Care for Animals
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
September 2013

Animal cruelty has made the news recently. The North Dakota legislature passed a new anti-animal cruelty law that went into effect August 1, following a failed ballot initiative for a more stringent law. High profile cases involving animal neglect, intentional abuse, and poor living conditions have recently captured our attention. At the same time, animal rights activists like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continue to protest common North Dakota activities like raising livestock, hunting, and fishing. What is the Catholic to make of all this? What principles should guide our personal actions and the creation of laws about animal care?

The Catechism states:

2416    Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. 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. 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.

There is much packed in these three paragraphs. To begin with, it explains the relationship between God and animals. They are his creatures, not ours. Their existence alone gives praise and glory to God. (Think about that the next time your dog chews a new pair of shoes.)

Because they are God’s creatures, men owe them kindness. Note that the Catechism does not say that we owe animals kindness because we are their stewards, in the same way we might show respect when borrowing someone’s car. Kindness is due because they are God’s creatures. Failure to show kindness disrespects God.

The second section explains our relationship to animals. The kindness due to animals stems from our relationship to God, but certain additional obligations flow from the stewardship to which God entrusts us. The use of animals for food, clothing, work, leisure, and science are permissible.

Because animals belong to God, the “right” to use animals for such purposes is a conditional gift, not an absolute right. No one has a right to use, misuse, or to dispose of things as one pleases. (Evangelium Vitae, 42) The same limitation applies to all forms of property, which the church teaches is tempered by the common good.

This limitation is summarized in the next sentence: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.” The “why” is important. It is wrong to cause animals needless suffering not just because they are God’s creatures, but also because to do so is contrary to what it means to be human.

Kindness is owed to animals precisely because of the place of humans in created order, a position defined by the uniqueness of human dignity. Respect and care for animals is something that can only come from a higher order. Animals and plants, by their nature, are incapable of respecting human persons. (Which is why there mere existence is enough to praise God.) With that gift comes the responsibility to respect animals and ensure, through law and personal behavior, that they do not suffer needlessly.

This teaching about our humanity prevents us from going to the extreme and treating animals as equal to us. They are not. Genesis says that animals were created for Adam, but that they were unsuitable as a true companion. That emptiness could only be filled by another human, Eve. It is a reminder of the proper place of humans and animals and a guide for personal and legislative responses to animal care.