8 min read

What Pope Francis Is Teaching Everybody About Animals

<p> Aleteia Image Department / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/113018453@N05/14037472464" target="_blank">Flickr </a>(<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>)<span></span></p>

Lately, much attention has been riveted on Laudato Si' ("Praised Be"), the latest papal encyclical on the protection of "our common home," issued by Pope Francis. An encyclical is one of the highest forms of official teachings issued by a pope. While encyclicals have historically been written with a Roman Catholic audience in mind, what makes this one unique is that it is addressed to every person on the planet.

Predictions that the document would address climate change were largely confirmed. One other significant element, however, has received very little mention thus far. The encyclical gives a remarkable amount of attention to mankind's treatment of animals. As a Catholic and lay Franciscan working in animal advocacy, it carries special significance to me, as well.

Animals are hardly a footnote in the encyclical. Indeed, the word "animal" or "animals" appears nearly as much as the word "climate." This observation doesn't tell the whole story, however. For instance, "creature" is also mentioned nearly 80 times. While human beings, too, are acknowledged as creatures, the use of this term to include both human and non-human creatures, is very likely purposeful. Integral ecology, or the interrelatedness between the Earth and its inhabitants is a major theme of the encyclical. It is also in the spirit of St. Francis' (patron saint of ecology and Pope Francis's namesake) respect for the universal kinship of all beings. Indeed, the entire document illustrates how certain systems and mindsets threaten all creation, whether or not animals are referenced by name specifically.

I came away with the following takeaways:

Pope Francis emphasizes that each creature has value in its own right, independent of any value that may be derived for mankind's use. For Christians and non-Christians alike, this proposition challenges the popular notion that animals exist solely for our use and enjoyment. Special attention is given to endangered species, explaining:

It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential "resources" to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species, which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity.

As Pope Francis warns, "our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people." Treating animals with the respect they are due clearly benefits the animals. However, the encyclical also points out that doing so yields many positive results for people, too - not the least of which is the building of human dignity, itself.

In one instance, Pope Francis explores a story from Saint Bonaventure, a disciple of St. Francis, that "from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small by the name of 'brother' or 'sister.'" From this we learn that no creature, no matter how small is an accident. When we respect and care for all parts of creation as things that are not separate from us, but related to us, we are respecting and caring for ourselves.

Few people would say that it is appropriate to mistreat animals. Yet we all benefit to some extent from animal suffering that happens behind closed doors in industries and systems that exist to serve our needs and desires. Pope Francis resolutely reaffirms what Catholic social teaching already states. Namely, that "it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly." But he goes on further to state that each act of cruelty is contrary to human dignity, tackling unnecessary experiments on animals, specifically. Elsewhere, he criticizes practices such as destructive fishing and destroying important animal habitats.

When it comes to acting on behalf of the Earth and all of its inhabitants, Pope Francis lets no one off the hook. Terms used in the document that have once been reserved for small circles of interdisciplinary academics and animal protection advocates, such as "anthropocentrism" may become part of an expanded vocabulary for a whole new group of people. Whether we are just learning about the issues facing animals, or whether we've been advocating for them for decades, the encyclical offers encouragement that we can rise to a new challenge.

Note: this is a condensed article. The full article can be found on World Animal Net's blog.