Animal Protection or Animal Rights? A Conversation with Brian Saint-Paul

Christians have the obligation to be stewards over all of creation, including the beasts. Unfortunately, those who are currently promoting the “rights” of animals are, intentionally or otherwise, undermining their own — and our — human dignity. To put the problem in a nutshell, “The more we treat animals like humans, the easier it will be to treat humans as animals.”
In our conversation with editor Brian Saint-Paul, we explore the real differences between humans and animals and why it is so important to maintain clarity on this essential distinction.
[This interview is excerpted from the new book, Get Serious: The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture, and appears with the permission of the authors. You can read more about the book here.]
♦           ♦           ♦
Helen: We’re going to start out with the basics. What is the difference, according to the Church, between humans and animals?
Brian: The difference between humans and animals is fairly easy to boil down, but it has several component parts. Fundamentally, the major difference is that humans are made in the image and likeness of God, as it says in Genesis. Now, we don’t mean this literally. We don’t believe God looks like a human being; we don’t anthropomorphize God. But we are made in his image insofar as we have control over the rest of creation. God has ultimate sovereign control over the earth and his creation. So in that way, it’s an analogy: We are like God in that we have control, or as we say, dominion, over the rest of the earth. That’s the Christian difference.
Helen: What does dominion really mean?
Brian: Let me first tell you what dominion does not mean. Dominion does not mean complete, wholesale control wherein we can do whatever we want, raping and pillaging God’s creation. Obviously, this not what dominion means. Nor does it mean, on the other hand, that we are divinely appointed park rangers who “just work here” and whose job is to preserve the earth as it has always been. Dominion is in the middle, and it has elements of both. With our divinely granted dominion, we have use of the resources of the earth, for our good, when necessary and reasonable. We are not allowed to exploit it; we’re not allowed to steal, not just from other people, in taking the resources, but from future generations.
The truly Christian position finds a place in the middle. Earth is a resource given by God to us for our support, for our use, for our survival, for our propagation. It is not given to us as a blank check that we can sign and dispense with any way we like. So dominion is somewhat like American civil law — we have rights, but we also have responsibilities that come with it. Any understanding of dominion has to include both points.
Peter: It sounds as though you’re saying there is a question of degree between exploitation, which we take as being a bad thing, and the kind of inert or neutral caretaker function of the park ranger. We have to make the decisions as to what constitutes exploitation versus what constitutes the “everything is better than I am” attitude. It’s a matter of descrimination.
Brian: It is a matter of descrimination. That’s the case with a lot of the questions in this area. And of course, this is perfectly intuitive to most people.
Peter: It’s “written on our hearts.”
Brian: That’s where it comes from, yes. We see instinctively that there is an immense difference between shooting an animal that we need to eat and just shooting it as we’re walking down the street, simply because it’s in our way and we don’t want to deviate from our path. There is a tremendous moral difference between the two things, but it’s a distinction of degree, as opposed to a distinction of kind. I think we’ll see this come up again and again with questions about animal protection. To some extent, that’s what makes the question difficult, because there is no easy answer. It’s a matter of applying principles.
Peter: As soon as you get into matters of degree, you run the risk of sliding into relativism and losing the big picture, the “transcendent signified,” as it were.
Helen: So if it’s a matter of degree, there is nothing in Christian doctrine that says we may not kill an animal.
Brian: I don’t know of any. Part of the right God gives to us is to use animals when necessary. Not to exploit them, but to use them for clothing — which isn’t as common these days — and most often for food.
Peter: For sport?
Brian: That’s a more difficult one.
Peter: Sure. Are the horses having fun at the Kentucky derby?
Brian: Put more starkly: Are the elephants or deer having fun when they’re shot by hunters? I’m talking about trophy hunting. That’s where it gets more difficult. The Catholic moral teaching about treatment of animals is centered strictly around principle, which comes from the Magisterium. And in our own personal, prudential judgment, we apply those principles to specific instances. The problem in this area is that the principles are completely accurate, but they are also ambiguous and open to differing interpretations.
