One of the most challenging topics to explore in the realm of food and faith is our consumption of animal products – including meat, dairy, and eggs. I introduced this topic in Part One of a three part series. I began the piece by quoting Pope Francis from Laudato Si: “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’” I concluded Part One by asking the question: If I choose to continue eating meat, even if it’s almost entirely from local regenerative farms I know are using humane, ethical practices, am I still doing something wrong? My answer was: “No…. I don’t think so.”
I will explore this answer further, but not without first articulating three important points.
First, I respect 100% those who choose not to eat meat due to religious, cultural, or dietary influences. I don’t think it’s generally fair to tell someone who doesn’t eat meat that they should eat meat, beyond certain considerations that would be too tangential to this article.
Secondly, just as we cannot sweep all types of meat production under the same rug, we cannot condemn the intentions of all people who are involved in our current factory farmed meat system. And there are a lot of people. Not just those who directly operate factory farms, but the millions of people who are connected to the animal food system, from feed crop farmers to restaurants owners and workers. Who am I to judge all these people? (James 4:11-12). Indeed, the inability of activists to maintain an all-loving and non-judgmental mindset is often what dooms well-meaning campaigns to remedy injustices in the world.
Thirdly, ceaseless contemplation on this issue has led me to one certainty: there is no certainty… which is why I said above, “I think the answer is ‘no.’” As Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr likes to say about faith in general, we should strive for understanding over certainty. Certainty relies on believing, as if there were data points or empirical studies that could help has fathom God’s will. Understanding is more about true faith and can open the door for us to live in a way – like eating meat in an ethical manner – that doesn’t oppose the Pope’s plea to care for our common home.
In the Laudato Si passage I referenced above, Pope Francis himself quotes “contrary to human dignity” from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The quote comes from a section of the catechism entitled, “Respect for integrity of creation,” and there is a paragraph in that section that begins: “God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing.”
This is certainly the archetype used throughout the history of mankind. And it is underscored in some of the most popular passages in the Gospel, such as the parable of the Prodigal Son in which the father orders the slaughter of the fattened calf (Luke 15:23); or when when Jesus performs the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish (Matthew 14:19-21). (While fish has not been mentioned in this article, it is important to note that the modern fishing industry is rife with horrors and degradation on par with the factory meat industry.)
There’s a case to be made that we need to make a dramatic change from this tradition. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, our extractive way of life has created such a disastrous impact on our environment and global climate – as well as creating sinful economic disparity – that dramatic steps are necessary or we will no longer be alive to contemplate these issues. When it comes to our sources of energy, we must transition away from fossil fuels to clean and renewable alternatives as quickly as possible. And when it comes to food, it’s imperative we transform the entire food system.
Our guiding ethos must be that God is in all things and all things are in God. Suggesting that the wrongs of our modern meat system can be resolved by everyone just eating plant food can blind us to the iniquities in other parts of our food system, such as the way we farm crops. While plants may not stir our emotions as much as a pig or a cow, the fact is plants are God too. And not a passive embodiment as we may be inclined to think. They exhibit an active sentience that in some cases is more intricate and mystical than that of animals. Plants can sense danger and react to changes in their surroundings in the most awe inspiring ways. Home gardeners are encouraged to talk gently to their plants for very good reason.
The fact is, most of our plant food is grown using chemical-based practices which includes herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. Because these chemicals kill life in the soil, synthetic fertilizers are needed to make the plants grow. Soil is life, and the fact is we’ve lost a third of our arable land around the world, mostly due to our farming practices. Treating plant life in this abusive way is no less damaging than raising animals in confinement.
Growing plants for food, when not done with the utmost care and regard for nature, can also be extremely damaging to animal life. Sure we’re not slaughtering pigs, but we are killing rabbits, snakes, mice, birds and a wide variety of other wildlife as a result of our industrial farming practices. The chemicals are also killing worms and other microbes in the soil that are essential to our existence. A class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids is decimating bee populations around the world. Given that bees pollinate a majority of our fruits and vegetables, it is safe to say that without bees, we are severely jeopardizing our world food supply. All the excitement about feeding the world with a plant based diet has high-tech opportunists swooping in. They’re creating lab food with genetically modified ingredients and other dubious processes. The end product has little to do with helping care for our common home and everything to do with building the personal fortunes of a few high-tech entrepreneurs.
Truly caring for our common home requires of us a focus on regenerative agriculture as a way to foster balance and diversity in our food system and throughout our world, as God intended in nature. In Part Three of this series I will further explore this topic, and how we might understand it better through the lens of faith.