Review: Charles Camosy’s For Love of Animals

There was a lotcamosy of commentary over the weekend — from the insightful to the goofy — about appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich to be the next Archbishop of Chicago. Probably the best thing anyone had to say so far has been Charles Camosy, in a post at the Catholic Moral Theology blog (which is one the sharpest and most worthwhile sites in the Catholic blogosphere). Here, though, I want to turn my attention to Camosy’s book, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action (Franciscan Communications, 2014), a good and challenging read.  

Camosy is a fine writer who has a keen ability to transcend the political posturing of conservative/liberal, traditionalist/progressive. He is an academic theologian who has managed to offer his thinking in clear, engaging, and accessible prose that a non-academic would have no trouble understanding and enjoying. Through the course of reading this book, I have recommended it to my wife and my teenaged kids — not something I could do with most theology I read, even the books that are “supposed” to be written for a popular audience. Kudos to Camosy on this.

Camosy’s point is to get us to think through the moral issues related to our treatment of animals today. We eat them, of course. And we eat them in staggeringly huge amounts. We expect access to chicken, beef, ham, bacon, eggs, etc, to be easy and cheap. It was not always like this. There’s a reason, after all, that the Friday act of penance the Church called upon Catholics to make was abstaining from meat: a meal with meat was a bit of an extravagance, a somewhat costly treat. Camosy wants to make us aware of the moral compromises we’re all pulled into in order to make our chicken and beef so readily available.

His concerns, as I read it, are rooted in two points. First, we fail in general to recognize the moral value of animals, practicing a “speciesism” by thinking and acting like humanity sits at the pinnacle of God’s created world and all living things below us exist to serve our needs. Second, through the large-scale factory farm systems that have developed in order to provide cheap meat to millions of people daily, we treat billions of chickens, cows, and pigs in brutal and unconscionable ways: not just killing them, but raising them and killing them in ways that involve great pain and suffering.

Nonhuman persons?

On the first point, Camosy readily acknowledges the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing.” He is quick to point out that it also says “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

On the dignity of animals, though, I wonder if Camosy goes too far. He warns us of “speciesism,” which he describes (though I don’t think ever quite defines) as discriminating among various kinds of animals based personal, cultural, and biological biases. We in the West, for example, are comfortable eating pigs but not dogs, he notes, even though pigs are at least as smart and social as dogs. “[I]f it is an injustice to treat dogs with cruel violence,” he writes, “then it is also an injustice to create pigs with cruel violence.”

Camosy even considers the possibility that some animals (like primates, dolphins, and octopi) ought to be considered “nonhuman persons,” based on their intelligence and self-awareness. But if the line for personhood is not to be drawn at the boundaries of the human race, how is drawing the line anywhere else any better? Isn’t drawing it at any particularal level of intelligence, for example, simply arbitrary and another example of speciesism? And if animals really do have personhood and rights similar to human persons, how can we ever justify eating them in any situtation?

I say this well aware of Camosy’s cogent reminder that there was a time when racist and sexist biases made talk of the human dignity and equality of all people sound foreign and a little bizarre to many. I can’t be sure that one day my skepticism about speciesism will not sound just as tragic to the ears of most folks. We need to be aware that we’re never fully aware of the sway held over our minds and hearts by unrecognized biases, ignorance, and sin. (As Camosy writes: “‘What water?’ said the fish.”)

A structure of sin

If I was not quite convinced of this line of Camosy’s thinking, I was quite struck and troubled by the effectiveness with which he made his other primary point — that the factory farming that is practiced on a very wide scale in order to produce meat in the quantities and at the prices necessary to sustain our carniverous appetites is an evil system. Indeed, it is a good example of the structures of sin and injustice that Catholic social teaching condemns repeatedly and forcefully.

