Thursday, March 31, 2011

Would Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi Join PETA?

Greetings, Coffee Talkers!

Tonight's blogpost is a follow-up to last night's, where I mentioned PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and their recent campaign to rid the Bible of 'speciesist' language, and their 2-for-1 promotion (in honor of Infertility Awareness Week -- how kind!) for neutering of both your pet and YOU!

I think that most people know PETA as an organization that promotes animal rights and abhors animal cruelty, but the more I learn about PETA, the more disturbed I become. But before I get ahead of myself, let me address the initial question at hand: would St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi have been members of PETA?

First, let's look at Tommy -- Aquinas delineated three types of soul, and insodoing, I suppose that he is considered among the first 'speciesists' by modern-day animal rights activists. He sometimes gets a bad rap from pet-lovers around the world for suggesting that animals might not go to heaven (gasp!), but I think Br. Ignatius Mary, OLSM offers a sound explanation of Thomas' teaching, along with some helpful modern commentary:
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that there exists three kinds of souls:

1) Vegetative Soul: the life forced within all living things that is the animating element that we call life.

2) Sensitive Soul: that faculty that gives consciousness the living being to sense its environment and its surroundings and to respond to that environment through the five senses of the body.

3) Rational Soul: this is the soul made in the image of God that is individually created by God and placed into a human being at the moment of conception. This soul is that which allows us to have the Godly attributes of rational thought, creativity, awareness of who we are, awareness of our own mortality, ability to love, to know God, etc.

Plants have a Vegetative Soul because they are alive, but they do not have consciousness to respond with the five senses to their surroundings.

Animals have a Vegetative Soul that animates them, AND a Sensitive Soul that gives them consciousness and awareness of their environment and the ability to respond through the senses.

Only Humans have all three types of soul. Only Humans have the Rational Soul.

The Vegetative Soul and the Sensitive soul dies. The Rational Soul lives forever.

So the souls of our pets die and return to dust. They have no soul that lives forever.

Thus, there is no theological justification for our pets living forever in heaven. But God is God and being God, He is not restrained by theological principles. He can bring our pets to heaven anyway if He wishes.

I would suggest, however, that you and I will not even ask God to bring our pets into heaven with us. Why? Because the purpose of our pets in this life will have been fulfilled in heaven -- there will be no need for pets in heaven.

Human beings have pets for companionship, for unconditional "love," to otherwise fill a need in us.

In heaven we do not need pets for companionship, we will have the fullness of the COMPANION who is the Holy Spirit. In heaven we will have the greatest level of unconditional love possible for God is love and we will be in his presence. In heaven we will have no needs for we will be FILLED and SURROUNDED, and COMPLETELY SATISFIED by God.

Thus, the whole purpose of having a pet will no longer exist in heaven. The cares of this world will no longer be in our memory. We will be in the bliss of the heavenly country forever.

Now this does not imply that animals will not be in heaven. While we do not know what heaven will be like some have suggested that it will be a return to the Garden of Eden -- a rich forest and garden of trees and flowers and animals. If that is the case we may walk through that heavenly garden to enjoy the beauty of God's creation and that includes enjoying animals. But, these animals of the heavenly Garden of Eden will not be pets in the sense that we experience animals here on earth. Rather it will be simply an enjoyment of creation.

Bottomline: theologically, animals do not have an immortal soul and thus do not die and go to heaven. This does not prevent God from bringing our pets into heaven anyway if He chooses to do so. But, I would suggest that once in heaven will shall be so complete and so filled with the Spirit of God that we will not even ask God for our pets; there will be no need for pets in heaven. But, God can do as He wills.
So while St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly not an animal hater, he definitely saw a love for all creation in the order and hierarchy by which God established the world and all of creation. I think that Aquinas would be disturbed by the way PETA not only reduces the human person to the level of an animal (such as in this distasteful ad campaign targeting the Duggar Family of TLC's show 19 kids and counting):

...but also how they reduce people to a level lower than animals (as in the 'artist' who went naked into factory hog farm for a photo exhibit titles 'The Pig That Therefore I Am'). I think he would also be incredibly disturbed with PETA's actual treatment of animals themselves, but I'll get to that in a second.

Now, let's talk about my good friend St. Francis of Assisi, who is widely known as a lover of all creation, but most especially of animals. At my grad school alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville, we had an amazing animal blessing ceremony every year during the weekend-long celebration in honor of the Feast of St. Francis. From cats to dogs to birds to goats, the blessing was always a holy and humorous sight to behold!

I think that, because St. Francis was such an authentic lover of animals, he would be appalled at PETA's hypocrisy in actually killing thousands of the animals that they allegedly protect and rescue. If you're thinking to yourself, "Leslie, clearly you've gone into the realm of craziness and conspiracy theories here," let me just say that I thought the same thing when I first read these allegations against PETA. I mean, they might be a little extreme in their tactics of animal rights activism, but to suggest that they kill the animals just seems over the top.

