Is Eating Meat A Catholic Sin?
Bruce Friedrich is a Catholic from the Midwest who was recently rated No. 5 on Details magazine's 2003 list of "The 50 Most Influential People Under 38" -- ahead of Tiger Woods, Leonardo di Caprio and Justin Timberlake. What has Friedrich done to deserve his high standing? Surprise answer: He's an animal rights activist on the governing board of the Catholic Vegetarian Society and the advisory board of the Christian Vegetarian Society. He is also a founding member of the Society of Religious and Ethical Vegetarians, and he's director of vegan campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). I interviewed him via telephone as he was flying from PETA headquarters in Virginia to an assignment in India.
Hi, Bruce. Your opinion is that Catholics -- and all other Christians -- should be vegetarians?
Catholics, and all Christians, have a choice. When we sit down to eat, we can add to the violence, misery and death in the world, or we can respect God's creatures with a vegetarian diet. I believe we're obligated to make choices that are as merciful as possible, and we can all do that at the dinner table with a vegetarian diet. There won't be any factory farms and slaughterhouses in heaven.
So, you think the God of Christians never wanted people to eat meat?
That's all very Old Testament. Is there any more recent church doctrine that supports vegetarianism? Do you think eating meat is a sin?
The catechism says explicitly what we all know to be true in our hearts: Causing animals to suffer needlessly is a sin. Since no one has to eat meat, and in fact we'd all be better off without it, then it is a sin to eat meat. The church has a way to go before it recognizes this fact explicitly, but there it is, an official part of church doctrine.
The church will have to support a vegan diet eventually, but it may not move to that position quickly. We in the Christian and Catholic Vegetarian Associations are pushing, though! There was a marvelous piece in the Vatican's paper a few years ago, a strong condemnation of factory farming. It pointed out that God designed animals to raise their families, to breathe fresh air, to feel the sun on their backs. Modern farms don't allow animals to do any of these things -- they're playing God, basically, acting like they know better than God. And the mutilations and drugs -- the processes -- are so cruel, merciless and ungodly that I'm convinced that all faiths will come to denounce eating meat as surely as they came to denounce slavery; it's just a matter of time.
What about hunting? Working in a slaughterhouse? Should those activities be considered sinful?
Have you ever thought about becoming a Buddhist or a Hindu? They seem more concerned with animal rights.
Tell me how you got involved in the animal rights movement.
After college, I spent six years working in a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Washington, D.C. While I was there, a friend of mine sent me a book written by Dr. Andrew Linzey, a theologian at Oxford University, who argues that animals were designed with certain needs, desires and species-specific behaviors and that animals have the same capacity for pain and suffering as human beings. Any introductory physiology course will teach you that birds, mammals and fish have basically the same capacity to suffer as human beings.
Linzey's perspective is that denying animals the life they were designed to have and inflicting pain on them for our convenience is categorically unethical. Linzey believes that causing pain to an animal is the moral equivalent of causing pain to a human being. The logic of Linzey's argument spoke to me on a deep level. And, of course, if animals have the same right to be free of pain as humans do, then we certainly can't eat them, or experiment on them, or rip their skins off to wear them as clothes, or beat them into doing senseless acts in circuses and rodeos. It was really Linzey's argument that caused me to become a animal rights activist and work for PETA.
Animal pain is as important as human pain? God's design for animals is as important -- as valuable -- as God's design for humans?
God created every animal with needs, wants and a design for its life. God designed pigs to root around in the soil and play with each other. God designed chickens to make nests, lay eggs and raise their children. Jesus compared his love for humanity to a hen's love -- not instinct, love -- for her brood. God designed all animals with a desire for sunlight, fresh air, fresh water and so on, and he designed all animals to grow at a certain rate that won't tax their limbs and organs.
But all of these things are denied to animals who are turned into food by the meat industries. Scientists are playing God by manipulating animals to grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs and limbs can't keep up. The upper bodies of chickens grow six to seven times faster than they did 50 years ago, and turkeys can't even mate naturally anymore. Everything natural is denied as they're packed into excrement-laden sheds. Basically, God's will is denied completely by the industries that have decided that they know better than God how God's creatures should be treated.
On today's factory farms, animals are dehorned, debeaked and castrated without anesthesia; they're crowded together into tiny spaces and they're genetically bred so that many suffer lameness, crippling leg deformities and bone breaks because their legs can't keep up with their scientifically enhanced bodies; and, finally, they're trucked without food or water to a hellish death at a slaughterhouse.
Does it seem odd to you that many devoted pet owners continue to eat the meat of creatures that are as smart as their dogs and cats?
Everyone agrees that dogs and cats should be protected legally from the worst abuses, but other animals that are raised for food have no legal protection at all from mutilations without pain relief, drugging and breeding that crippled them and so on. The disconnect must be pointed out: If castrating a dog without painkillers is not OK, if drugging a cat so that she grows up so fast she can't walk is not OK, if chopping off the toes of a dog or cat is not OK, if slitting a dog or cat's throat open and hacking off their limbs while they're still conscious is not OK, then it is equally repugnant to do these things to any animal.
When Cameron Diaz found out that pigs do as well on cognition tests as 3-year-old human kids, she gave up eating pork. In fact, pigs play video games more effectively than some primates, and they interact with one another in ways that have previously been observed only in primates. Chickens also learn from one another, and they form complex social groups and they are interesting individuals, just like any cat or dog we might know.
You also think eating meat is unhealthy?
Other than Francis Moore Lappé and Dr. Albert Linzey, are there any other writers that have had a profound influence on you?
Alice Walker wrote the introduction to a book entitled "The Dreaded Comparison," by Marjorie Spiegel. In this book, Spiegel compares the treatment of animals today to that of human slaves in the 16th through 19th centuries. Alice Walker agrees, saying, "The animals of the world ... were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women were created for men." That's quite a statement, and it's true; the animal rights movement is a movement for justice, just like abolition, suffrage, civil rights and women's rights.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer stated that "compassion...can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind." Nobel laureate Dr. Isaac Bashevis Singer called species bias the "purest form of racism" and animal rights the purest form of justice advocacy, because animals are the most vulnerable of all the downtrodden. The animal rights perspective has been historically embraced by a wide range of brilliant thinkers and humanitarians, like Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, C.S. Lewis, Susan B. Anthony, Leo Tolstoy, Dick Gregory and Mahatma Gandhi.