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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > Cruelty to Animals

Cruelty to Animals

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Pagan antiquity

The first ethical writers of pagan antiquity to advocate the duty of kindness towards the brute creation were Pythagoras and Empedocles. Holding the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of lower animals after death, these philosophers taught that animals share in human rights, and that it is a crime to kill them. These ideas, together with an appreciation of the services rendered by domestic animals to man, found some expression in early Roman legislation. The error of ascribing human rights to animals is condemned by Cicero (De Finibus, Book III, xx).

Old Testament

The Old Testament inculcates kindness towards animals. The Jews were forbidden to muzzle the ox that treads out the corn (Deuteronomy 25:4) or to yolk together an ox and an ass (Deuteronomy 22:10). Some other texts which are frequently quoted as instances are not so much to recommend kind treatment of animals as to insist upon duties of neighbourly goodwill. The prohibition against seething the kid in its mother's milk, a process in which there is no cruelty at all, and the one against taking a mother-bird with her young, seem to have a religious rather than a humanitarian significance.

New Testament

The New Testament is almost silent on this subject. Even when St. Paul cites the Mosaic prohibition against muzzling the ox, he brushes aside the literal in favour of a symbolic signification (1 Corinthians 9:9 sq.). The Fathers of the Church insist but little on this point of duty. Nevertheless, Christian teaching and practice from the beginning respect in a general way the Scriptural ideal of righteousness which is expressed in the words: "The just regardeth the lives of his beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10). The hagiological literature of monastic life in the Middle Ages, which so largely formed and guided the moral sentiment of the Christian world, as Lecky sets forth with ample evidence, "represents one of the most striking efforts made in Christendom to inculcate a feeling of kindness and pity towards the brute creation" (History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, II, 161 sqq.). This considerate feeling was a characteristic of many holy personages, even before St. Francis of Assisi and some of his followers carried it to a degree that seems almost incredible.

The Scholastics

The scholastic theologians condemn the infliction of needless suffering on animals, chiefly because of the injurious effects on the character of the perpetrator. Thus St. Thomas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles (Book II, 112), after refuting the error that it is not lawful to take the lives of brutes, explains the import of the above-mentioned texts of Scripture. He says that these prohibitions are issued either

lest anyone by exercising cruelty towards brutes may become cruel also towards men; or, because an injury to brutes may result in loss to the owner, or on account of some symbolic signification.

Elsewhere (Summa Theologica I-II:102:6 ad 8um) he states that God's purpose in recommending kind treatment of the brute creation is to dispose men to pity and tenderness for one another. While the scholastics rest their condemnation of cruelty to animals on its demoralizing influence, their general teaching concerning the nature of man's rights and duties furnishes principles which have but to be applied in order to establish the direct and essential sinfulness of cruelty to the animal world, irrespective of the results of such conduct on the character of those who practise it.

Catholic doctrine

Catholic ethics has been criticized by some zoophilists because it refuses to admit that animals have rights. But it is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged, Catholic doctrine — though it does not concede rights to the brute creationdenounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as do those moralists who make our duty in this respect the correlative of a right in the animals.

In order to establish a binding obligation to avoid the wanton infliction of pain on the brutes, it is not necessary to acknowledge any right inherent in them. Our duty in this respect is part of our duty towards God. From the juristic standpoint the visible world with which man comes in contact is divided into persons and non-persons. For the latter term the word "things" is usually employed. Only a person, that is, a being possessed of reason and self-control, can be the subject of rights and duties; or, to express the same idea in terms more familiar to adherents of other schools of thought, only beings who are ends in themselves, and may not be treated as mere means to the perfection of other beings, can possess rights. Rights and duties are moral ties which can exist only in a moral being, or person. Beings that may be treated simply as means to the perfection of persons can have no rights, and to this category the brute creation belongs. In the Divine plan of the universe the lower creatures are subordinated to the welfare of man.

But while these animals are, in contradistinction to persons, classed as things, it is none the less true that between them and the non-sentient world there exists a profound difference of nature which we are bound to consider in our treatment of them. The very essence of the moral law is that we respect and obey the order established by the Creator. Now, the animal is a nobler manifestation of His power and goodness than the lower forms of material existence. In imparting to the brute creation a sentient nature capable of suffering — a nature which the animal shares in common with ourselves — God placed on our dominion over them a restriction which does not exist with regard to our dominion over the non-sentient world. We are bound to act towards them in a manner conformable to their nature. We may lawfully use them for our reasonable wants and welfare, even though such employment of them necessarily inflicts pain upon them. But the wanton infliction of pain is not the satisfaction of any reasonable need, and, being an outrage against the Divinely established order, is therefore sinful. This principle, by which, at least in the abstract, we may solve the problem of the lawfulness of vivisection and other cognate questions, is tersely put by Zigliara:

The service of man is the end appointed by the Creator for brute animals. When, therefore, man, with no reasonable purpose, treats the brute cruelly he does wrong, not because he violates the right of the brute, but because his action conflicts with the order and the design of the Creator (Philosophia Moralis, 9th ed., Rome, p. 136).

With more feeling, but with no less exactness, the late Cardinal Manning expressed the same doctrine:

It is perfectly true that obligations and duties are between moral persons, and therefore the lower animals are not susceptible of the moral obligations which we owe to one another; but we owe a seven-fold obligation to the Creator of those animals. Our obligation and moral duty is to Him who made them and if we wish to know the limit and the broad outline of our obligation, I say at once it is His nature and His perfections, and among these perfections one is, most profoundly, that of Eternal Mercy. And therefore, although a poor mule or a poor horse is not, indeed, a moral person, yet the Lord and Maker of the mule is the highest Lawgiver, and His nature is a law unto Himself. And in giving a dominion over His creatures to man, He gave it subject to the condition that it should be used in conformity to His perfections which is His own law, and therefore our law (The Zoophilist, London, 1 April, 1887).

While Catholic ethical doctrine insists upon the merciful treatment of animals, it does not place kindness towards them on the same plane of duty as benevolence towards our fellow-men. Nor does it approve of unduly magnifying, to the neglect of higher duties, our obligations concerning animals. Excessive fondness for them is no sure index of moral worth; it may be carried to un-Christian excess; and it can coexist with grave laxity in far more important matters. There are many imitators of Schopenhauer, who loved his dog and hated his kind.


About this page

APA citation. Fox, J. (1908). Cruelty to Animals. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04542a.htm

MLA citation. Fox, James. "Cruelty to Animals." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04542a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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