Peter: Could you explain the “Magisterium” to people who are unfamiliar with it?
Brian: The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Catholic Church. It is the final arbiter for Catholics on questions of doctrine, morality, and practice. In certain specific instances, that Magisterium can speak, communicate, or teach infallibly — in other words, without error. Those are fairly rare instances, and when it happens, we know because they are clear about it. Every Catholic has a faith obligation to listen to the Magisterium.
Let me give you an example: It is a Catholic principle that we must take care of the poor. That is the teaching. But how do you live out that principle? Do you triple the minimum wage? That would provide an immediate boost in salaries, but then you’ve destroyed the economy and created skyrocketing unemployment. Or do you help businesses expand so they can hire more people? That’s how a Catholic can be faithful, but yet disagree with other Catholics or even, in non-doctrinal matters, with Rome.
Peter: It sounds like the Magisterium is the accumulated judgment of the Catholic Church through the ages.
Brian: That’s a good way to put it. They make these determinations by first looking at Scripture — the main source for theology — but also consulting what we call the Tradition of the Church. That includes the writing, the belief, the practice, the art, and architecture of the Church over these two thousand years. It’s a teaching office, yes, but it’s more an interpretive office. It looks at all these various sources and interprets them.
Helen: You say you first look to the Scriptures, then all these other sources. So, if someone says, “There’s nothing about that in the Bible,” does that necessarily mean that it isn’t Christian?
Brian: No. We’re not adherents to sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), which was a Reformation principle which said all things necessary for salvation are contained explicitly in Scripture. A Catholic would reject that as unscriptural and unhistorical.
Helen: So when someone starts cherry-picking quotes from the Bible, whether it’s about animal rights or any other subject, and claims “I win” unless we can show them other quotes from the Bible to refute them, they’re being too narrow, aren’t they?
Brian: Right. That’s not a valid form of argumentation. First of all, we have to look at the interpretation of those passages, whether those passages have been read in context. Who was the author? Who was the audience? Are they using idioms in the original languages that don’t translate well to our own? The Church tried to read and interpret Scripture in line with how Christians have interpreted it for two thousand years. We keep a consistent line of teaching and thought that goes back to the apostles. That’s how we maintain our doctrinal integrity and our fidelity to the early Church.
Helen: In that light, we seldom hear “dominion over the earth and animals” anymore. Is that because there’s a new directive from the Magisterium or because of political correctness.
Brian: I don’t think it’s political correctness. I believe there are two reasons: First, there’s a growing sensitivity about the way we’re caring for the earth, and that’s a good things. Second, the meaning of the term “dominion” has changed over the years, and these days it tends to imply some kind of brutal or despotic control over nature. Whereas in the past people understood that man’s dominion over the earth was very similar to God’s dominion over man and his creation. We know God loves the animals. The first Genesis account of creation has seven days. On the sixth day God created land animals and humans — on the same day. But on the previous day, God created the fish and the birds — the animals of the sea and the sky. So right from the earliest account, we see a hierarchy of being.
I like fishing — I really enjoy it. But I have a real, deeply rooted aversion to hunting. I just couldn’t hunt a land animal. I think it’s that hierarchy that I sense.
Peter: So you see a rationalization for that in the sequence of creation?
Brian: Yes, though I wouldn’t say “rationalization.” I’d probably say “explanation.”
Peter: “Rationalization” is another word that has gone the way of “dominion.”
Brian: Exactly. The term means, “in line with reason.” But these days, it is taken to mean “to excuse.”
Peter: Was Plato wrong when he described humans as “featherless bipeds”?
Brian: We’re certainly not featherless bipeds. The Church follows the order of creation, the hierarchy of being, not slavishly, but it’s there. Day five: the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky. Day six: the land animals and then, finally, the humans. There a nice order there. Now, the humans represent a difference in kind, not a difference of degree. This is an error that the animal rights movement makes consistently; they claim that any difference between us and the beasts is simply a matter of degree.