That's what I thought until I heard and read so many articles about PETA's anti-animal activities that I started to feel sick. Like the 2005 arrest of two PETA employees on 62 combined felony charges of cruelty to animals and eight counts each of illegal disposal of animals after they were caught dumping dead pet bodies into a dumpster. Or the allegations by PETA that all of the animals they euthanized were 'unadoptable' or 'suffering,' while the statistics cite more than 90% of animals in PETA facilities being killed in recent years. And the large $9,000 walk-in freezer they installed to store dead animal bodies at the PETA headquarters. Apparently, the sickening list goes on and on, but I've personally seen more than enough.

You know, rallying against PETA is some people's cause (and apparently many of them have been sued over it -- PETA's got power and money, and I have neither!), but mine is more to try to restore dignity to the human person, and in turn to all of God's creation. I propose that we start a new organization called PETP -- People for the Ethical Treatment of People. Because I don't know about you, but I've personally never known a single human being who has treated other people with decency, respect, and love but then treated animals cruelly. We need to start by treating one another with the respect we all deserve as people made in the image and likeness of God, and then I believe that appropriate respect and care for animals, and for all of God's beautiful creation, will fall into its proper place.

In closing, let us pray for those entrusted with the care of animals and for all pets, using the traditional prayer for the Blessing of the Animals on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi:
“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”
Peace and all good,


  1. I've got a question I'd like your opinion on, and this is something that has always sort of bothered me at both a scientific and religious level. Now, feel free to call me a tree hugging hippy after you read my question, but it's something I'm legitimately curious about. ;)

    How do we KNOW that trees have no form of consciousness? How do we know that plants aren't somehow aware of what's going on in their surroundings?

    The reason I ask is because I've always felt that a living being can only truly be aware of its own consciousness. The only consciousness I have full access to is my own, and no one else's. I know I can dream, I know dogs can dream when it looks like their chasing rabbits in their sleep, but how do we know that trees can't dream, too?

    Like I said, call me a hippy, but still, I'm curious what you think about this.

  2. Thank you for Tommy's explanation of animals. I really like his thinking.

    Bryan, I would offer up this, a tree doesn't have a brain. There is no gray or white matter. There would be no way for it to have consciousness the way that humans do, nor the way that any animal has. It could be argued that an earthworms and jellyfish don't have brains, but they are alive. They do have nerve nets. Plants do not have nerve nets. Here is a cross section of a plant stem. No nerves. Plants react to temperatures and sunlight, but it isn't a conscious movement.

  3. Cool, thanks for your response Denise.

    To take it one step further though, why is it that a brain and nerve nets are necessary for consciousness?

  4. Those are what allow you to "feel" through your senses. What plants do are react (through chemical pathways) to stimuli. For example, an animal will run from danger, say a wildfire. Plants cannot. As to why, I can only reply that it is their function. That is what they do. You could ask why is it that an epithelial cell is necessary for skin, my reply would be that is it's function.

  5. Leslie, your comments about PETA remind me of an interview that Christopher West did on an EWTN show. I can't remember the show, however, I do remember one part of it. He said that with the fall of man, man damaged his relationship with 1) God, 2) Fellow man, 3)Animals 4)Environment. Because of this we are at odds with each. Sometimes, there will be a relationship that has heavier ties than others. That is why some people who support PETA will be pro-abortion. Or why the tree huggers will be for controlling animal populations for the sake of the environment. Or why people would support abortion to save the environment. Or why some people reject God at the pursuit of anything else. It was very interesting.

    As Christians we are called to be good stewards of ALL creation. As God's people, we were told that we have dominion over the earth, to be fruitful and multiply. Above all we are told to love God and then our neighbor as ourselves. If we all strive to do that, the relationships will realign in a better way.

  6. Hello, friends! Thanks for your comments. Denise, the Christopher West show does sound interesting. And Bryan, my little tree-hugging hippy! ;) Always great to hear from you! Gosh, I wish I had some amazing insights to offer you about trees and consciousness, but I will offer you the few thoughts that cross my mind. I really have nothing to offer from the scientific perspective that you wouldn't already know, I'm sure. From the perspective of philosophy/theology, what comes to mind is that it seems that men (human persons,that is) are the only created beings who can reflect of the meaning of their being. So I guess I'd have to ask if that is part of what you mean by consciousness. If you are just referring to some sort of awareness of their surroundings, then perhaps plants (trees included) could have such a thing, albeit in a 'non-thinking' way. But if you are referring to an ability to actually make conscious choices (acts of free will) and to reflect on the meaning of their being and of their suffering, I'd have to quote Mary Poppins and say, "But that's going a bit too far, don't you think?" :)

    Another thing I like to consider that I'll offer for your contemplation, as well, is this: before the fall of man (the original sin of Adam and Eve), all of the plants, animals, and human persons dwelled in harmony and unity, and had the fall not happened, none of those beings would have experienced death. What would that look like for our relationship with plants and animals in the modern world, were we not affected by the discord of sin? (This falls into the realm of speculative theology, of course, but I still think it's fun to think about!)

    Peace be with you, and thanks again for reading and commenting.