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Of Meat and Man: Theology and the Killing of Our Fellow Creatures

Dealing with pests in our homes is an inevitable task that we all must face at some point. Back when I lived in Florida, snakes and mosquitos were the usual culprits. Fire ants were a constant source of concern for children playing in the front yards of our community on the edge of the Everglades. Every so often, a family in the neighborhood would step outside and meet an alligator lounging in their driveway.

Our creaturely companions tend to be less exotic here in Kansas. In my household, nuisances typically concern moths, flies, spiders, and the occasional mouse. Raccoons and opossums are also common, but they typically remain happily outside. Recently, however, my family’s little homestead experienced an invasion of these critters. They had developed a habit of making their way through our cat door to munch on the various types of animal feed in our storage room. Seeing as I couldn’t let these creatures continue making a mess inside our house, the problem had to be addressed in one way or another.

As we all know, pest control comes in different forms. At times, issues might be remedied through relocation. On this score, my kids and I loved streaming the reality show Gator Boys a few years ago. The skill and bravery of guys jumping into pools and canals to wrangle alligators with their bare hands is stunning. In many cases, though, pest control can only be achieved through extermination. After all, when we call a guy and ask him to take care of a termite problem in our basement, we’re not merely requesting relocation assistance.

As I wrote in my last column on the Paschal Mystery embedded in creation, modern science and theological greats like St. Thomas Aquinas agree in their conviction that death has played an integral role in the cycle of life from its very beginning. The Angelic Doctor recognized that death was present among animals before the Fall, even as did not think that these creatures would have posed a threat to humans. In close alignment with what we have since confirmed through science, Aquinas emphasized that lions and falcons were never herbivores. Indeed, he deemed it omnino irrationabile— altogether irrational—to hold otherwise (Aquinas, ST I, q. 96, a. 1 ad 2).

Contending with pests is a challenge that our species has grappled with throughout human history. Predation upon other creatures has likewise been an integral feature of Homo sapiens for as long as he has walked the earth. We’ve been engaging in these practices for at least two hundred thousand years—and that is not counting the presence of these activities among our more ancient relatives, including Homo heidelbergensis (roughly a million years ago) and Homo erectus (as long as two million years ago).

To be human on this side of eternity—indeed to be any embodied creature in this realm—is to live by the death of other creatures. And, yet, some in the contemporary environmental movement are persuaded that ending the life of other living beings is inherently immoral. Indeed, some hold that animals in their innocence are endowed with more rights than humans. Despite our tradition’s adamant focus on protecting all life, the Catholic Church does not share this perspective. I now wish to reflect a little on why that is. In so doing, I will contend that it is linked to a characteristic found in Catholicism but absent in secular environmentalism—a trait that Norman Wirzba aptly refers to as “incarnational nerve.”

The daily sacrifice of creation

Like many of those reading these words in their respective parts of the world, residing in rural Kansas offers me daily opportunities to witness what some have referred to as the ongoing “sacrifice of creation.” Whether it involves cleaning and preparing fish caught from a local pond, slaughtering livestock for sustenance, or feeding pests to our chickens, these small instances reflect mankind’s experience from time immemorial. These days, however, they are now remote from most of our lives for the majority of the time. Most of us purchase our meat pre-packaged in plastic wrap. This makes it easy to develop a vague, de-sensitized picture of nature on the one hand or an overly romanticized one on the other. In reality, it is not pleasant to take the life of a fellow creature, experience the loss of a beloved pet, or witness our crops succumb to pests. Nevertheless, these encounters are often inevitable, and they carry the benefit of attuning our lives to the paschal rhythm of creation—the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that is embedded in the very structure of the cosmos.

The Catechism unequivocally affirms of animals that humans “owe them kindness” and that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (CCC §§2416, 2418). At the same time, we also know that our Lord has given man dominion over the earth. In this light, the Catechism indicates, “It is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing” (CCC §2417). As bearers of God’s image, we are authorized to assume responsibility for the life and death of God’s creatures. In some cases, this means ending them in a dignified manner with an awareness that their lives have been entrusted to us for the sake of a more lofty end. This higher purpose typically involves human flourishing, as when we hunt a deer for venison, uproot a beet plant to consume its root and leaves, fell a living tree to build a house, or nourish ourselves on the offspring that a fruit vine has labored diligently to produce.

