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Proverbs 12:10 "The just regardeth the lives of his beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel"

Catholics and
the Animal World

"But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee: and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee.
Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee: and the fishes of the sea shall tell." -- Job 12:7-8



It is fascinating to ponder the order of Creation. On the first three days, God divided things up -- light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below, and then water from land. On the next three days, He gave specific form to the things separated out, and populated the things which had been separated. First He gave form to light by creating the Sun, Moon, and stars. Then He filled the firmament (the waters above) with birds and filled the waters below with fish. And on the sixth day, He created man and the other animals (henceforth simply "animals") together, with man capping His work:
Genesis 1:24-31
And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth, according to their kinds. And it was so done. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and every thing that creepeth on the earth after its kind. And God saw that it was good.

And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth. And God said: Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed upon the earth, and all trees that have in themselves seed of their own kind, to be your meat: And to all beasts of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to all that move upon the earth, and wherein there is life, that they may have to feed upon.

And it was so done. And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.

Man and land animals were created on the same day, and the second Creation account, in Genesis 2, reveals further that both man and animals were formed from earth, a humbling truth illustrated in the rather creepy medieval illumination that follows these relevant verses:

Genesis 2:7, 19
And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul...And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.


Animals and Man Emerging from the Earth

Man and animal -- both formed on the same day from the earth, both sensate, living beings with souls, both capable of pleasure and suffering. Man and animal, of the same genus -- but of different species. What is it that separates us? According to St. Thomas, it is what the image above doesn't show but what he explains in his Summa Theologica:

...the souls of brutes are produced by some power of the body; whereas the human soul is produced by God. To signify this it is written as to other animals: "Let the earth bring forth the living soul" (Genesis 1:24): while of man it is written (Genesis 2:7) that "He breathed into his face the breath of life."

While the bodies of man and other animals are formed from the earth, man is made in the image of God by virtue of his intellectual or rational soul which is created by God; animals' souls are generated. Man's destiny is to share in the Divine Nature if he restores his likeness to God, by grace, through belief, penance, and obedience (or if God otherwise deigns to save him if he is invincibly ignorant and of good will). St. Basil the Great (d. 379), another Doctor of the Church, writes poetically of this in the Ninth Sermon of his "On the Hexaemeron" (link to full text below):

Cattle are terrestrial and bent towards the earth. Man, a celestial growth, rises superior to them as much by the mould of his bodily conformation as by the dignity of his soul. What is the form of quadrupeds? Their head is bent towards the earth and looks towards their belly, and only pursues their belly's good. Thy head, O man! is turned towards heaven; thy eyes look up.

Because of this difference in the natures of the souls of men and animals, it is wrong to speak of animals having "rights" -- i.e., a moral or legal authority to possess, control or claim something as one's own and which entails corresponding duties to respect the rights of others, a duty incumbent on those with intellectual souls. But among the moral duties of man, however, is the proper treatment of animals, a charity which, like all true charity, has its origins and end in God. In other words, if we love God, we will love His creatures and never cause them to needlessly suffer. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it well:

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.

And (my emphasis):

But it is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged, Catholic doctrine -- though it does not concede rights to the brute creation -- denounces 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.

"The just regardeth the lives of his beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel," Proverbs 12:10 tells us, but it doesn't follow that animals weren't put here on earth for the good of man and in a role subject to him. Psalm 8:6-10 reads:

Thou hast made him [man] a little less than the angels, Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour: And hast set him over the works of Thy hands. Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover the beasts also of the fields. The birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea. O Lord our Lord, how admirable is Thy name in all the earth!

In our position as stewards over the Lord's creation, it has even been allowed to us to use animals for food, as Genesis 9:3 reveals:

And every thing that moveth and liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herbs have I delivered them all to you...

