This post was originally published in the EA for Christians community blog. The EACH community blog is a multi-author and multi-perspective blog. The views presented in the posts are those of the authors and do not represent the views of EA for Christians. Most of the posts in the blog share a Christian point of view.
By Vesa Hautala, image by Midjourney
This post is related to the EA for Christians research agenda item 3.1 “Are there recognisably EA-like individuals or ideas in the history of Christianity?”
Francis of Assisi, namesake of the current pope and founder of the Franciscan order, lived at the turn of the 13th century. He is known for his voluntary poverty and his love for animals and nature. The Roman Catholic church venerates Francis as the patron saint of animals and ecology, among other things, and many Catholic churches hold ceremonies to bless animals on his feast day. In this post, I want to examine Christianity and animal welfare through this influential figure in Western Christianity. I focus especially on how historical Christianity can give rise to concern for animal welfare without the influence of a modern, secular worldview, and in what ways this looks different from the modern animal rights movement.
Animal welfare concerns are often linked to the animal rights movement. The movement is commonly perceived as a secular phenomenon in its current form.
Its seminal text, Animal Liberation, was written by atheist philosopher Peter Singer. Christianity has often been cast in the role of a villain by claims that the teaching of human dominion over animals has caused cruel exploitation. This view is often paired with a narrative of moral circle expansion over time: humans originally cared only about their closest social group, but this gradually extended to caring about larger units such as their nation, then all human beings, and now the circle is expanding to include all sentient beings regardless of their species. Not everyone in the animal rights movement shares these views, but in the Effective Altruism movement, the dominant approach is secular and naturalist, utilitarian, and informed by the expanding moral circle narrative.
Medieval stories about Francis paint a different picture of Christian attitudes towards animals and the expansion of the moral circle. Many of the stories feature Francis interacting with animals, such as preaching to a flock of birds, saving lambs destined for slaughter, and miraculously taming a man-eating wolf in the town of Gubbio. Francis calls animals his brothers and sisters and considers their needs. He includes them in his moral circle. The stories also seem to give animals some moral agency. In the story of the wolf of Gubbio, for example, Francis negotiates a pact between the wolf and the citizens of the town. In the story about preaching to birds, the birds listen and respond with appreciation. There is also a similar story about Francis preaching to fish. High cognitive capacity is attributed to animals, though there is a distinct air of the supernatural in these encounters.
Including animals in the circle of moral concern is an obvious overlap with modern animal rights and animal welfare thinking. By granting advanced cognitive capabilities to animals, the stories mirror modern scientific findings about animal cognition, though they go further than modern animal rights thinking in granting animals moral agency.
Despite the overlap, there are differences in the underlying worldviews. In Francis’ famous Canticle to the Sun, all things are portrayed as created by God and united in praising him, with the sun, moon, and wind also addressed as brothers and sisters. There is a unity based on not just physical or mental similarities but a spiritual kinship stemming from a common origin and purpose in God. Still, not all of creation is the same. The idea of the Great Chain of Being is not expressed in the Canticle, but it was commonplace in medieval Christian thought. In this view, all things exist in a hierarchical continuum from God to lifeless matter, with humans around the middle above animals and below angels. In Christian theology of creation, humans are also distinguished from animals by being created in the image and likeness of God. Modern animal welfare thinking, in contrast, takes place in a framework that sees no such inherent difference between humans and animals and rejects metaphysical categorisation.
With its doctrine of creation, Christianity necessarily carries with itself a more metaphysical worldview, even if the scholastic systematisation of the Great Chain is abandoned. But animals occupying a different category in the metaphysical world order did not stop Francis from showing them compassion. This seems similar to how he deliberately crossed social boundaries, also seen as something close to an immutable natural order, by identifying with the poor.
Francis’ concern for animals is portrayed positively as a saintly feature – an argument for Roman Catholics and others who see Francis as exemplary to do likewise. The stories also show that this kind of attitude towards animals can rise in a premodern Christian worldview. Obviously, all Christians don’t fully share the worldview of the culture that handed down these stories, but there are enough common elements in the doctrine of creation and God’s compassion to arrive at similar conclusions. God showed compassion to humans, and this is what Francis sought to imitate in his identification with the poor. Internalising the kind of attitude portrayed in this foundational Christian narrative provides a basis for compassion towards animals because animals are also part of God’s creation, God cares about animals, and human dominion over them should mirror God’s goodness towards his creation. But from a secular and naturalist animal rights perspective, the Christian approach with metaphysical categorisation and inherent differences between humans and animals probably remains fundamentally speciesist.
The “Francis perspective” I have sketched here seems more accommodating to concerns for justice, relationships, and the inherent value of individual lives than a purely utilitarian approach. From the “Francis perspective”, what is done to animals in modern intensive agriculture is also a form of oppression and an affront to their nature as beings created by God, as well as a perversion of the dominion relationship between humans and animals as God originally intended it.
After this more theoretical discussion, I’d like to turn to the image of Francis at the factory farm. What kind of a discussion would the Francis depicted in the stories have with a sow confined to a gestation crate? How would he preach to a hall full of broiler chickens? It is hard to imagine him relating to them in any other way than as suffering individuals in need of consolation. A man who is moved to pity by the bleating of lambs carried to the market would be shaken by the fates of animals in factory farms. If you address birds as your brothers, how could you not pity your kin closed in battery cages?
Though Francis was not a vegan or even a vegetarian (as a mendicant monk he accepted any food he was given), I doubt he would see current Western levels of animal consumption as good. The environmental, medical, and animal welfare harms of mass animal agriculture are larger than ever before due to the enormous scale of factory farming. The angle of poverty is also significant since many of the negative effects factory farming has on humans hit the poorest people hardest. I find it likely that Francis would think current Western eating habits constitute greed and gluttony in light of these effects.
In the end, I believe many of the differences between modern secular animal rights activists and Francis of Assisi disappear at the factory farm. Both approaches lead to similar practical conclusions about the modern practices of animal consumption and intense animal agriculture. Compassion towards animals unites the 13th-century Francis and 2020’s secular animal advocates despite their differences.
In contrast, the early anti-cruelty movement in the 1800's had many prominent Christian advocates.