Vegetarianism

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Soul and Spirit

Scripture

Old Testament

It seems that some vegetarians take the commandment against murder in Exodus 20:13 as a prohibition of all killing of any kind. It is easy to demonstrate that the People of God never understood that commandment against the taking of innocent human life to include the execution of wrongdoers. All of the Ten Commandments were imposed on pain of death, especially the prohibition of murder: "Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of God have human beings been made" (Gen 9:6). "Whoever strikes someone a mortal blow must be put to death" (Ex 21:12).

It is equally easy to demonstrate that the commandment against murder does not preclude killing animals. Immediately after giving the Ten Commandments, God required Moses to offer animal sacrifice: "An altar of earth make for me, and sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and communion sacrifices, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be invoked I will come to you and bless you" (Ex 20:24).

If "Thou shalt not murder" meant that all taking of human or animal life was prohibited, then the execution of murderers and animal sacrifice would have been outlawed by the commandment. The fact that execution of murders and animal sacrifice were required by the Torah shows that the commandment against murder is of limited scope.

Although the second chapter of Genesis suggests that Adam and Eve were vegetarians, in the third chapter, God Himself gave them leather garments to wear: "The LORD God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them" 3:21). Thus God implicitly authorized the killing of animals to obtain their skins for human use.

The ninth chapter of Genesis explicitly authorizes eating meat (9:3-4):

3 Any living creature that moves about shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants.

4 Only meat with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat.

Many passages in the Torah required the killing and burning of animals in many offerings for sin. So, for example, on the annual feast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest was required to sacrifice a goat and a bull for himself, his family, and the people (Lev 16:1-28).

The Torah has many food rules which define which meats may be eaten (kosher) and which are prohibited because they are unclean (tref).

On the original Passover night, the Israelites were commanded to kill a lamb, mark their homes with its blood, and consume it completely in the evening meal (Ex 12:1-20).

Killing and eating a lamb was the central feature of the annual feast of Passover.

The claim that Christians must take the Old Testament commandment against murder as a prohibition against meat-eating is therefore absurd.

New Testament

Jesus declared all food clean (kosher) in Mark 7:14-19:

14 He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.

15 Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

17 When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable.

18 He said to them, “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile,

19 since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Peter had a vision of "all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky," and a voice said to him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat" (Acts 10:12-13). When Peter objected that, as good Jew who kept the kosher rules in Torah, he could not eat any meat that was not kosher, the voice said to him, "What God has made clean [kosher], you are not to call profane [tref]" (10:15).

Jesus sent Peter to catch a fish in order to obtain a coin to pay the Temple tax (Mt 17:24-27).

Jesus ordered His disciples to prepare the Passover meal Mt 16:17-19), which involved the ritual killing and cooking of the Passover lamb.

There are two accounts of Jesus telling his disciples where to cast their fishing nets (Lk 5:4-9 and Jn 21:6). In John's gospel, Jesus cooked fish for his disciples and gave it to them for breakfast (Jn 21:9,13).

Paul sums up the New Testament's teaching about the legitimacy of eating any kind of food that sustains life 1 Tim 4:1-5):

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions

2 through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences.

3 They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when received with thanksgiving,

5 for it is made holy by the invocation of God in prayer.

From these and other such passages, it is evident that neither Jesus nor His disciples understood the commandment against murder to prohibit killing and eating animals.

Aristotle and Thomas

The Aristotelian/Thomist view is that all living things have a soul: plants, animals, and humans.

In all three cases, the soul is the form of the body.

The human spirit, infused in our soul at the moment of conception, causes us to have powers of intellect and will that make us immortal. Animals and plants have souls, but do not have the spiritual powers that cause us to be "in the image and likeness of God" (Gen 1:27).

We are animals.

Therefore, all animals are like us.

We are rational animals because of the spiritual powers of our souls.

Not all animals are rational animals.

Human rights are based on human nature.

Non-human animals do not have human rights.

Catechism

Respect for the integrity of creation

#2415
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.[1] 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; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.[2]
#2416
Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.[3] Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
#2417
God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image.[4] Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
#2418
It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them 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.
The vocation of lay people
#898
"By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer."[5]
#899
The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church:
Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church.[6]

John Paul II

This does not deal directly with vegetarianism, but does show how the Church understands the Scriptural teaching that humans have been given "dominion" over the whole of creation (Gen 1:28). One of the footnotes in the Catechism excerpts above refers to this passage in the encyclical. Emphasis added.

Centesimus annus, 1991.
37. Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.[7]
In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man's outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. In this regard, humanity today must be conscious of its duties and obligations towards future generations.
38. In addition to the irrational destruction of the natural environment, we must also mention the more serious destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves. Although people are rightly worried — though much less than they should be — about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realize that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general, too little effort is made to safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic "human ecology". Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God's gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed. In this context, mention should be made of the serious problems of modern urbanization, of the need for urban planning which is concerned with how people are to live, and of the attention which should be given to a "social ecology" of work.
Man receives from God his essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move towards truth and goodness. But he is also conditioned by the social structure in which he lives, by the education he has received and by his environment. These elements can either help or hinder his living in accordance with the truth. The decisions which create a human environment can give rise to specific structures of sin which impede the full realization of those who are in any way oppressed by them. To destroy such structures and replace them with more authentic forms of living in community is a task which demands courage and patience.[8]

Reflections

From the standpoint of biology, carnivorous activity seems to be natural among some animals; some are herbivores; others are omnivores. To the extent that we participate in animal nature--we are rational animals, and we are also omnivores--it is natural for us to eat the flesh of other animals.

Accepting the fact that we are omnivorous does not give us any right to torture animals. We must treat animals humanely not because they are human but because we are human.

