John Berkman, a professor of moral theology at Regis College, University of Toronto, did his PhD in theological ethics at Duke and has been a voice crying in the Catholic wilderness on non-human animals for many years.
I thought he would be a good person to talk to on the first anniversary of Laudato Si’.
Camosy: A generation ago, it was very unusual for a Catholic moral theologian to become interested in animals as a topic of research. How did that happen for you?
Berkman: I first started thinking about animals as an undergrad at Oxford and Toronto. I was studying philosophy and came across Stephen Clark’s books on animal ethics. I was quite reluctant to read him because I was a major carnivore at the time!
I did a class presentation on experimentation on animals, expecting agreement that testing cosmetics on rabbits by blinding them was indefensible. But some non-plussed classmates simply taunted me in whiny voices: “If you are so worried about the bunnies, what are you doing to do? Become a vegetarian?”
So, I did.
It definitely took a while for it to sink in. Shortly after deciding to become a vegetarian, I have the distinct memory of (on more than one occasion) going out to a chicken dinner and realizing mid way through, “Oh crap, I’m a vegetarian.” It was not a seamless conversation.
But by the time I went to Duke in 1987 my practices were starting to line up with my convictions. Andrew Linzey, a pioneering Anglican theologian on animals, called up my mentor Stanley Hauwerwas and asked him to present on animals at a conference, and Stanley agreed on the condition that his vegetarian graduate student (me!) would co-author it. That was how my writing started on non-human animals.
For many years, you were one of the few Catholic moral theologians working on this topic. Was that difficult?
Even though I cared a lot about this issue, I never set out to write on non-human animals. Everything I wrote was in response to a specific request. I got dragged into writing and speaking because I was pretty well the only Catholic moral theologian one could ask. Anyone doing a book or conference on animals needing a Catholic voice, they were basically stuck with me.
But I was passionate about the topic, not least because it was related to my pro-life commitments. Back in the 1990’s after JPII’s Evangelium Vitae came out, I am sure I was the only Catholic theologian who published articles on how concern for non-human animals was part of a consistent ethic of life, was ‘prophetically pro-life.’ Everyone ignored me.
And it was difficult professionally. As a pre-tenured moral theologian at the Catholic University of America, I was actually ordered by my department chair to stop writing on the topic of animals. It embarrassed him that CUA’s theology department would employ someone who actually thought animals were a moral issue.
His view was shared by CUA’s conservatives and liberals alike – they all love their meat. Bad news for someone like me.
But in the last five years or so something major has changed when it comes to Catholic theology and animals. What has happened?
In the last 20 years, philosophers and activists have had a big impact. Some of those teenage converts to vegetarianism are now graduate students and professors in Catholic theology. They are taking the lead. And this makes sense. We don’t like to admit how difficult it is to change our eating habits.
Our culture is literally addicted to meat. Can a vegetarian and a burger eater really have a serious discussion on the topic over dinner? Credible leadership on this issue requires some kind of dietary commitment.
Laudato Si’ hit one year ago, right in the middle of this trend. Did it advance the conversation about animals?
There was a twinge of disappointment for me in Laudato Si’s refusal to “moralize” about non-human animals, although perhaps Francis hints at vegetarianism when he asks how, in light of God’s love for the birds, can we possibly cause them harm.
Perhaps the Pope is wise enough to know that Christians simply are not yet ready to hear the call of vegetarianism.
But Laudato Si is a massive, massive breakthrough in other, ultimately more important ways. First, it is the first authoritative statement that unequivocally and emphatically teaches the independent and intrinsic goodness of non-human animals. God created the world for them as well! There’s no language of ‘hierarchy’ in Laudato Si.
Second, Pope Francis speaks theologically about non-human animals in an amazing, Trinitarian way. God the Father loves animals into existence and continues to love them, tenderly caring for them. Jesus loves every non-human animal and guides them to their heavenly home. And the Holy Spirit dwells in every animal! He explicitly says all this!
Furthermore, Pope Francis makes clear that only by being in relationship to God and to other non-human animals can we mature as believers. He says we must be in proper communion with other animals if we are to be in proper communion with God. These kinds of statements are simply mind-boggling (and wonderful) for me as a committed Catholic.
Francis has given us the basis for a whole Catholic theology regarding non-human animals. He has given those of us who want us to think theologically lots and lots of work to do.
I know you are in the process of writing a book on the current state of thinking about animals. Where do you think we need to go from here?
At a very basic level, we should stop talking about “animals” in a general way, and instead write on particular animals and species. To talk about “animals” and “humans” (as if humans are not also animals) merely perpetuates the human/animal binary that has been so destructive. We should instead meditate on how God is revealed to us in a particular creature in its particular goodness as created by God.
The beauty and glory of God embodied in a particular animal of a particular species can change us in ways that abstract arguments about “animals” cannot.