Peter: That’s the key to the dispute. They’re basing their claims on the idea that “we’re all just animals.”
Brian: Of course we are animate beings, but we are not beasts — that’s the key distinction. Generally, non-religious animal rights activists hold the position that we’re just extremely intelligent, hairless monkeys. We evolved to that state through random mutation and natural selection with no recourse to divine guidance; we “just happened” to turn out this way. Of course, the Christian rejects this entirely because we are the only creatures made “in the image and likeness” of God. There is a notion, very popular among secularists, that the only thing that separates animals from humans is that we’re aware of our own mortality.
Helen: Now we’re getting into the idea of a soul.
Brian: Yes, that’s part of how he created us. You might say that, when we breathed into us, that was the coronation moment when we became different from the animals. It was our ensoulment. He did not do that with the animals. He blessed them on the fifth day with their own special blessing, but he did not breathe into them the way he did with us.
Helen: Earlier, you said you don’t like hunting, but does that also mean you don’t like eating meat?
Brian: I want to talk about that. I do eat meat, and there’s nothing wrong with eating meat.
Helen: You don’t find that hypocritical?
Brian: No, though I fully grant the apparent contradiction, and I sometimes struggle with it myself because I’m a huge animal lover. But I’m also a huge meat eater, and I don’t particularly like vegetables. When facing this question, many Christians make this error: They believe the issue is whether or not we may eat meat. But they already know they can eat meat; there are so many examples in the Bible: the Paschal lamb, the seafood on the shore. This was not a vegetarian culture. So the faithful Christian says, “There, case closed. Done.”
The problem is that’s not the end of the debate; that’s the beginning of the debate. We’ve established that we may eat meat, but how? May we slaughter any animal? May we torture any animal? May we starve any animal to death? What does it mean to treat an animal humanely? How should we care for an animal during its lifetime so we don’t take from it the happiness that God wants for the animals? He blessed them, so we know they have some measure of happiness. Should we steal that because we want meat at the moment for our convenience? So as Christians we can eat meat and seafood; we can use animals for other things, including experimentation, which is a very important thing as well. The question is how do we do it? I think this is particularly pressing right now because we’re heading to a factory farming system, which I think by any Christian standard is a horror. I’m talking about caged animals that never see light, sun, or grass, and are fed by tubes and never touched. They never experience love of any kind, and then they are slaughtered in a terrible way. This is a moral outrage.
In line with our rights, dominion also gives us responsibilities. A primary responsibility is that when we use these living beings that God has created with their own unique animal dignity, we have to show them respect and mercy. As God shows mercy to us, we have to show mercy to others. There is a magnificent book on this subject by Matthew Scully entitled, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It’s a brilliant sustained argument, and he wrote it from a conservative viewpoint.
The power of his approach is that he comes at things in reverse. He argues that we have a moral obligation to care for animals, to protect animals, specifically because they do not have rights. They are completely and utterly at our mercy. So, as beings that have rights and have dignity and experience mercy from a merciful God, we have the absolute moral obligation to show them mercy in kind. To not do that is to act less than human; it attacks our own dignity, because we were made as merciful creatures. With dominion, we have that responsibility as a reflection of God’s responsibility to us. That turns the argument on its head. It rejects the secular animal rights movement but, in rejecting that, makes a much more powerful argument. A conservative argument for animal protection is a very powerful thing indeed. Scully’s book was even endorsed by the vice president of the Humane Society.
Helen: Here we’re in the problem of degree again. You talked about farming where animals are caged and untouched and fed by tubes, but we’ve seen the other side of the coin where in England it’s mandated to give farm pigs stuffed toys to keep them company and, supposedly, happy.
