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Deacon Kyle Eller: Loving animals — and all creation — the way God calls us to

Pope Francis really touched a nerve recently when he criticized people using dogs and cats to take the place of children and encouraged them to think about taking the “risk” of becoming parents. The number of non-Catholic pundits weighing in on the question and the Catholic understanding of human nature and marriage that are bound up with his statement was really striking. 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Even though much of the response was unjustly hostile, I think the fact that he hit a nerve was probably good, in that it got people asking these questions of themselves. It felt like the kind of anger where people deep down recognize someone has spoken an unwelcome truth. 

Still, at first glance, it may seem odd that these remarks came from a pope who deliberately took the name Francis in honor of that noted animal lover St. Francis of Assisi and whose second encyclical, “Laudato Si,’” has a title derived from St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures” and waxes poetic on the saint’s love of all creation and even the smallest animals. 

But I see no contradiction there. In fact, both things seem to me part of what he was talking about in “Laudato Si’” when he referred to an “integral ecology” and corrected the “excessive anthropocentrism” that stands in its way. 

At one point he writes: “This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118). 

Part of that adequate anthropology is motherhood and fatherhood. 

Critics of “Laudato Si’” sometimes treated its teaching as solely a matter of politics and personal opinion in service to a “politically correct” cause, but I think they missed how inherently doctrinal many of the topics it treats are. What is the human person? What is creation? What is humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation — to the land, the soil, the trees, the animals, the seas? 

These are doctrinal questions, with answers thoroughly rooted in natural theology and especially in divine revelation, in the Bible going all the way back to the first chapter of Genesis. It’s not just St. Francis who sings long hymns about the beauty of creation giving glory to God, it’s inspired Scripture too. For instance, those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours cannot but be familiar with the long, litany-like canticle from the Book of Daniel that we pray on many Sundays and feast days, noting how the mountains and hills, the seas and rivers, the birds, the fish, even the weather bless the Lord, alongside the angels and the human race and God’s chosen people. 

Another Francis, St. Francis de Sales, can stand in for many great saints throughout the ages who also drew images from nature to expound on the glories of God. 

And indeed we can draw from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which speaks of these things as a moral matter under the Seventh Commandment. In paragraphs 2415-2418, we are told that man’s dominion over creation is limited by moral norms and “requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” It tells us men owe kindness to animals which are God’s creatures and bless God and give him glory. 

And, to come back to where we started, similar to Pope Francis’s remarks on “dog parents,” the Catechism says: “One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” 

As I write this, snow is falling outside my window and only a few days ago our temperatures were struggling to get above zero (“cold and chill, bless the Lord!”). But already I see buds on the trees, and soon we will emerge from deep winter. Soon open ground will be visible around the trees, and then the melt will begin in earnest and the miracle of creation will begin to awaken in all its green splendor. 

We should love it more, even as we strive to love it in a rightly ordered way. 

Minnesota has been embroiled in one controversy after another involving environmental issues — pipelines and mining projects and more — probing where the line is drawn between responsible stewardship that respects the integrity of creation and serves the common good on one hand and an “excessive anthropocentrism” that sees only resources to be used for short term prosperity no matter the long-term harm to the common good on the other. 

I can’t pretend to have perfect answers to those complicated questions. 

But I do have a strong sense that collectively we don’t take the doctrinal and moral questions on these things seriously enough. We’re too quick to dismiss these things as “prudential judgment” or matters of little importance. 

As Pope Francis notes, these things are all connected. 

Perhaps one step we can take as we eagerly await springtime is to see creation as the saints have seen it and as Scripture sees it, to see in its beauty, in all its creatures great and small, sometimes immensely powerful, sometimes unfathomably delicate and fragile, always intricately interwoven, a glimpse of the one who is its author, which is in turn the source of its dignity. 

May this gaze in turn teach us to love and help us to answer the difficult controversies that confront us. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].