While these actions appear to some as unduly anthropocentric (particularly when it comes to consuming animals), it is crucial to bear in mind what might appear as cruelty is quite often the precise opposite. Indeed, human practices like hunting often contribute to the well-being of the ecosystem in question and even benefit the very species to which the creature whose life has been taken belongs. Those involved in conservation and agriculture can attest that refusing to intervene in creation by harvesting, hunting, fishing, trapping, and the like is often the opposite of mercy. An overcrowded population is healthy neither for mammals, fish, nor trees. And so it is that both humans and these creatures benefit when we play our part in creation’s paschal drama by taking their lives into our hands.

The fruit of such efforts can be seen by examining concrete illustrations, like the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Quite understandably, initiatives like this are at times met with resistance by the humans who live nearby. How and where to carry out endeavors like this is a question that requires great prudence, and it is not a subject we can tackle here. Having said that, the positive outcomes of restoring native species to their ecosystems are clear. In Yellowstone, the renewed presence of wolves has helped reduce the elk population, which has meant more food sources for bison and more trees for beavers, which in turn has led to more salmon in local bodies of water and thereby more food supply for otters.

Yet, in order for this all to work, the Yellowstone wolves must play their part in creation’s paschal drama by hunting and killing. As this case serves to illustrate, the inevitability of creatures causing the deaths of other creatures is a fact that cannot be ignored. Indeed, deeper consideration reveals that conservation, agriculture, and indeed basic human subsistence positively demand it.

Our participation in the altar of the world through eating

We’ve just examined the structure of creation through the perspective of nature and her rhythms, but a further layer of insight into this reality can be achieved if we view it through a sacramental lens. On this score, noted Christian environmentalist Wendell Berry evocatively writes, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.”1 Expanding upon Berry’s evocative observation, Norman Wirzba describes creation with its Trinitarian grounding as “the physical manifestation of God’s self-giving love” and “an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest.”2

These authors have placed themselves in good company, for no less a figure than St. John Paul II wrote that the Eucharistic sacrifice has a “cosmic character”:

Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing.3

Now if the world is a cosmic altar, then the death of living beings that makes the lives of others possible should bear not only physical but also spiritual significance. One of the great benefits I have derived from reading Norman Wirzba’s work involves his careful attention to this meaning in one of the most mundane practices that we all partake in every day: eating.

As Wirzba sees it, eating is a spiritual exercise that facilitates our alignment with the fundamental truth of the world. For the Christian with the eyes to see, it is an opportunity for finite created beings to glimpse a reality that Hans Urs von Balthasar saw as existing analogously at an even more fundamental level in the life of the Trinity. This centers on the fact that eating ineluctably makes us full participants in the daily drama in which life is given up in order for other lives to thrive. Contemplating this, we are presented with an occasion for awe and holy pause, for eating means accepting the reality of another being into ourselves. In the words of Wirzba, “We are called to recognize the profound mystery that God created a world that, from the beginning (even in something like a pre-fallen state), lives through the eating of its members.”4

Meat: to eat, or not to eat?

Much as one may applaud the efforts of vegetarians expressing respect for all God’s creatures by electing not to partake in their flesh, Catholicism does not count itself among the world’s religious traditions for whom complete abstinence from meat is a moral imperative. (Except for no-meat Fridays, of course, as readers in Lent will note. But that is a a penitential practice in canon law which presupposes that eating meat is a true good and therefore a fit candidate for a sacrificial offering.) Indeed, Catholics may identify a problem for this philosophy, religious or secular, that often goes unaddressed. For, although animals are often regarded as having an ontologically higher status than plants, the fact is that consuming any organism whatsoever — even fruits, vegetables, and seeds — requires taking a life. Regardless of how lowly these living things may seem, a lifestyle dependent exclusively on them still does not exempt one from participation in the cruciform rhythm of creation.