No reader will enjoy — but all should read — Camosy’s descriptions of the way we breed, house, feed, and kill chickens, turkeys, pigs, and more. It’s hard to see how any reader, even the most dedicated meat-lover, would not be forced at least to think twice before ordering wings at a restaurant or even picking up a package of checken breasts at the local grocery store.

As Camosy points out, it need not be a question of personhood or assigning the same rights to animals as to people. All that is necessary to recognize the immorality of the factory farm system is the Catechism’s teaching that we ought to be kind to animals. The Church’s teaching about the sinfulness of consumerism — so prominent in Pope Francis’s thinking — lends further support. Even if Camosy’s book did not convince me that complete vegetarianism is called for, it certainly has made me uncomfortable that my and my family’s diets and shopping contribute to supporting a structural injustice of our society.

‘Ruled by our relationship with Jesus’

One insightful and interesting aspect of Camosy’s approach is the way he points out connections between the way we treat animals and other important moral issues. Without ever trying to equate these issues with one another or suggest that they are of equal gravity, he convincingly cites abortion, consumerism, violence, and racism as relevant to the conversation.

And make no mistake, Camosy is not easily dismissed as the mealy-mouthed sort of “liberal” we might unthinkingly associate with vegetarianism. He makes his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research clear, for instance (and explains why his opposition to killing animals flows from the very same principles that leads him to oppose these other actions as evil). In fact, he rejects any loyalty on the part of Catholics to a particular political agenda. I love this passage of his:

Authentic Christian commitment transcends the inadequate liberal/conservative binary categories of our secular political culture. True Christians are ruled by our relationship with Jesus. What this relationship demands of us cannot possibly be made to fit into the categories of secular American politics. Indeed, we should be skeptical of those who call themselves Christians but fit neatly into secular political categories. Most likely they have secular politics — and not their relationship with Jesus Christ — as the most important thing in their lives.

To know how unique and interesting a writer Camosy is, one need only note that the follow-up to this book on animals rights will be a book on abortion (that will, I have no doubt, treat with great seriousness the right to life of the unborn child and Catholic doctrine on the topic). There are not a lot of writers with a pair of books like that on their CV! I shall be looking forward to that new one, because it promises to be another insightful, compelling, and deeply Catholic read.

“When You’re the Only White Person in the Room”

There’s a very fine new article posted at CNN.com this morning, called “When You’re the Only White Person in the Room.” Written by John Blake, it’s about the experiences of white people who have spent significant time as the minority race among mostly black people — what it felt like, what they learned. I read the first paragraph as I was flipping quickly through my daily routine of websites with my morning tea in front of me, intending just to do a quick scan, and then found I had to keep on going. Every time I figured I’d gone far enough, time to click elsewhere, another insightful paragraph kept my attention.

What a complicated business is race and striving to live with justice and compassion — at least, I suppose, to this Catholic white guy who grew up in rural western Pennsylvania and now lives in rural central Minnesota. That background and present experience set the stage for a pang of anxiety and guilt when I read this in Blake’s article:

The Public Religion Research Institute recently caused a stir when it released a poll that said three-quarters of white Americans have no nonwhite friends. Some commentators invoked the survey to explain why some whites seem clueless about racial sensitivities: They know no people of color to give them a different perspective.

Easy to comfort myself by saying race doesn’t matter to me, I can treat a black person the same as I treat a white person, think of her and respect him the same as I think of and respect all the white people who fill my life and consciousness. And then comes this passage from Blake about “declar[ing] as a white person that you don’t see race”:

DeYoung says that’s actually a subtle way of insulting people of color.

“It diminishes people to not see their race and their culture,” says DeYoung, who wrote a memoir about his racial journey entitled “Homecoming: A White Man’s Journey through Harlem to Jerusalem.”

“The reality is that race affects people’s lives, and if you can’t see race, you can’t see the life they’ve lived.”

Plenty more there to think through. Thanks to John Blake for the good read.