When used for food, though, the well-being and contentment of the animals should be guarded while they live, and any means of their necessary deaths should be as quick and painless as possible. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles III-112, gives reasons for this even aside from concern for the animal itself:

Wherever in Holy Scripture there are found prohibitions of cruelty to dumb animals, as in the prohibition of killing the mother-bird with the young (Deut. xxii, 6, 7), the object of such prohibition is either to turn man's mind away from practising cruelty on his fellow-men, lest from practising cruelties on dumb animals one should go on further to do the like to men, or because harm done to animals turns to the temporal loss of man, either of the author of the harm or of some other; or for some ulterior meaning, as the Apostle (1 Cor. ix, 9) expounds the precept of not muzzling the treading ox.

Needless cruelty to animals can condition us against to treat our fellow man harshly, and it is so that one who would deal with an animal without regard for the creature's contentment and capacity for suffering tends to be the same sort who has little sympathy for his neighbor. Indeed, cruelty to animals (along with intentional, destructive fire-starting and enuresis) is seen by forensic psychologists as one of a classic triad of behaviors that indicate sociopathy and foreshadow murder.

But as anyone who's ever loved an animal knows, there is more to animals than our using them as a food source, and there is much more to our dealings with them than not causing them needless suffering in that pursuit. St. John of Damascus (b. ca. 676) writes in his "An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith," Book II (my emphasis):

All [animals], indeed, are for the seasonable use of man: but of them some are for food, such as stags, sheep, deer, and such like: others for service such as camels, oxen, horses, asses, and such like: and others for enjoyment, such as apes, and among birds, jays and parrots, and such like.

That sheer pleasure we take in animals, along with exploring God's wondrous use of animals in the lives of His Saints, and the moral lessons we can derive from the animal world are the deeper subjects of this page.

Animals as Friends, Teachers, Signs, Allegory,
and the Objects of Miracles

Job 12:7-8
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee:
and the birds of the air, and they shall tell thee.
Speak to the earth, and it shall answer thee:
and the fishes of the sea shall tell.

Let's begin this section with one of the most heartbreaking stories in Scripture, in II Kings 12:1-7 to be exact. 1 The prophet Nathan reproaches King David for his crimes of adultery and murder by telling him this story:

There were two men in one city, the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many sheep and oxen. But the poor man had nothing at all but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up, and which had grown up in his house together with his children, eating of his bread, and drinking of his cup, and sleeping in his bosom: and it was unto him as a daughter.
And when a certain stranger was come to the rich man, he spared to take of his own sheep and oxen, to make a feast for that stranger, who was come to him, but took the poor man's ewe, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

And David's anger being exceedingly kindled against that man, he said to Nathan: As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this is a child of death. He shall restore the ewe fourfold, because he did this thing, and had no pity.

And Nathan said to David: Thou art the man.

The slayer of Goliath, the great and masculine man who battled fiercely in defense of Israel, the man who'd just taken Bethsabee (Bathsheba) in an adulterous union and arranged the death of her husband -- mighty King David heard the story of this poor old man with the beloved little lambie, and he was moved. When it was pointed out to David that his recent actions were like those of the rich man who killed the poor man's lamb, he repented and fasted and prostrated himself on the ground.

This story is fascinating and revealing: note that it wasn't, in itself, the use of sheep for food that angered David, which is indicative of what was has already been said about the propriety of such a thing. What tore into David's heart wasn't that someone stole, or the fact that a poor man was deprived of the monetary value of a sheep. If that were the case, why the need for Nathan to tell David about how the lamb had grown up in the man's house with his children, and ate of his bread, drank of his cup, and slept in his bosom? No, it was the fact that the old man loved the lamb and that the lamb was "as a daughter" to him that affected David. The lamb wasn't just another beast -- a type of farm beast typically kept for food at that; no, the lamb was a friend. It had a name. It had a relationship with the man. And King David empathized with the poor man, his anger growing "exceedingly kindled" at the rich man who did not empathize, who "had no pity."

By reading such a story, even a person who's never had an animal as a friend (and I most certainly have3) can see that such relationships are nothing to mock. And how could one mock such a thing after hearing of the love St. Francis had for the animal world, even encouraging the giving of extra food to the animals on Christmas Eve, especially to "our sisters, the larks"?

