Two years ago a family in India kindly hosted me for a dinner, and when it came time for the main course, my host apologized that there was no meat option available.
“We’re strict vegetarians, as a result of our Hindu faith,” he explained. I assured him it was no problem, as I was also a vegetarian. Pausing for a moment he replied, “Oh of course you are. You’re pro-life, too.”
My work at the time had taken me to New Delhi to research the growing industry of international surrogate motherhood, where until recently, India was a major destination for Western couples seeking to outsource their pregnancies.
For several days prior to my dinner, this host had taken me around to meet with several activists who opposed this practice — and while the issue of abortion was never explicitly raised, he shared the same sensibility that cultural commentator Mary Eberstadt expressed some years ago in the pages of First Things magazine: the pro-animal welfare movement and pro-life activism should go hand in hand.
In recent years, Eberstadt, along with former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, journalist Kirsten Powers, theologians Charles Camosy and Andrew Linzey, and a growing chorus of other individuals, have been prominent champions of the idea that it’s incumbent upon Christians, particularly those of pro-life persuasions, to concern themselves with the treatment of animals, oppose cruelty, and advocate for greater compassion.
While differing on the extent to which such actions are morally obligatory, this movement has been given a new cheerleader and great megaphone through Pope Francis.
In a foreword to the newly released anthology Every Little Thing: How Pope Francis, Evangelicals and other Christian Leaders are Inspiring All of Us to Care for Animals, Camosy writes: “Some view Pope Francis as a thoroughly modern and progressive pope, but this is a mistake. The Holy Father — a product of the developing world — radically affirms a traditional, pre-modern, enchanted view of the world — one which is thoroughly aware of the non-human powers in our world.”
This observation finds particular credence in Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, where he declares that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”
He goes on to observe that “Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.”
Such a stance serves as the opening gambit for pro-lifers who seek to appeal to the shared moral intuitions of animal welfare activists by prodding folks of varied affiliations — be it PETA, the Humane Society, or campus campaigners — who have yet to reconcile their defense of the wellbeing of animals with their posture on the issue of human life.
If certain individuals or organizations lobby for the protection of animals, might they want to extend their sympathies to all vulnerable creatures, such as unborn children?
The reverse, however, also deserves consideration: Wouldn’t it behoove pro-lifers to rethink their own attitude toward animal welfare and our eating choices? And even if one is not fully convinced that we’re ethically obligated to give up eating animals entirely, then might such deference toward animal welfare serve as an invitation for pro-choice animal activists to confront their own inconsistencies?
Perhaps in all of this, there is the real possibility that in showing mercy towards animals — be it abstinence from meat or simply taking smaller steps, such as rejecting factory farming — that this entire movement might serve as a gateway to a deeper embrace of the concept of mercy that Francis has staked his papacy on and manifest itself in all sorts of ways.
As Matthew Scully commented, “Compassion for animals doesn’t drain away some finite reserve of moral energy and idealism, to the detriment of human welfare, but surely adds to the supply.”
Indeed, this recognition that moral energy isn’t finite is the very lesson all sorts of allies have found when they come together for a shared cause.
Take, for example, the disability rights activists joining forces with anti-abortion activists in the fight against physician assisted suicide or secular pro-choice feminists joining hands with the unlikely allies of pro-life women to voice their united opposition to surrogacy.
This is, in fact, the very strategy that led the great abolitionist William Wilberforce not only to advocate for the end of the slave trade but also to enact laws against cruelty towards animals.
Both the pro-life and the animal welfare movements have long found their roots in the Christian hope that, as St. Francis prayed, “We may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.”
What better time than under this current bridge-building pope who draws his inspiration from that very saint for us to renew our efforts to link arm in arm and work together to do the same?
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.