Pope Francis’s wedding ceremony bears his mark

A month prior to the opening of the first of two major synods of bishops on marriage and family life, Pope Francis will preside over the celebration of the sacrament of Marriage tomorrow in a Mass at the Vatican. Twenty couples will be involved in the rite. It should be a beautiful and remarkable moment — though note that it’s not a first, even in recent history: John Paul II celebrated large public wedding ceremonies twice during his pontificate, in 1994 (the Year of the Family) and the Jubilee Year 2000.

As it happens, tomorrow is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It seems to me that it’s a wonderful day on which to celebrate marriage. The truth about God bringing life, grace, joy, and salvation out of difficulty, suffering, struggle, and dying is an important encouragement to all who work daily through not just the joys but the frustrations of marriage and family life. It will also be, for many, an articulation of something they’re already keenly aware of. This truth at the heart of Christian existence and doctrine is also at the heart of married life. I can’t wait to read the Pope’s homily for the occasion.

On a more down-to-earth level, here are some important details about tomorrow’s ceremony: Among those who will be married by the Pope, there are some who have been living together and some who already have children together. (Catholic News Service’s report is here.) If you think this just happened by accident, you’d be crazy. It would not have happened without the express approval, and perhaps the explicit intention, of the Pope. Either someone at some point said, “Holy Father, there’s this couple, they…. What would you think about…?” and the Pope said “Yes, absolutely.” Or, more likely, the Pope, in early planning discussions about this event with his people, said, “I want you to make sure that included in this group of couples are….”

Why would he want such a thing? After all, the fact that he is including these couples on the roster of those he will marry tomorrow will only confirm once again for some Pope Francis’s poor judgment and ineffectiveness as a defender of Catholic doctrine. But clearly the Pope wants to again to emphasize the importance of not putting up barriers to people encountering Christ, of the Church and its leaders having “the smell of the sheep,” and perhaps most of all, the importance and centrality of mercy.

For example, CNS reports:

One of the brides, identified only as Gabriella, has never been married, but she had a daughter when she was quite young, she told the Italian daily La Repubblica Sept. 9. Her grown daughter will also attend the ceremony at the Vatican, Gabriella said.

Gabriella’s fiance, Guido, has had an annulment, the newspaper said.

“We’ve known each other for five years and our wanting to get married in the church stems from no longer wanting to live in a union and with feelings that are deprived of some of the sacraments,” the couple said.

When their parish told them about the possibility of having their marriage in the church presided over by the pope, they said they were shocked. “We didn’t feel worthy, because of our age and personal background.”

And the Church — and this Pope, who says of himself “I am a sinner” — says: Well guess what, Gabriella, you’re not worthy, but none of us are. None of us are worthy of the grace of Christ, none of us are worthy to encounter him in the sacraments, but he comes to us anyway. Come.

The worship aid for Sunday’s Mass is here (.pdf file opens).

 

A title and publisher for my Murray book

I’ve mentioned before the biography of John Courtney Murray I’ve been working on for about three years now. Though I have written and published two other books (and a few more pseudonymously), this was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. Murray’s story — which is a theological adventure story — is dramatically intertwined with the origins of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.

My book will be published by Liturgical Press in late spring 2015. That’s just in time for the 50th anniversary, later in the year, of the remarkable conciliar document.

After much thoughtful consideration and discussion with my fine colleagues at Liturgical Press (I work there, too), I can tell you that the title/subtitle of the book shall be

Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication:

John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II

Cover creator

I had the treat, yesterday afternoon, of meeting the person who designed the really great cover of my book, Faith Meets World. That designer is Wendy Barnes of Liguori Publications. I’ve always liked that cover, and I told her so once in an email soon after the book was published. But yesterday we ran into each other at a meeting of people involved in Catholic book publishing, so it was a pleasure to introduce myself, say hello, and let her know again how much I like her work.

Here’s a quick picture we took yesterday, and of course, the cover in question.

Wendy Barnes2Faith Meets World cover