Such a person can see, too, by reading medieval bestiaries and the works of Saints that the animal world is filled with lessons for us. Consider St. Basil's words, in the already-mentioned "On the Hexaemeron," about the creature so known for the natural virtue of loyalty that a common name given to it is "Fido" -- Latin for "Faithful":

Does not the gratitude of the dog shame all who are ungrateful to their benefactors? Many are said to have fallen dead by their murdered masters in lonely places. Others, when a crime has just been committed, have led those who were searching for the murderers, and have caused the criminals to be brought to justice. What will those say who, not content with not loving the Master who has created them and nourished them, have for their friends men whose mouth attacks the Lord, sitting at the same table with them, and, whilst partaking of their food, blaspheme Him who has given it to them?

Such a person can also read how animals are seen allegorically in Christendom, such as how the Aberdeen Bestiary describes the dove in such a lovely manner. First it tells us:

It has two wings, signifying the active and the contemplative life. At rest, it is covered by them; in flight, it is raised by them to heavenly things. We are in flight, when we are in a state of ecstasy. We are at rest when we are among our brothers in a sober state of mind...

...The dove has two wings, signifying love of one's neighbour and love of God. One is spread out in compassion to its neighbour, the other is raised in contemplation to God. From these wings spring feathers, that is, spiritual virtues. These feathers gleam with the brilliance of silver, since word of their renown has the sweet ring of silver to those who hear it.

Later it relates:

The dove produces a lament instead of a song, because anything it does with pleasure, it then bewails aloud. It lacks bile, that is, the bitterness born of anger. It likes to kiss because it delights in widespread peace. It flies in flocks because it likes communal life. It does not live by theft, because it takes nothing from its neighbour. It gathers better-quality grain, that is, better precepts. It does not feed on corpses, that is, on carnal desires. It nests in holes in rocks because it places its hope in Christ's Passion. It rests on flowing waters, so that by sighting the hawk's shadow it can avoid more swiftly the hawk's approach, as one studies the scriptures to avoid the plotting of the Devil, who comes without warning. It rears twin chicks, that is the love of God and the love of one's neighbour. Let anyone who has these qualities assume the wings of contemplation and with them fly to heaven.

Such a person can see how animals are often seen as signs, such as in the story of Pope St. Gregory the Great's trip to England as a missionary. While eating lunch and reading the Bible on the fourth day of his journey, a locust (locusta in Latin) landed on his copy of Sacred Scripture. Surprised by the bug, he said its name aloud -- and noticed the resemblance of its name to the phrase 'loco sta," meaning "stay where you are." He took this as a sign from God that he wasn't to leave Rome, and within an hour, a papal emissary showed up to ask him to return to the Eternal City.

And such a person can read about miracles involving animals in the lives of the Saints, such as St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio, St. Anthony preaching to the fishes, and so on.

What follows is a collection of writings that relate how animals can be friends, teachers, signs, and the objects of miracles.

See also elsewhere on this site: Chapters VII, VIII, and IX of "On the Hexaemeron" by St. Basil the Great off of The Book of Nature page; The Life of St. Paul the Hermit (off the Religious Life page of this site) to read about ravens feeding him and his friend St. Anthony, and about how two lions dug St. Paul's grave; the page on the Feast of St. Joseph in the Seasonal Customs sub-section to learn how the swallows return to Capistrano each year on that day; the Feast Days of St. Martha and Pope Saint Sylvester to read how they dealt with dragons; the page on St. Rita of Cascia to learn about the bees who visited her in her infancy; the page on Christmas nativity scenes to read about the ass and the ox at the manger, and how the tabby cat got its markings, etc. See also the page on Mary Gardens to learn about Catholics and the plant world.

Animals and Heaven

And now we come to the question every animal-lover wonders about: do animals go to Heaven?

The question rests on two more questions: are animal souls subsistent (do they exist in themselves and not in another), and, if not, could God restore them after death?