In this connection, Wirzba has touched on something profound when he suggests that a vegetarian diet may at times “reflect a refusal to come to terms with the life and death that characterize creation.” He even describes this as a desire to take flight from reality which is “akin to the Gnostic tendency to deny the incarnation, in all its embodied and fleshly character, and the cross of Jesus Christ.”5 Personally, my favorite way of articulating this point is captured in Wirzba’s statement that hesitance to consume the flesh of other creatures stems from a “failure of incarnational nerve.”6

Wirzba’s theology of eating carries a pivotal implication that has a deep affinity with the insights of other ecologically sensitive Christian minds. Approaching creation through a Trinitarian and Eucharistic lens, these authors see it as a mistake to view death as an evil to be avoided at all costs. Instead, they accentuate the good news that death is the kenotic passage through which life must pass in order to be transformed. On this point, Wirzba echoes the wisdom of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Benedict XVI that I referenced in my previous column: For these theological giants, the sacrificial logic of self-offering that we witness on the Cross is grounded in the inner life of the Triune God and embedded in the very foundation of the created world. Here’s how Wirzba puts it:

If God’s creation of the world is understood as the expression and concrete manifestation of divine intra-Trinitarian love, and love entails a willingness to give oneself wholeheartedly to another even to the extent of laying down one’s life for another (1 John 3:14–16) or “emptying oneself “ in service to another (Phil 2:6 –8), then it is appropriate to see in the work of creation God’s willingness to pour himself out so that creaturely life can exist. Divine death, understood as the self-offering that reaches a climax in the cross, is the origin and the condition for the possibility of true, resurrection life.7

Christ teaches us this lesson with his analogy of the seed that must fall to the ground and die in order to rise again (John 12:24). From the perspective of the New Testament, human beings are called to be transfigured by making our lives an acceptable offering to God. And, whether we like it or not, membership in the communion of life that we call creation necessarily also entails taking the lives of other creatures. To underscore its vital importance, our Lord has helpfully attached great pleasure to the activity of munching on chicken wings, sinking our teeth into baby back ribs, and savoring a seared steak.

Admittedly, it is easy for me to say this. I am one of those featherless bipedal omnivores who instinctually incline toward the carnivorous side of the culinary spectrum. I must therefore acknowledge that this all may simply be an exercise in rationalizing an inordinate fondness for sacrificing animals on my backyard barbecue. All the same, it highlights a fundamental area where the Christian approach to stewardship of creation contrasts with prevailing trends in mainstream secular environmentalism.

To eat or not to eat is not even a question for a creature. Within the sacramental worldview of Catholicism, it is even an imperative. The real question is how to carry out this responsibility in a manner consistent with God’s law and with due respect for the creatures the Lord has entrusted to our care.

This appeared at Catholic World Report.
Image: Pieter Aertsen – The Fat Kitchen, An Allegory; Gandalf’s Gallery, Flickr.

Endnotes:

1 Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002), 383.

2 Norman Wirzba, Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), 181, 174.

3 John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §8.


Matthew Ramage

Dr. Matthew Ramage is Professor of Theology at Benedictine College where he is co-director of its Center for Integral Ecology. He earned his Masters Degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from Ave Maria University. His research and writing concentrates especially on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, the wedding of ancient and modern methods of biblical interpretation, the dialogue between faith and science, and stewardship of creation. He is author, co-author, or translator of over 15 books, including Dark Passages of the Bible (CUA Press, 2013), Jesus, Interpreted (CUA Press, 2017), The Experiment of Faith (CUA Press, 2020), Christ’s Church and World Religions (Sophia Institute Press, 2020) and From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution (CUA Press, 2022). Dr. Ramage enjoys exploring the great outdoors with his wife and seven children, tending his orchard, leading educational trips abroad, and aspiring to be a barbeque pitmaster. For more on Dr. Ramage’s work, visit his website: MatthewRamage.com