July 15th, 2014 By Christina Gray
Giving up meat is more than a Lenten sacrifice for Charles Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, and a lifelong Catholic.
After reading about factory farming practices while a graduate student, Camosy became convinced that if he wanted to be “authentically and consistently pro-life,” he would have to stop eating animals. Ten years later he has written a book he hopes will help convince Catholics to extend the principles of their faith to animals.
In “For Love of Animals; Christian Ethics, Consistent Action,” the 38-year-old moral theologian argues that Catholic ethics on the dignity of life and justice for the vulnerable are principles that can and should be extended to animals, broadening the acceptance of pro-life values in the process.
“Concern for the vulnerable is not a zero-sum game as if, somehow, caring more for animals means caring less for humans,” Camosy said in an email interview with Catholic San Francisco. “Indeed, consistently applying our pro-life principles makes them that more persuasive and effective.”
While Camosy is a vegetarian, the book is less about converting meat-eaters than it is a call to consciousness about the application of ethics and action in what some Christians consider a strictly secular arena.
“Christian justice means being consistent when applying our principles,” he said. “As pro-lifers, we care about the fetus because she is a vulnerable, voiceless, victim of violence.” If we care about justice and consistency, we will care about other vulnerable, voiceless victims of violence wherever we find them, he said.
From a Christian perspective, he said, animals may count less than humans, but they still matter quite a lot.
“Yes, we have dominion over animals,” Camosy said. “But whatever dominion means must be consistent with other passages of the Bible which surround it.” Those passages include the pronouncement that animals were considered “good” independent of human beings.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals unnecessary suffering or death, except in the case of great need, and that our dominion is not absolute but “requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation” (CCC 2415).
Camosy blames cultural forces such as “the overwhelming drive to consume,” violence and the “freedom to do as one chooses” for turning animals into mere “products,” making it easier for even Christians to turn a blind eye to how their own behavior and consumer habits are contributing to injustice and violence.
“When consumerism dominates our culture as it does today, the injustice done to vulnerable populations becomes virtually invisible,” he said.
Camosy said that even the faithful can be inconsistent in the application of their own ethical principles if it goes against self-interest. The result is ethical contradiction, which secular folk are just as prone.
“People ignore the dignity of the unborn because it would force them to confront uncomfortable positions on abortion – even when they generally favor nonviolence and protection of the vulnerable,” he said.
Camosy also discusses the “culture war” between Christians and animal advocates that he and other Catholic moral theologians including John Berkman of Regis College, the Jesuit school of theology at the University of Toronto, hope to end.
“Many traditional Christians associate animal rights activism as a challenge to their fundamental beliefs about God and about the value of human life,” said Camosy. “Their rejection of animal concerns becomes a way to defend their faith.”
Camosy provokes pro-lifers, on the one hand, to consider the implications of their consumption practices, and provokes animal advocates, on the other, to consider how their concern for vulnerable animals correlates to their moral outlook on the value of a prenatal human being.
“As I try to show in my book, not only does being pro-life not conflict with a concern for animals, it actually bolsters that concern,” he said.
Mary Eberstadt, a political conservative and a Catholic, wrote the introduction to Camosy’s book and praised it in National Review magazine. She said that Camosy convinces Catholics that “those of us who follow Jesus Christ,” in particular, “should give animals special moral consideration and attention.”
In his apostolic letter “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis writes: “There are other weak and defenseless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic and indiscriminate exploitation … We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures.”
“Perhaps I’m reading my own hopes into it, but I think all signs point to new teachings on the treatment of animals from this pope,” Camosy said. “God knows our culture needs a wake-up call on these issues.”
From July 18, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.