The answer given to the first question depends on whether one follows Plato or Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas chose Aristotle:

The ancient philosophers made no distinction between sense and intellect, and referred both a corporeal principle...Plato, however, drew a distinction between intellect and sense; yet he referred both to an incorporeal principle, maintaining that sensing, just as understanding, belongs to the soul as such. From this it follows that even the souls of brute animals are subsistent.

But Aristotle held that of the operations of the soul, understanding alone is performed without a corporeal organ.

On the other hand, sensation and the consequent operations of the sensitive soul are evidently accompanied with change in the body; thus in the act of vision, the pupil of the eye is affected by a reflection of color: and so with the other senses. Hence it is clear that the sensitive soul has no "per se" operation of its own, and that every operation of the sensitive soul belongs to the composite. Wherefore we conclude that as the souls of brute animals have no "per se" operations they are not subsistent. For the operation of anything follows the mode of its being.

In other words, according to St. Thomas, once an animal dies, its soul dies. This conclusion has led to the further conclusion that animals have no part of Heaven, as if God hasn't the power to restore them even if, indeed, Aristotle was right. But there is good reason to believe that at least one of the above premises is wrong: the omnipotence of God -- His power to do all that does not contradict His Divine Nature -- is a given. And listen to how Sacred Scripture describes the spiritual Kingdom of Christ:

Isaias 11:6-9
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them. The calf and the bear shall feed: their young ones shall rest together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp: and the weaned child shall thrust his hand into the den of the basilisk. They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill in all my holy mountain, for the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the covering waters of the sea.

Listen to how it describes God's desire for all of His creation:

Wisdom 1:13-14
For God made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living. For He created all things that they might be...

Consider the concern He has for even the smallest of His creatures:

Psalm 83:3-4
My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones: Thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.

Matthew 6:26-30
Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they? And which of you by taking thought, can add to his stature by one cubit? And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?

Luke 12:6
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?

It is clear that God can restore the souls of animals even if their souls are not subsistent, and the above indicates that He would, too. Peter Kreeft writes: 2

...remember that everything real and valuable on earth came from heaven to begin with. A cat is not merely evolved molecules in motion; it is a divine idea, a work of art, and a sign. It is a natural sign: it has something of what it signifies, and what it signifies is something heavenly; so there is something of heaven in a cat. And heaven does not die. God does not throw his artwork into the wastebasket; God does not make junk. All his work has eternal value. It passes through time and seems to pass away -- but it is in eternity.

King Solomon, known for his wisdom, seems to leave the question open --

Ecclesiastes 3:17-22
And I said in my heart: God shall judge both the just and the wicked, and then shall be the time of every thing. I said in my heart concerning the sons of men, that God would prove them, and shew them to be like beasts. Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one, and the condition of them both is equal: as man dieth, so they also die: all things breathe alike, and man hath nothing more than beast: all things are subject to vanity. And all things go to one place: of earth they were made, and into earth they return together. Who knoweth if the spirit of the children of Adam ascend upward, and if the spirit of the beasts descend downward?

-- but if you are mourning the loss of an animal friend, on this you can rely: God is good and merciful and Love itself. Trust Him with everything in your soul. He will not disappoint you. 4

1 Corinthians 2:7-9
...we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew; for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him.

Apocalypse 21:1-5
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and He will dwell with them. And they shall be His people; and God Himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And He that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.


Blessing of Animals

From the Roman Ritual comes this Blessing for Animals. This blessing can be offered for pets or livestock any time by a priest, but is frequently used on the Feast of St. Francis:

O Lord, God, King of Heaven and earth, eternal Word of the Father, through Whom all things were created and destined for our support, look mercifully upon our humble prayers. As Thou hast given Thy assistance in our labors and needs, so deign to bless these domestic animals with Thy heavenly blessing; through Thy kindness and mercy protect and preserve them; and together with this earthly help, grant us, Thy servants, Thy eternal grace, that Thy holy Name may be praised and glorified by our gratitude; Who livest and reignest with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.

