After the new Pope was chosen last March and then took the name “Francis” – after Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals — I took a deep breath and dared to hope that this could be the pontiff who calls on all of his followers to show mercy and decency to all creatures. Until now, Francis hasn’t said much about animals, but his commitment to reform and his comments on so many important issues of the day are helping to make the Church more relevant than at any time in recent memory. Recently though, he reinvigorated the legacy of Saint Francis by telling a child grieving the loss of his pet dog that “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” It was front-page news in the New York Times, and his ideas are being noticed and discussed throughout the world.
The theological implications of Pope Francis’ comments aren’t yet clear. But as Dr. Jerry Root, a noted theologian and member of HSUS’s Faith Advisory Council, notes: “Without entering into the theological debate, Pope Francis’ comment reminds us how precious these creatures are and it underscores how important they are to God.”
That value – the preciousness of every animal life and our duty to care for them – is shared by almost all of the world’s faiths and belief systems. Hinduism teaches that the Divine exists in all living beings, including animals, and that we have a duty of ahimsa, or non-violence, that extends to all. Buddhism teaches that we should treat humans and animals with equal respect. Islam and Judaism too encourage the greatest consideration for non-human life. Our Faith Outreach Program reaches people of these faiths and so many others, to connect their faith values to their treatment of animals.
Pope Francis’ comments remind us that humane values run deep in Christianity, too. Our Faith Outreach Program recently posted a series of compelling videos about how faith drove the evangelical reformers C.S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, and Hannah Moore to fight against cruelty to animals. If you haven’t watched them yet, I encourage you to do so.
I’ve always been personally affected by a story in the Bible (Matthew 10:29) that tells us that not a sparrow falls without his Maker knowing. My wife and I created the Sparrow Fund, which cares for injured pets and wildlife when no one else is equipped to do so, in this spirit. You can support the Fund’s work here.
That spirit—that every life matters—is so directly at odds with the institutionalized abuse of animals in factory farms, puppy mills, and so many other spheres where animals are treating like objects or things. It is a notion that Pope Benedict, the previous Pope, once condemned as being at odds with creation care.
Pope Francis is not inventing a Christian concern for animals. Almost a millennium ago, Saint Francis is said to have preached to the birds and even blessed a wolf to show that God intended us to love all of creation. Pope Francis is modernizing and amplifying that concern, and gently building upon it. Pope John Paul II made clear years ago that “dominion” is a call for us to care for animals, not a license to abuse them. My friend Matthew Scully, a Catholic, wrote a beautiful book on the topic, Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Scully sums up well the thinking of defenders of animal abuse when he writes that “theirs is a dominion only of power, with them and not God at the center, all grandeur and no grace.”
Pope Francis’ comments may not instantly change how the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics treat animals. But it fortifies an emerging consensus in all faiths and traditions that all animals matter for their own sake. Here at The HSUS we share that value and are committed to championing it.