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.

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