And he could have taught Buddhists a thing or two about respect for animals

As today is the special feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and thus my name day, I thought I would add a little to my recent blog on the relationship between human beings and animals.

In his post in response to this blog, M Forrestal was quite right to draw my attention to Catholic teaching on the status of animals in relation to God’s created order. I did not wish to disparage the animal kingdom in any way, merely to attack what I see as a false sentimentality about animals, allied to indifference to nascent human life. Forrestal is right to say that Catholics cannot have it both ways: if we want respect to be shown to pre-born human life, we should also recognise that modern animal husbandry has had a wretched record regarding the treatment of animals intended for human consumption.

St Francis of Assisi would have abhorred factory farming or, indeed, all cruelty towards animals. There is an excellent little CTS booklet about him, in the series Great Saints, which says intriguingly: “It seemed that in [Francis’s] own person he had already reunited a creation, damaged by the Fall, in its pristine union with God and with men. Wild creatures came tamely to him…”

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Ah yes, the Fall. It is a central tenet of Christian doctrine that because of the Fall the previous harmony between God and his creation was broken: not just between man and God and man and man, but between man and animals and man and the environment. The results of this are all around us. I certainly believe all the lovely “Fioretti” that have gathered around the person of St Francis: his preaching to the birds, his taming of the wolf of Gubbio and so on. If you are in such close communion with Christ as he was, nothing is impossible. (And you don’t have to watch a film like The Horse Whisperer to know that certain people have a particular “gift” in relation to animals.)

Forrestal’s post adds that Buddhists have much to teach us Catholics about respect towards animals. They would have had nothing to teach St Francis. And he could have shown Eastern faiths that their reverence for living creatures – Jains even carry little brushes so as to sweep the pavement before them in order not to crush insects – is simply a reflection of the respect and worship we give to God himself. Deborah Jones, general secretary of Catholic Concern for Animals and fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, has written widely on this topic; for those who are interested, her most recent publication is The School of Compassion: A Roman Catholic theology of animals, published by Gracewing.

Last thoughts about St Francis: in case the secularist mafia thinks he is simply a concoction of medieval superstitious Catholic nonsense, I would like to point out other aspects of his life, not just his deep affinity with animals and birds. He is not called “the little poor man” for nothing: our “greed, grab it and run” economy of recent decades would have appalled him. And his response to Islam was classic Christian love: he met with the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, ruler in those days of Egypt, Syria and Palestine and, as the CTS booklet says, “so on fire and joyous with the love of God [he] declared he had come to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to save the Sultan’s soul…”

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