Is there a religious obligation not to eat meat? Is there an obligation of faithful Catholics to become vegetarians or even vegans? Quite astonishingly, Professor Charles Camosy of Fordham University says yes in his new book For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.
Genesis, according to Camosy, makes it clear that God intended only for us to eat green and grain because that is what He gave mankind to eat. God did not say we could eat the animals. Camosy argues that recent popes, when they have called for the care of creation, implicitly endorse this view. He also cites the Universal Catechism for his point of view.
Camosy is not the only one making these arguments. The modern granddaddy of these arguments is former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully who published a book called Dominion that has turned many to vegetarianism. Camosy was deeply affected by Scully’s book, as was my dear friend Mary Eberstadt who has written the foreword to Camosy’s book. And in recent days Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last has joined their ranks and come out as a campaigning vegetarian.
With the exception of Scully each are religious and each are practicing Catholics and make religious arguments to back their claims. In a recent National Review article, Scully quotes Pope Francis’s first sermon where he called for “respecting each of God’s creatures” and Benedict condemning the “industrial use of animals” and John Paul II asking farmers to “resist the temptations of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of nature.”
They also make a great deal about what is called factory or industrial farming. The accusation is that such farming is profoundly cruel. Sows are boxed so they cannot move, only eat, defecate and grow fat. Chickens, too. They never go outside. Male chicks are immediately ground into nothing because they cannot lay eggs and take too long to grow for meat. After suffering their whole lives these animals are led to slaughter with at least some kind of knowledge of what is about to happen to them.
One thing Camosy et al have in common is that they are pro-life. You would understand this to mean the protection of unborn children from abortion, the protection of human embryos from experimentation, and the protection of the elderly from euthanasia. They would include animals in this. In fact, Camosy says he became a vegetarian in order to be more “authentically pro-life.”
There is a practical political aspect to vegetarianism. Mary Eberstadt, whom I have praised to the high heavens in these pages and will continue to do so, argues that Millennials can be reached more effectively if we speak to them as vegetarians. In fact, the main thrust of this current campaign, which is running almost exclusively in the online pages of National Review, is to convince pro-lifers to be “pro-animal” and that a great bonanza of support for our cause lies among the vegetarian set who think we are hypocrites for protecting unborn babies yet happily eat our cheeseburgers.
And so what of their arguments? First, know that these are very smart and learned people. Most of us would be unequipped to argue with them on many topics including this one. And while I find their arguments interesting, I do not find them ultimately compelling. And some of them I find offensive.
On the question of factory farming, there is the charge of wanton, unspeakable cruelty. Take pens used to confine nursing hogs, for instance. It sounds awful. The pens hold them tight so they cannot turn around. Perhaps the most interesting writer in defense of modern farming is Missouri farmer Blake Hurst who began writing for the American Enterprise Institute when Michael Pollan’s anti-meat and much else Omnivore’s Dilemma came out a few years ago. Hurst runs not a “factory” farm but a family one. He says such pens are necessary because mother sows have a nasty tendency to lie down and crush their young. Sometimes they eat their young. Even so such pens are outlawed in some states.
Hurst goes on at great length defending the practices condemned by Camosy et al. He describes a turkey farmer who wanted to raise them “free range” but who did not know that turkeys do not come in out of the rain and can drown beaks up open wide. He lost 4,000 turkeys in one storm. He now raises them in a more confined space, where they won’t drown or be eaten by other animals. But Camosy et al are not simply against factory farming of livestock. This is their hard-case argument. In fact, they oppose the eating of any animal no matter how they are raised.
The religious question is not as complicated as the factory farm question. There simply is no demand by the Church that we not eat meat. The Catechism is quite plain and says we may use animals for food. Camosy points this but then emphasizes the Catechism says we cannot do it “needlessly.” Strictly speaking you can live your whole life without eating meat and therefore the only time Camosy would allow us to eat meat is traveling through Death Valley by horseback with no choice but to eat the horse. But the Church does not teach that. The Church asks for a meatless fast on Fridays—still does by the way—which implies we may eat meat every other day. What’s more the Bible is chock full of meat eating. Where Genesis 1 gives us green and grain to eat, Genesis 9 gives us all the animals to eat. Jesus ate fish, gave fish for others to eat, and being a faithful Jew there is little question that he ate the lamb at Passover.
It is perfectly fine for Scully and the others not to eat meat. It is perfectly fine for them to campaign for their point of view. And I must say their description of “factory farming” has given me pause. But to cast this as religiously required is deeply offensive, particularly for someone like Camosy who teaches at a Catholic school. Sure, recent Popes have called for care of creation including animals but none of them have said we cannot eat meat. I have been blessed to spend time in the residence where Pope Francis now lives and recall enjoying some delicious cuts of dead calf. The Church clearly does not teach what Scully and Camosy says it does.
Finally, to suggest that being a vegetarian makes you “authentically pro-life” is a kind mischief making that all pro-lifers ought to reject. Pro-life does not mean raising the minimum wage or easing immigration restriction or not eating meat. The seamless garment has done a great deal of harm already. Let’s not allow it to stretch any further.