Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Cruelty toward Animals

by Fr. William Saunders


This article gives an explanation on the Church's teaching concerning the proper use and treatment of animals.

Larger Work

Arlington Catholic Herald



Publisher & Date

Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, February 10, 2000

My son criticizes me for wearing a fur coat. He says that this is cruelty to animals. I say this is why God made minks or whatever. Does the Church have a teaching on this? — A reader in Alexandria

In addressing this issue, we have to first lay a moral foundation. In the Genesis account of creation, we find the truth that Almighty God created all things out of nothing and what He created was good in His eyes. However, Genesis climaxes in the creation of man and woman, and only they are created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). Only the human person has an immortal soul. As much as we may love animals, especially our own family pets, human beings must not ever be equated with animals (even if some human beings act worse than animals).

God entrusted the care and use of all creation to mankind: Genesis reads, "God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth’" (1:28). Here is the principle of stewardship: Each person is morally obligated to respect the natural environment as well as his own being as precious gifts from God, and thereby, to use these gifts wisely in accord with their design and purpose. Moreover, each person as a good steward should strive to use these precious gifts to actually improve the environment and his own being.

Recognizing the distinction then between a person and an animal, and following the principle of stewardship, animals can be used for labor, transportation, food, clothing or other needs. Sacred Scripture has numerous examples of human beings using animals in each of these ways, including clothing: In Genesis, after the fall of Adam and Eve, we read, "For the man and his wife, the Lord God made leather garments, with which he clothed them" (Gn 2:21). Also, St. John the Baptizer is also described as wearing fur: "John was clothed in a garment of camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist" (Mt 3:4). Given this basis, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in wearing a fur coat just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat.

However, human beings must not cause animals to suffer and to die needlessly. For instance, during the westward expansion of our country, some individuals used to sit near the windows on trains shooting at the buffalo for pleasure. The dead carcasses just rotted on the plain. While it is proper to kill an animal for food in order to survive, it is morally wrong to just wantonly kill and to waste. Interestingly, the American Indian used the whole buffalo– the hide for clothing and tent coverings, the meat for food and the internal organs for medicines and religious needs.

If animals are raised specifically for a purpose, like minks for furs, then they should be treated with care and not with cruelty. The waste or the mistreatment of animals is an affront to our human dignity and thereby sinful. (Cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2418.)

As an aside but nevertheless related to this issue, "What about animals used for medical or scientific experimentation?" To better ourselves and to improve the overall environment, to help care for or to save other lives, human beings may use animals in this way. Far better to test drugs or other procedures on an animal than another human being. Again, such research must be within reasonable limits (Catechism, No. 2417).

Granted, no good person wants to be cruel to an animal; but human beings must use creation for their own preservation. At the same time, we must not blur the distinction between a human being and an animal. I remember once driving behind another car that had two bumper stickers: one was "Save the whales" and the other was, "I’m pro-choice." I was repulsed to think that here is a person who is concerned about the killing of whales but does not mind that innocent human beings are being aborted each day.

Moreover, people who object to fur coats or other animal usage issues need to be consistent. During my college days at William & Mary, I had a friend who was a vegetarian because she thought eating meat was promoting cruelty to animals. Yet, she loved her knee-high leather boots, her leather belt, her leather gloves and her leather jacket. Although I challenged her on the consistency of her actions, she never admitted her inconsistency.

While we respect all creation and must use creation wisely, the key is "we can use it." Following the principle of stewardship, nothing is intrinsically wrong with using animals wisely for labor, transportation, clothing, food or other needs. We must always remember the distinction between human beings and animals and use good reason and judgment when using animals.

Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

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