By Christina Matthies
By the time you read this, millions of Catholics (and indeed, people of all faiths) will have seen Pope Francis during his historic first-ever visit to the United States. The Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will have just passed. And the city of brotherly love will be preparing for an infusion of loving kindness when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visits in October.
Three very different traditions and yet at their core, the message is the same: To honor the holiness inherent in ourselves, we should strive always to choose empathy over self-interest, compassion over cruelty and being of service over being served. And as we learn more about the other animals who share the Earth with us—that they, too, communicate with one another and build complex relationships, mourn their dead, and can suffer from pain, fear and grief—we must not overlook our treatment of them as we try, again and again, to live up to these ideals.
As a Catholic, I hold tightly to my faith in God and know that He has watched over me and my family in our toughest moments, and as an animal rights advocate, I know He watches over all of us. So I was heartened when Pope Francis declared in his encyclical on caring for the environment, “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.'” I hope kind people will be inspired by his message and realize that we can care about and help both humans and other species at the same time. We don’t have to choose one over the other.
Although I express my faith through Catholicism, it is far from unique in asking us to extend our empathy to all beings. All the world’s great religions teach love and compassion for animals and even require those who are sincere in their faith to act with compassion in their dealings with animals.
The Buddhist text the Dhammapada teaches, “All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others.. Then whom can you hurt?” According to the Prophet Muhammad, “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.” The Jewish Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) reminds us that “a human being has no superiority over an animal” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).
So why do we continue to tear animals away from their families and homes and confine them to small cages or tanks for our archaic notions of entertainment? Why do we burn and blind them in cruel experiments even though astonishing non-animal research methods such as organs-on-chips supersede animal use? Why do we abuse and kill them for food and skins when vegan options are plentiful?
For animals, these are not merely rhetorical questions. Our answers have very real consequences for the orcas, elephants, pigs, chickens, rabbits, foxes, mice and so many others whom we exploit for our own ends. Mother pigs are smarter than our canine companions and love their precious babies as dearly as I love my two children. Rats giggle when they are tickled and will risk their own lives to save other rats. Crocodiles surf ocean waves for fun. Intelligent, complex orcas have their own language and customs that they pass on to their young. Fish live in complex social groups, develop cultural traditions, cooperate with one another and can even use tools. Their lives are as dear to them as ours are to us. The choices we make—about what to eat, what to wear, what to do for entertainment—matter.
If we say that we believe in love and compassion, that we believe the most fundamental teachings of the world’s great religions, then we must practice what we preach by avoiding choices that hurt animals. The message of kindness applies to all.
By Christina Matthies