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July 27, 2015

The traditional Catholic view is that human beings are the only creature God willed for its own sake as they were created in God's image and likeness. This puts animals and plants on a lower plane of being, a view reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church's statement, "Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity" (n. 2415).

That statement would, taken by itself, envision animals as beings with no intrinsic value of their own, as fodder than can be used in any way that humanity sees fit. However, the catechism goes on to say the treatment of other living beings should be governed by moral imperatives. "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly" (n. 2418).

Humanity's dominion over creation is not absolute, but should be a relationship of stewardship. Although animals do not possess rights of their own, they should be treated with kindness. All of creation gives glory to God, and the enjoyment of creation is one way we can come to know God.

Nevertheless, it is morally acceptable, says the catechism, to use animals for food and clothing, to make use of them as pets or to do work, and for medical and scientific experimentation, all of this within reasonable limits. Indeed, civilization as we know it would not have been possible without the domestication of animals.

Pope Francis neither adds nor subtracts anything from this teaching in his new encyclical Laudato Si', but he does give it a particularly positive emphasis. He holds up St. Francis of Assisi as a model to be emulated in his rejoicing over creation and even preaching to the flowers. The saint's calling other creatures "brother" or "sister" is not naïve romanticism, but a prelude to treating the earth with respect.

The pope is critical of humanity's wanton exploitation of the earth and its creatures as though they are undeserving of such respect. "Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise."

Although the pope does not go into the implications of this attitude to animals and plants in detail, it is clear that practices such as vegetarianism can be a way of giving glory not so much to animals as to God in his creation. It can show a restraint which refuses to exploit at least one aspect of creation for one's own needs.

In the coming decades, restraint will have to be a crucial notion for our relationship with creation. The earth's resources are not only beautiful, but limited. We will have a choice to make in how we approach this – as a doleful duty or as a way to respect the earth. If we opt for a kindly attitude to animals and plants, that will help us to save, not only the planet, but humanity itself.