Brian: I don’t know if that would help the animals or if it would just frighten them. But the point is that the conversation over “What is the appropriate degree of protection?” is just beginning. We’re starting the conversation; it really hasn’t happened yet. Most Christians now are in unknowing violation of the moral obligation to care for animals because we buy meat that is produced by the factory farms. But what’s the alternative? I don’t know. Sure, we can go organic or free range, but those methods need a good deal more space than factory farms. Can we go that route and still feed people? So this is still a conversation that needs to happen in the Christian community.
Helen: We can talk about this from a purely moral point of view, but some are starting to change our idea of what human beings are. Along this line, people are beginning to talk about pets as companions of humans.
Brian: That’s another problem. In this area, because it is so emotional, people tend to veer into one camp or the other. Now the movement to animalize humans or humanize animals is very dangerous.
Helen: Why dangerous?
Brian: Because once you start treating animals like humans, it becomes that much easier to treat humans like animals. We’ve seen it in the euthanasia movement; we’ve seen it in artificial insemination. Artificial insemination didn’t arise out of nowhere. It came from veterinary medicine. Animal medicine is often the canary in the coal mine for human medicine. This isn’t entirely negative, of course. Because veterinary medicine can be more progressive and because a number of techniques from animal medicine have been adopted by humans with great success and great benefit for all, we tend to look at those successes and think we can take just about anything we do to an animal, and do it to a human. So we get artificial insemination, we get euthanasia, we get sterilization, we get cloning and all the varying kinds of cell research.
It’s also come into the public discussion in terms of animal experimentation. We experiment on animals, so why not experiment on humans? Why not use the prison population? These are bad guys; let’s put them to some use.
Peter: China is already doing that.
Brian: They are and have been for quite some time, and they weren’t the first. If we blur these lines, then whatever we do to an animal we can do to a human. That’s why it’s so important to make the distinction. I think it’s vital that we create a wall of defense around our understanding of what it means to be human. We have to really know what that means so we can recognize these distortions and counterfeit ideas when they come to us. And they do.
Helen: Tell us more about that wall of defense.
Brian: I’ll go back to Catholic moral teaching. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God. We’re like walking, imperfect, flawed analogies of God. We’re mini-moral agents. If a person understands that humans are unique because we’re made in the image and likeness of God as opposed to all the rest of creation, I think that’s enough. Everything else will flow out of that understanding.
Peter: Is there an argument from principle, apart from Christian teaching? Saying that man is the only moral agent I think comes close to that, because that’s something people can verify from their own personal experience. Certainly dogs and cats and other pets seem to make moral decisions, but I don’t think it would be difficult to convince people that we humans are the ones who are actually making moral decisions, rather than just following our desires and appetites.
Brian: I think people have an instinctive understanding of that, but maybe not to the degree that they could communicate it as you did.
Peter: Let’s take an example: A chimp was brought into Austria years ago as part of a shipment of animals to a vivisection laboratory. Somehow, some group found out and “rescued” it via some customs regulations and put it in an animal care facility of sorts. Now that facility is bankrupt, and the chimp is headed back to the laboratory again. Some groups say the only way to rescue it now is to grant it some kind of personhood so that he can receive money or donations and a legal defense.
Brian: Okay, let’s say we grant this chimp ‘human’ rights, so it has the right to life, liberty, et cetera. One day it’s out pursuing happiness, let’s say, and bites a woman on the ankle. Would we bring him up on charges of assault? The animal rights groups would say, “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s an animal.” So there’s an obvious contradiction here. Would we have some sort of special designation for the personhood of animals?
Helen: We might laugh about these things, but we know of an example from at least six years ago in California wine country. We attended a town hall meeting to discuss the use of insecticides on the vineyards. During the meeting, one woman got up and “channeled” the glassy-wing sharpshooter wasp that was infecting the vines. Don’t laugh; it was taken very seriously. Even though many of us were skeptical, some people actually thought the bug had a “right to be heard.”
Peter: You might say that the conversation is happening, but it’s starting at the lunatic fringe and working its way in.
