The case for animal welfare as a matter of faith

The case for animal welfare as a matter of faith

The case for animal welfare as a matter of faith

Pope Francis delivers his message during Mass, on a stage decorated with animals in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

An official with the Faith Outreach Program at the Humane Society of the United States believes that, "When we do something to protect animals, it has significance beyond just helping that animal. It's part of a larger restorative effort that mends our relationships with one another and God as well."

[Editor’s note: Reasa D. Currier is the Strategic Initiatives Manager for the Faith Outreach Program at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that’s the country’s largest group concerned with issues of animal welfare and opposing animal cruelty. In her position, Currier tries to enlist the support of faith-based organizations. She spoke recently with Crux contributor Charles Camosy about the intersection of religion and concern for animals.]

Camosy: Some readers might be surprised that a job like yours exists. Can you tell us a bit about what you do at HSUS?

Currier: In short, my long title means that I collaborate with faith organizations and denominational staff that work primarily within the intersection of faith and policy. For example, I have worked with the staff at the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, the policy office of the Southern Baptist Church, on bills in Tennessee and Ohio to strengthen the penalties for animal fighting.

Christians had a significant role in the creation of the modern animal protection movement and the passage of the first animal protection laws both in the US and the UK. So, in many ways, I see my role as continuing the faith community’s long and rich tradition of engaging in the political arena on behalf of animals.

In addition to Christians, I have the privilege of working with faith leaders from all major religions. We are working on a ballot measure in Massachusetts that will prevent farm animals from being crammed into cages so small they can’t even turn around or extend their limbs as well as ensure that certain food items sold in Massachusetts are compliant with these modest standards. The Jewish community has been a tremendous ally on this effort.

Reasa D. Currier of the Humane Society of the United States.

Reasa D. Currier of the Humane Society of the United States.

What drew you to this particular kind of work? 

My grandfather was a hog farmer and veterinarian in Kansas for most of his life, and then received the call to ministry shortly before I was born. One of my first memories was of my grandfather laying his hands on and praying for an injured dog in his care.

My grandfather taught and wrote about a Christian duty of care to animals back in the 1970s. So, he was really a pioneer in this expanding movement and had a profound influence on me.

I went on to work as a legal and legislative adviser for the federal government, but always felt slightly misplaced. During my pregnancy with my second child, I wasn’t sleeping well and I had a lot of time to think in the middle of the night. I felt a pressing need to form a Political Action Committee (PAC) in my home state of Virginia to advocate for animals from a Christian perspective.

I wasn’t sure exactly what a PAC did, but this nagging desire to see the faith community come together to protect animals wouldn’t leave me. So, I went to see my pastor and he suggested I was receiving a call and to just go with it.

So, on the day I gave birth to my daughter, I filed the PAC paperwork at the Virginia Department of Elections and that was my entry into this world of faith and policy. A few years later, I was hired by HSUS.

Some might think of animal activism and the Gospel as, at best, strange bed-fellows. Can you say something about where you see the strongest connections?

For me, it is the most natural relationship. The Bible is clear on our mandate to care for animals as God cares for us.

In Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si, he writes that our relationship with God, our neighbor and creation has been ruptured, which is a sin. He went on to state that, “It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.”

I interpret this to mean that when we do something to protect animals, this act has significance beyond just helping that animal.  It is part of a larger restorative effort that mends our relationships with one another and God as well.

You had a very significant presentation to the heads of the U.S. Catholic Conferences not long ago. Can you give us some highlights of what you told them?

Absolutely. Scripture, Catholic history, the catechism, and Pope Francis’ encyclical provide an abundance of common ground. So, I focused on a few campaigns where there is a natural synergy. We are introducing bills in several states to increase penalties on animal fighting-a problem Catholics have been confronting for centuries.

I read from a statement by Pope Saint Pius V, during the 16th century, decrying animal fighting as being contrary to Christian duty and charity and labeling these fights “as exhibitions of the devil.”

Most of these bills include language penalizing bringing a child to a fight. This is actually a significant problem. In many of the raids we have conducted with law enforcement, we see children present at animal fights.

I also discussed the dire situation elephants and rhinos are in due to poaching. During Pope Francis’ recent landmark trip to Africa, he said that ivory trafficking fuels instability and terrorism and called upon us not to be silent on this issue. After China, the US is the leading market for products and parts of imperiled species.

If poaching continues at these levels, we will lose these magnificent animals in our lifetimes. So, as the pope said, we really cannot afford to be silent.

I shared our efforts to combat the expansion of industrial agriculture. In the early 1980s, Catholic bishops called our attention to the rapid shift in agriculture that was sweeping through rural America. These bishops and organizations such as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference called for a moratorium on animal confinement systems, and awakened all of us to the understanding that placing animals in systems that deprived them of their natural behaviors is a moral issue.

One of our most powerful weapons against factory farming at HSUS is our 11 state agriculture advisory councils and National Agriculture Advisory Council. These councils of farmers and ranchers are committed to traditional and humane farming practices. Their goal is to make more farmers like them.

So, I offered these incredible men and women as a resource to the directors who work in agriculture states.

How did they respond? Do you think it might signal anything about the future of the US Catholic Church and its relationship to animal protection?

The response was incredible. We work in challenging times, and the Catholic conference directors are dealing with divisive issues such as human sexuality, religious freedom, and death with dignity.

For many of the faith organizations I work with, partnering with us to pass a law to protect animals is a reprieve. Two-thirds of American households have at least one pet.

So, when these faith organizations work to eliminate egregious cruelties to animals, they are able to build community and create unity around something very positive.

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