1 II Samuel 12:1-7 in Bibles using the Masoretic numbering. 

2 Kreeft, Peter J. "Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing". Ignatius Press, 1989

3 Personal stories: Make of these stories what you will. When my Mom died, I was floored with grief. She and I were very close, and her death was experienced by me in a wrenchingly visceral way. On the day of her funeral, August 1, I was visiting the Italian side of my family, in "the old neighborhood," the same neighborhood where I found my very first pet, a tabby cat who became known as "Mamma Cat" and lived with me for two decades. The day of my Mother's funeral, I spotted a stray kitten who looked very much like that first cat I'd found when I was 2 years old. This new cat was very entertaining, very feisty, and ridiculous. When I first saw her, she was hunkered down, creeping along the edge of a curb in order to make herself look even smaller than she already was, slinking along the curb 'til she got to a place where a much older and larger cat was sitting on the sidewalk. When she got to where that big cat was, she sprang up toward him, arms askew to make herself look big and scary. The big cat just looked at her as if she were an annoyance. I laughed and laughed, even in the midst of my grief. I then go inside my Aunt's house and am sitting at her kitchen table when my cousin, Johnny, comes in with the kitty, whom he proceeded to plop onto my lap, with the words, "Here's your new cat!" And that she became. I named her "Marta" because my Mom died on the Feast of St. Martha.

Marta stuck to me like glue, perching on my shoulder like a parrot, sleeping with me every night, and generally just being a great friend. I came to truly believe that God and my Mom sent her to me to help me grieve.

Now flash forward 8 or so years. I moved to a different State, and after being there a few months, in mid-July, Marta -- who is an indoor cat --  went missing. I was devastated, and went into action, putting fliers in neighbors' mailboxes, hanging up signs, going out looking for her -- anything I could do, all to no avail. Then, for some reason -- and I have no idea why; I wasn't even thinking about what I was saying -- I told the person I was with, "If she comes back, she'll come back on August 1." The words were just there in my mouth. And they came out. Days go by. No sign of my beloved kitty-puss.

Then comes August 1. At 10:45pm, with one hour and fifteen minutes to go. I was asked what I wanted to do. My exact words in response were, "I want to look for Marta one last time." So we do. I grab a flashlight, open the front door, take a few steps out, and hear "mew?" And there she came around the corner of the house. I grabbed her, ran inside, literally fell to my knees, and thanked Jesus while sobbing in gratitude. She came back, as I'd predicted without thought, on the very anniversary of my finding her, seventy-five minutes before the deadline, which I took to be a sign that God is still looking out for me.

Another story: My maternal Grandma was dying from cancer at home and kept telling my Mom, her daughter, that she was seeing a squirrel outside her window. My Mom never saw this squirrel, so chalked up the sighting to the effects of morphine and thought little of it. The day after Grandma died, my Mom hears a tapping or scratching at her kitchen door. She opens up the inner door to see a squirrel sitting in front of the outer, security door. My Mom grabbed some snacks for the little guy, opens the second door, and instead of running off, the squirrel -- which she'd never seen before -- walked right up to her and took the food straight from her hand. Every day that Summer, the squirrel would come by for a visit, tapping on the door if it was closed. "Squiggley," as the squirrel came to be known, would sit with my Mom on her back porch, right next to her, keeping her company. My Mom believed, and I do as well, that God and Grandma sent Squiggley to her as a sign that, as St. Julian of Norwich said, "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

4 This is not Catholic teaching, but, as I understand things, it's an idea that isn't against Catholic teaching (if I thought it were, I wouldn't mention it): it might be possible that just as Christ redeems us, we "redeem" (as it were), by the grace of Christ, the animals we love -- i.e., perhaps animals in general aren't made for Heaven, but animals we name and love, who are our friends, are received into Heaven because God loves our love for them. Or maybe they're all allowed into Heaven, not, of course, as moral creatures who can partake of the Divine Nature, but as beloved creatures who were designed to be. Who knows? Whatever the case, trust in God's goodness and perfection, and you can't go wrong.

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