories in social media, or heard them from friends: people spending extravagant amounts of money on their “fur babies”—everything from spa days to birthday parties to cancer treatments. According to one report, Americans spend over $50 billion a year on their pets, and according to scholarly and anecdotal evidence they often respond more strongly to news of pet abuse than to the abuse of human beings.
People also react strongly to stories about the potential mistreatment of animals raised on farms or kept in captivity. In 2007, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina was pressured into shutting down its egg production business because of complaints over the treatment of the monastery’s hens. (The monks now raise mushrooms and offer “interspiritual experiences” at their retreat center to earn a living for their community.) And who can forget the online outrage when a gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo was killed in an effort to save a small child who had managed to get into its enclosure?
How should a Catholic view such things? What does the Church teach on man’s responsibility to animals—whether those kept for companionship, raised for food, held in captivity for educational and conservation purposes, or living in the wild?
The Church takes a balanced approach to these issues. If we look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, we find it established first that animals are God’s creatures and that they give him glory by their very existence. So we should treat animals with compassion not only for the sake of our own souls, but also for the animals’ own sake: because they are cared for and protected by God himself (CCC 2416).
The Catechism also notes that stewardship of the natural resources of the earth, including animal resources, doesn’t just entail responsible use of those resources for ourselves but also means preserving them for the use and enjoyment of future generations:
Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come (CCC 2415).
The Catechism lays out these principles before turning its attention to the legitimate use of animals and to the problems involved with an exaggerated affection for animals. It affirms that we may make use of animals for food, clothing, and scientific experimentation that contributes to the health and well-being of humans—“if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives” (CCC 2417). On the other hand, “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (CCC 2418).
Of course, what constitutes the right use of creatures for man’s needs is open to interpretation. The South Carolina Trappists, for example, depended on the income generated from the eggs produced by the monastery’s chickens to provide for their community. The loss of that revenue impacted their livelihood until they were able to complete the transition to a new business. Hunting animals, whether for subsistence, sport, or to protect property, requires a similar reckoning of man’s legitimate needs versus the obligation to be a prudent steward of natural resources. The balance of goods is not an exact science, and prudence and Christian charity suggest assuming that our neighbor isn’t intentionally mistreating animals merely by the fact of using them to earn his living (CCC 2478).
The Catechism goes on to warn about placing the welfare of animals over and above the welfare of human beings:
It is . . . unworthy to spend money on [animals] that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons (CCC 2418).
Here again we have the problem of balancing goods and using prudence to determine the right action to take in individual circumstances. A wealthy retired couple might be in the position to justify spending thousands of dollars on cancer treatments for a pet dog, whereas a young family with small children might not. Unlike with humans, the Church permits euthanasia of animals if it will prevent the animal’s suffering or relieves the owner of excessively burdensome care.
Nevertheless, although in some cases spending large amounts of money on an animal’s medical care can be a legitimate use of resources, there seems to be no reason for anyone to spend exorbitant sums to pamper his pets. Even if an owner can well afford to buy a “spa day” for Fifi, that type of indulgence is not only undue to an animal; it gives to the animal “the affection due only to persons” and wastes resources that would be better put toward “the relief of human misery.”
Recent popes have also expressed their concerns about man’s use of animals and our responsibilities to God’s creatures. Before his election to the papacy as Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger stated in an interview his view that the lives of animals shouldn’t be manipulated at will by man for frivolous purposes:
Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.
Pope Francis took up this theme in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. He reiterated the Catechism’s concern for man’s responsibility to future generations (22) and warned of the costs of losing animal species to man’s quest for technological advancement (35). Francis also pointed to St. John Paul II’s warning that man seems “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption” (5), while noting that John Paul also made allowance for scientific experimentation that served man’s legitimate needs (131).
The Church teaches that animals were created for the glory of God and for the right use and enjoyment of man. Although they cannot be said to have “rights,” properly speaking, we do have the responsibility to treat them with both prudence and kindness. In doing so, we show gratitude to God for all that he has given us.