NEW YORK — When Bishop Gerald Kicanas was appointed to lead the diocese of Tucson, Arizona in 2001, Cardinal Francis George liked to joke that it was because Chicago had run out of lettuce.
Since 1985, Kicanas has maintained a vegan (if sometimes vegetarian) diet — long before it became fashionable to do so.
At the time, he was serving as rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary and a workshop by a psychologist promoting a “functionally fit” lifestyle, meaning not just athletic but possessing the all-around necessary health to do your job, prodded him into greater health consciousness.
When his daily running regimen was interrupted three days in a row due to shortness of breath, a doctor’s visit revealed that he had three blockages in his heart. This was an era before stents had been invented and his doctor suggested a vegan diet as a possible remedy.
Over thirty years later, at age 77, Kicanas still abstains from consuming animal products if at all possible — something unthinkable for his Lebanese family members where lamb is a mealtime staple.
Although the bishop’s diet is one motivated by health and not ethical concerns, there’s an increasing trend among pro-life advocates to see a natural connection between animal ethics and the sanctity of human life.
Last month, Kicanas was in New York to participate in an event sponsored by Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture on “A Consistent Ethic of Life 2.0,” — where he gave a lecture reassessing the now famous lecture from 35 years ago by his old mentor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, promoting a “seamless garment” of life, wherein he connected a range of issues from abortion to opposition to war.
While in town, Kicanas and I met for lunch at one of the city’s hottest vegetarian (and vegan forward) restaurants, abcV, in large part to discuss his own veganism and the general uptick in concern for animal welfare.
“Pope Francis has really emphasized a culture of creation,” Kicanas told me as he enjoyed an Asian greens soup and I indulged in roasted cauliflower (and in the interest of full disclosure: there was also vegan chocolate mousse that followed).
While he readily admits he’s not what most would describe as an animal lover, he laments the idea that many have a view toward the environment that “we can do whatever we want with it,” including animals.
With the release of his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, Francis has brought ecological concerns to the forefront of Catholic social teaching — something that resonates with Kicanas.
In the encyclical, the pope writes: “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
“By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously,” he continues.
During his remarks at Fordham later that evening, Kicanas specifically turned to Laudato si’ to make his case for an interconnectedness on the issues of life to promote what he dubbed “a theology of care and harmony.”
Perhaps this is what prompted an audience member during the question and answer session to ask the panelists what they thought of the connection between respect for non-human life and the pro-life cause.
Interestingly enough, three of the four panelists addressing the topic of a consistent ethic of life were either vegan or vegetarian.
Pro-life activist Herb Geraghty of Rehumanize International, who is an atheist, noted that veganism is a means of combating the effects animal agriculture has on the environment. In particular, he cited the consequences of climate change and the desire to refrain from participating in over-consumption that will hit vulnerable populations in the global south the hardest.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs noted that while animals are not created in the image of God, which distinguishes them from human beings, she cited the Jewish kosher laws that are meant, in part, to assist individuals to pause and consider what they are eating.
Kicanas turned once more to Laudato si’, noting that “All life is a gift to be respected and to be treated as a gift….we are in relationship and that is a relationship of respect and regard.”
“Even the fly, which is an annoyance, is not be smashed out but regarded,” he said citing an example from Pope Francis, though adding with a smirk: “Now, you can still smash out mosquitos.”
While Kicanas may be a rarity among U.S. bishops — where gatherings are often marked by a fare of steak and potatoes — he says most of his brother bishops simply respond in good humor rather than annoyance by the accommodations he requires.
“The confirmation circuit can often be hard because everyone wants to serve the bishop their nicest meal,” he told me.
He recalls once passing on a complimentary upgraded seat to first class on a trip to Europe — all because he was unsure if he could still get the vegan meal he’d ordered back in coach. And, when Thanksgiving rolls around, it’s tofurky time for Kicanas rather than the holiday classic.
Although he retired from his post in Tucson back in 2017, Francis recently tapped him to serve as apostolic administrator for the diocese of Las Cruces. While he’s enjoying his time with the people — and cuisine — of New Mexico, the majority of whom are of Mexican descent, he tells me he misses his vegan hangout back in Arizona: The Tasteful Kitchen.
Some years ago, he recalls giving the restaurant a mention on his blog, “The Monday Memo,” and the owners were overjoyed with the boost it gave to local business.
Back in 2003, he was considered a trailblazer as one of the first bishops to embrace the Internet age by running his own blog. As a growing number of religious individuals give greater emphasis to the issue of animal welfare, perhaps Kicanas will once more be credited for being ahead of his time.