God is the creator of the universe. Nature comes to us from His hand. In the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, the books of Moses), a distinction is made between animals that are legal (kosher) to eat and those that are unclean (tref) and therefore prohibited. Besides endorsing eating the meat of animals, the Torah also ordered the ritual killing and burning of animals in Temple sacrifices.

Therefore, it would be against the scriptural tradition to think that killing or eating animals is intrinsically evil.

Animals are "sentient" beings in the strict sense of the word. They have senses like ours. They can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. They feel pain and very evidently have feelings and moods like ours (joy, sorrow, fear, anger). They have memory and an animal form of intelligence. They feel pain and can suffer. But they do not have a spiritual nature like ours. The immediate divine act by which our souls are given God-like powers of intellect and will at the moment of our conception is what sets us apart from animals. "Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead" CCC #357).

God gives us an immortal personal identity at the moment of our conception through the gift of intellect and free will. This is why we may be held responsible for our actions in a way that no other animal can be. We alone have the freedom to decide whether or not to follow the impulses suggested by our animal natures. Animals have no such freedom of foresight, insight, abstract reasoning, and decision; they also do not have rights on par with human rights. That metaphysical, spiritual difference generates different codes of ethics for the treatment of humans and the treatment of animals.

Some vegetarians argue that the fifth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," refers to all animal life. The English translation of the commandment is beautiful but misleading. I love the sound of "Thou shalt not kill" because of the four forceful monosyllables, but the correct translation is "Thou shalt not murder." Murder is the taking of an innocent human life. The scriptures that define the commandment make a clear distinction between that kind of killing and the kind of killing of animals for food and for Temple worship.

We know that Jesus ate fish and lamb. He celebrated the Passover with His disciples and cooked fish for them at the seashore (Jn 21). He ate a piece of fish to prove His bodily resurrection (Lk 24:42). He could not have done so if eating flesh were intrinsically evil.[9]

Having said that it is permissible for Catholics to eat meat and use animal products for other purposes, it is not the case that the Church commands anyone to do so. Since we are naturally omnivorous, anyone who wishes to be a vegetarian may choose to be a vegetarian.

The Church reprehends cruelty to animals, but does not and cannot forbid killing and eating them. Writing proper regulations for the humane treatment of animals is the responsibility of citizens, who have the obligation to form prudential judgments that lie outside the scope of the Church's teaching authority. No pope or council of the Church is going to write a code for the treatment of cows, pigs, chicken, salmon, turkeys, goats, alligators, turtles, or the like. That is the job of local civil authorities and citizens.

In defending the rights of omnivores to eat meat, I am not in any way defending the abuse of animals. Those who treat animals cruelly degrade themselves. They ought to be prohibited from doing so. Bear-baiting, dog fights, and rooster fights spring to mind as examples of the kind of things that can and should be outlawed. How and where to draw the line between licit animal husbandry and illicit torment of animals is a different case. It is something about which reasonable Catholics of good faith may reasonably disagree. The Church will never issue detailed codes for animal husbandry. Developing local codes is a job for politicians and citizens, not for the Magisterium.

The glorious freedom of the children of God

Nothing in the Church's tradition requires eating meat or prohibits the free choice of vegetarianism. Those who judge that this is good for health of mind and body, good for the nation, and good for the whole earth may choose any form of diet that they think is best.

If vegetarians teach that animals are no different from human beings or if they teach that eating meat is intrinsically evil, they depart from the teachings of the Catholic Church and exclude themselves from communion with her.

Catholic Encyclopedia, "Abstinence."
According to the vagaries of the Manicheans, Montanists and Encratites, flesh meat is intrinsically evil and merits the most rigorous kind of prohibition. Keenly sensible of this heterodoxy, the Church of Christ has not based her ordinances enjoining abstinence on any such unwarranted assumption. As the exponent of revelation, the Church knows and teaches that every creature in the visible universe is equally a work of the divine wisdom, power, and goodness, which defy all limitations. This is why the first pages of the inspired text indicate that the Creator "saw all the things that he had made and they were very good" (Genesis 1:31). St. Paul is, if anything, still more explicit in condemning the folly of those sectaries, though they originated after his day. "Now, the Spirit manifestly says that in the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error, and doctrines of devils . . . forbidding to marry, to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful and by them that know the truth. For, every creature is good, and nothing to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving" (1 Tim 4:1-3). Neither is the Church, in her legislation on abstinence, animated by any such gross superstition as influences the adherents of Brahmanism or Buddhism. Moved by their theories regarding the transmigration of souls, they are logically induced to abstain from eating the flesh of animals, lest they should unconsciously consume their parents or friends. In consequence of those notions their diet is vegetarian. So rigorous is the law prescribing this diet that transgressions are visited with social and domestic ostracism. At the same time this ultra conservatism has not been espoused by all who share the doctrine regarding the transmigration of souls. Many of them have not hesitated to temper their belief in this creed with a mitigated form of abstinence from flesh meat.

References

  1. Cf. Gen 1:28-31.
  2. Cf. Centesimus annus 37-38.
  3. Cf. Mt 6:26; Dan 3:79-81.
  4. Cf. Gen 2:19-20; 9:1-4.
  5. LG 31 § 2.
  6. Pius XII, Discourse, February 20, 1946:AAS 38 (1946) 149; quoted by John Paul II, CL 9.
  7. Cf. Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 34: loc. cit., 559f.; Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace: AAS 82 (1990), 147-156.
  8. Cf. Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Poenitentia (December 2, 1984),16:AAS 77 (1985), 213-217; Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno, III: loc. cit., 219.
  9. "It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it" (CCC #1756; emphasis added).

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