By the books: Charlie Camosy's For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action

With the Data Series interviews of natural scientists becoming so popular, I'm expanding the interview format to authors who write about aspects of ecology.

And so the "By the books" series is born.

Up first is Dr. Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. Dr. Camosy was kind enough to field some questions on his latest book, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action (Franciscan).

Dr. Camosy has published articles in the American Journal of Bioethics, the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, the Journal of the Catholic Health Association, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and Commonweal Magazine.

His other two books are Too Expensive to Treat? Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU (Eerdmans), which was a 2011 award-winner with the Catholic Media Association, and Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization (Cambridge) was named a 2012 “best book” with ABC Religion and Ethics.

Charlie Camosy

Dr. Camosy received the 2012-13 Robert Bryne award from the Fordham Respect Life Club, and was also recently selected for the international working group "Contending Modernities" which attempts to bring secular liberalism, Catholicism, and Islam into dialogue about various difficult ethical issues. He is the founder and co-director of the Catholic Conversation Project and a member of the ethics committee at the Children's Hospital of New York. He is also a founder and contributor at Catholic Moral Theology.

A particular aspect that I appreciate about Dr. Camosy is his insistence that an authentically Christian, pro-life ethic transcends "blue" liberalism and "red" conservativism. Thus he speaks in terms not of those polarizing colors and labels but of the need for a “magenta” way of engaging issues like life and politics.This is why when you follow Dr. Camosy on Twitter you can do so at @nohiddenmagenta.

Catholic Ecology: What reason or reasons prompted you to tackle the moral questions around Catholics and our relationship with the animal world?

Dr. Camosy: I didn't always have this as a concern. I grew up in rural Wisconsin where hunting and eating animals was a way of life. In graduate school, however, my mind was changed by arguments and evidence, and I concluded that eating meat from factory farms is morally unacceptable. The horrific ways that well over 50 billion non-human animals are tortured and slaughtered in factory farms is something in which no decent person should take part. And it is getting worse. With new biotechnologies, we are now able to genetically alter these animals so that they feel constantly hungry and eat as fast and as much as they can. If things weren't bad enough for these animals, now they live their whole pitiful lives without even the modest relief of a full stomach. It is shameful and sinful that huge corporations treat animals this way in order to make a profit, but they do so only because we are willing to spend money on meat the way we do: that is, without a thought for the welfare of the animals who arrive on our dinner plate. When we cooperate with such evil, our behavior is also shameful and sinful.

CE: What is unique that Catholic thought brings to this conversation?

Dr. Camosy: Catholic teaching on the evils of consumerism, and on cooperation with evil, could not be more clear. We need to resist the social structures of consumerism, and avoid formal and material participation in the grave evil of the kind that goes on in factory farms. Some say that God's giving us "dominion" in Genesis permits us doing whatever we wish with animals, but this is simply not true. Dominion is understood as nonviolent stewardshipGod even explicitly gives us the green plants to eat, not animals. In Genesis 2, God brings the animals to Adam "because it is not good man should be alone." The Biblical understanding of our relationship to animals is that they are to be our companions, not our food. As I show in my book, this understanding was affirmed by Cardinal Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI. The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that we "owe" animals kindness and that we may only cause them to suffer and die in situations of "need." Pope Francis says he supports the slow food movement, and I wouldn't be surprised if he advanced the Church's teaching on animals during his time as the Bishop of Rome.

CE: God originally gave us a no-meat diet in the first chapter of Genesis, which is considered to be a type of master plan for humanity and our relationship with God and nature. It was only after God’s covenant with Noah that we are allowed to eat meat. Given that we live in the fallen world outside of Eden, what significance does this have for the Catholic view of vegetarianism and veganism?

