[Editor's Note: This is adapted from Charles Camosy's book, "For Love Of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action"]
The overwhelming majority of meat that most of us eat--whether in a fast-food sandwich, on a frozen pizza from the supermarket, or even in the stock of your homemade soup--comes from factory farmed non-human animals. In light of the ideals just mentioned, how should Christians think about factory farms? I want to argue that factory farms are absolutely reprehensible institutions, particularly from a Christian perspective. If we care about justice, Christian should not only do all we can to refuse to support factory farms with our money, we should work to undermine the values and social structures which make it possible for them to function and flourish in the first place.
From the perspective of the Bible, our Christian Tradition, and current Church teaching, non-human animals are cared for and valued by God independent of the interests of human beings. But it is precisely because most of us do not see non-human animals as objectively valuable--and have an important interest in seeing them as mere objects and products to satisfy our desires--that they area vulnerable population which has been pushed to the margins of our culture and society. Those of us who follow the example of Jesus Christ, therefore, should give them special moral consideration and attention.
Christians should also be concerned about how the logic of violence and consumerism dominate the reasoning of factory farms. The attempt to maximize "protein units per square foot" is driven by both the customer's desire to buy meat at the cheapest possible price and the shareholder's desire to make a profit. This in turn drives factory farms to engage in practices which cause non-human animals horrific pain and suffering. Indeed, it has driven these farms even to push the boundaries of the species itself through artificial reproduction, breeding, and genetic manipulation. These practices didn't exist when small farms produced most of our meat, but the social structure of the market (especially when pushed by new technology) forced the change. Given that our culture is dominated by the social structure of the market, the only way for a meat producer to stay in business is to drive down costs by factory farming.
And let's not forget the Catechism's teaching that non-human animals are owed kindness. The treatment they receive in factory farms is about as far away from kindness as anyone could possibly imagine. To the extent that they care about the welfare of non-human animals, it is merely because it helps them get more protein units per square foot. These farms will treat their animals in the most cruel ways imaginable--and even risk dumping them by the millions (while still alive) into scalding hot water--if it will drive up profit margins.
Catholic teaching allows us to eat animals, but it also says that we may cause them to suffer or die only if we need to. Factory farms cause many billions of animals to suffer and die, that much is certain. The question then becomes, "Do we need to eat meat?" If you think carefully about why our culture eats meat, it is clear that we have two main reasons: (1) it is cheap and easy, and (2) it gives us pleasure. Neither comes close to the level of need. In fact, our decision to eat factory farmed meat makes us a lot like Michael Vick running a dog-fighting ring. He caused dogs to suffer and die for money and for pleasure. We eat factory farmed animals for money and for pleasure. If we condemn Michael Vick, we likely condemn ourselves as well.
I submit that most of us are eating meat which has been sacrificed to idols--the twin false gods of consumerism and profit. The cruel suffering and death that is inflected on many billions non-human animals in factory farms every year is designed to drive the prices down so that (1) we can get our meat at the a cheap price and (2) the corporations which run factory farms can make a huge profit.
Like the early Christians, we should follow the Biblical mandate to refuse to eat meat that has been sacrificed to our idols of consumerism and profit. We can and should strongly and publicly resist this practice in our personal eating decisions, and instead shop at places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and local farms where we can be maximally sure that we are not participating in this social structure of sin. Christians should refuse to serve factory farmed meat in their homes--even to guests who are expecting it. This would be a powerful witness to a Western world that is addicted to artificially cheap meat.
But when the issue is a matter of justice for vulnerable populations, our concern must go beyond our own practices. We must not allow "freedom" and "choice" to make space for grave injustice. Pastors of churches and Bishops of dioceses should make sure that the institutions under their pastoral care refuse to serve factory farmed meat. Catholic organizations and groups should be leading the way, particularly because we already have framework of the Catechism and of cooperation with evil. (It is worth noting here that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia already serves only "cage free" eggs.) All Christians should also work for social and structural change such that the law defends the God-given dignity and worth of all non-human animals as something far more than mere products in a market. This would mean, among other things, bringing these animals back to small, rural family farms which respected this dignity, and undermining the market's push to reduce their value simply to a means of profit.
Especially if you are thinking seriously about these issues for the first time, these changes may seem like a tall order. I know from personal experience how difficult they can be. I became convinced by these arguments at 24, but it took me six more years to make the commitment to give up meat (I figured that by 30 my practices had better start reflecting what I intellectually and spiritually believe), and seven years later I still struggle especially when eating meat is connected to various family and holiday functions. But luckily for me, Christianity has a long tradition of fasting and spiritual discipline to help along the way. We have numerous examples of saints (especially Church Fathers of the Desert) who show us how to imitate Christ's self-emptying, his rejection of sinful appetites, and--ultimately--his holiness. These people show us that God's Holy Spirit will give us spiritual food for the difficult journey away from factory farmed food. All we need to do is ask.