Helen: So if animals have rights, they must also have responsibilities. We might take the chimp that attacked someone and put him down, but we certainly wouldn’t put him on trial.
Brian: Right. I’m not saying that animals acting from instinct wouldn’t be punished or that we wouldn’t put them down if they attacked humans. But we’re not really trying to “punish” them in the strict sense. We’re acting for public safety. For instance, whatever we do to them, we don’t think it’s going to teach other chimps not to misbehave. We can’t really “threaten” them with the death penalty or imprisonment, and there is nothing reformative in our actions. It’s a very different situation than what we have with human misbehavior.
Peter: Some people would like to wipe away every teaching that’s based on religion by waving the Darwinian wand and saying that whatever happened two thousand years ago is just superstition and vastly inferior to what we’re discovering now about evolution, the Big Bang, and scientific progress in general. There are others who accept that there is a Creator but that creation could look to us humans as though it were evolving. Does the Church have anything to say about the appearance of evolution?
Brian: Yes, and this has been in the news lately. The Church is clear on this. There is an error that is repeated by evolutionists and also by many Christians and creationists as well. What they do is mistakenly assume that evolution only refers to atheistic Darwinian evolution, which is natural selection weeding through random mutations. In truth, the general concept of evolution simply states that more complex life forms developed or evolved out of earlier, simpler forms. So you can certainly have a Christian form of evolution if you believe God’s creation is sequential. This is not inconsistent even with the seven-day Genesis account — each day, something new emerges.
Helen: However, you did say “day.” Would that be considered a 24-hour day?
Brian: No, not literally. A Catholic might understand this in a number of ways. Each day could imply an age. Or, by the way it’s structured, the account could simply be an example of Jewish literary parallelism. There’s certainly evidence for that. If you notice, the first three days are parallel to the next three days. Then the seventh day, when God rests, is unique and set apart from the others. And seven is a symbol of completion or perfection. So by looking at what the writer did, it might indicate to us that the writer intended us to understand this allegorically, not literally. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no truth in it.
Helen: If the Church says do not judge, how do you judge when someone is doing something right or wrong with animals?
Brian: The point here is that you cannot judge a person’s soul — whether or not someone is “in sin.” We cannot make ultimate moral judgments about people, but we can make moral judgments about their actions. There is nothing wrong with that. We must know the difference between right actions and sins or crimes. But we can’t judge the person himself, because we don’t know what’s going on interiorly.
Peter: And that is not because we aren’t all trained in psychology, but because it’s categorically out of our hands. Basically, you’re drawing the classic distinction between the sin and the sinner.
Helen: Would you say wrong is wrong at all times — it’s not just a cultural thing or a thing made up by the times?
Brian: If it’s a universal truth, it will always be true. It’s woven into the fabric of Creation.
Helen: Do you have a favorite misconception you’d like to set straight as regards animal protection?
Brian: Yes, I do. It is the notion that animal protection is an invention of the secular world and that somehow Christianity is opposed to it. They say, “Thank goodness we have these children of the Enlightenment who have risen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to save all our furry friends from this criminal Church.” That’s ridiculous.
The Church was the original producer of animal activists — just look at Saint Francis of Assisi. St. Basil of Caesarea wrote a beautiful prayer at the end of the fourth century, asking God to hear the cries of the suffering animals around the world. He says we’ve abused them and continue to abuse them, and things are getting worse. This is historic Christian teaching. If it seems different now, that’s simply the result of the excesses of secular activists who have forced us into a defensive posture. When these activists blur the distinction between animals and humans, the only thing the Church can do is react against that error. We acknowledge they have a noble aim in protecting animals, but they are going about it the wrong way. They don’t see that they are creating a much bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.
They are mortgaging the future of humanity for the future of animals.


  • Peter and Helen Evans

    Peter and Helen Evans are co-authors of the book “Get Serious: The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture.”

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...