Dr. Camosy: The ideal state for humanity, as the Bible makes clear, is nonviolent vegetarianism. Things change only after sin enters the world, mostly in the form of violence. While it is clear that formal participation with factory farms is gravely evil, the question remains, "Should we eat meat at all?" What about meat that comes from animals which have been treated with kindness? I suspect that this debate along the same lines as other kinds of Christian debates about violence. For many Christians, Jesus seems to be calling is to a completely nonviolent life of pacifism, but other Christians claim that such a life isn't possible until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness. I suppose I'm in the second camp, and admit that violence is necessary in rare situations to protect innocent human life. But as the Catechism says, we are not permitted to kill animals unless we "need" to—and that, like engaging in other kinds of violence, would only be in very rare situations. Especially today.

CE: Critics of Catholics embracing vegan/vegetarian diets as a formal teaching point to Christ eating meat and fish. How do Catholic proponents of a meatless diet incorporate this into Catholic moral teachings?

Dr. Camosy: For starters, it is interesting to note that we never see Jesus eating meat anywhere in the Gospels. Not once. I take on more difficult passages (Jesus and the swine, Peter's dream, Paul talking about oxen, etc.) in the book, but it does seem clear that Jesus and his companions in the ancient world needed to eat fish to get a healthy amount of protein. However, it isn't at all clear what this means for most of us in the developed West. For us, eating meat could hardly rise to the level of "need" given all of the alternatives which now exist.

CE: Tell us a little about issues like factory livestock farms. I have read about the environmental concerns around large-scale meat production facilities (a term that in itself tells us that something is not right with our view towards animals). What other concerns are there? And aren't those concerns assuaged if we buy meat from local, animal-friendly farms?

Dr. Camosy: I said a bit about this already, and buying meat from local farms is a much, much better option. No question. In general, we do much better buying locally rather than simply rolling over for consumerism and picking the cheapest price. We absolutely must become more connected to the processes by which food and other products come to us--not least to make sure that we are not formally participating in grave evil. This is a great opportunity for the Church to be the Church, and create structures of community to resist consumerism. Perhaps more parishes and dioceses could have formal programs where locally grown and raised food could be for sale? And these places should absolutely refuse to serve factory farmed meat.

CE: Critics argue that because animals are beneath humanity in dignity, we should not consider animals within the realm of life issue—even if a diet that includes meat often comes with public and personal health issues. How do you respond to this criticism?

Dr. Camosy: Pro-lifers should be especially skeptical of this reasoning. Our opponents also try to minimize or ignore the value of prenatal children precisely because they find their dignity inconvenient. The result is horrific violence and death. Though non-human animals are not of the same value as human persons, God has given them very high value, and we ought not to ignore it simply because we find it inconvenient. The result is also horrific violence and death. Don't think that animals have very high value? Even if you reject what the Catechism, the Bible, and Pope Benedict has said, consider the evidence. Chickens can beat human beings at Tic-Tac-Toe. Pigs can play video games. Elephants understand and mourn death. Dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror. Great Apes can learn sign language and even teach it to their children. Such beings are not mere things for us to do with as we please. God created them "good" independent of our desire to use and kill them as a mere means to our end. This is why the Catechism uses the language of justice in claiming that we owe them kindness.

CE: Catholics could theoretically cut their meat consumption by 14% if we adhered to meatless Fridays. What else can we do to better understand and respond to the concerns that you and others are raising?

Dr. Camosy: Interestingly, much of what needs to be done could coincide with returning to some traditional Church practices. Happily, Cardinal Dolan has made a push for Catholics to return to meatless Fridays. Perhaps we should follow our Orthodox brothers and sisters and give meat up on Wednesdays as well. Then, if we participate in the growing trend of "Meatless Mondays", we will have cut out 3/7th of the meat from our diet. Perhaps we should also return to the more traditional practice of avoiding meat for the entire season of Lent. That's a good start. Also remember that the ancient Church strictly prohibited eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And given that factory farmed meat has clearly been sacrificed to the idol of consumerism, we ought to heed this wisdom and avoid such meat. We ought to replace such idols in favor of a relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, who calls us to resist such consumerism.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.