LAST UPDATED: 24 February 2020
A refreshing humility and willingness to speak out on key areas of concern has become the hallmark of Pope Francis — who in 2013 took the name of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. So it's no surprise that in his recent encyclical (one of the Church's most authoritative teaching documents — addressed to the World's billion-odd Catholics) the Pope has called on his followers to be more compassionate. But he has done more than that.
In recognising that our treatment of animals and the environment reflects our treatment of each other, he is using his position to appeal for change beyond the influence of the Church: “I wish to address every person on this planet.”
And he's not mincing words. When it comes to climate change, Pope Francis is scathing of our recent history and warns that humanity is now reaching a “breaking point”. And when it comes to animals, he is equally forthright:
It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. #LaudatoSi— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 19, 2015
When today, the vast majority of animals raised into human care — billions worldwide — endure the human-made horrors of factory farms and slaughterhouses, Pope Francis’ message couldn’t be more potent. And when the figurehead of one of the world's most conservative institutions warns that we need to be more progressive on animal protection — we've reached a defining moment in history.
A warning: the routine treatment of animals depicted in this article — although completely legal and sanctioned by our (often Catholic) political leaders — may be confronting.
In an increasingly anthropocentric world, Pope Francis wants to remind us that “Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself ... we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes...”
The Pope's call for mercy perhaps highlights most poignantly the plight of animals suffering the inhumanity of industrial farming and slaughter — literally valued only for what their bodies can produce.
In his heartfelt missive, the Pope warns of the dangers of unbridled consumerism, lamenting that humanity's "reckless" behaviour has pushed the planet to a perilous extreme — putting the environment at risk through pollution and climate change.
He then goes on to confront head on the 'dominion' debate, which has long been conveniently misinterpreted by those vested in cruel practices. Pope Francis clearly outlines the crucial difference between 'dominion', meaning care of or responsibility for, and 'domination'; setting the record straight about how we should treat those who share "our common home":
The Pontiff also remarks on the fact that any tolerance for cruelty to animals reflects on our tolerance for violence toward human beings — an observation which is supported by a wealth of evidence.
Pope Francis further suggests that our treatment of animals not only impacts our relationship with others — it is a reflection on ourselves. And that our care for the environment is also intimately connected to our care for each other — and we are failing miserably at both.
"We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social," Francis writes, "but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental". In his eyes, to save the planet is to save ourselves, in more ways than one.
The Pope's warning is direct and frank. He also illuminates one way forward.
“When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.”
When it comes to the world's #1 cause of cruelty — factory farming — this observation couldn't be more on-point. A rise in awareness and concern for animals is driving a global consumer movement that is already starting to force profound changes for animals.
Although animal-abusing industries have developed ever-crueller systems to confine and exploit animals, the rise in public awareness and the rate of positive change has also never been greater. Major retailers, global food giants and fast food companies are all being forced to respond.
We may have unwittingly inherited a paradigm of animal exploitation that treats living beings like commodities. We may be stuck with political leaders who prioritise economic growth at all costs. But clearly, compassionate citizens, and now the Western world's most influential religious figure, are united in calling for much needed positive change.
We can only pray that those who most need to hear this message — for the animals, and for our own sakes — are ready and willing to listen.
But while we wait for lawmakers to recognise our duty of care to those we share this planet with — regardless of what our political or religious viewpoints might be — one thing we can all agree on is that we can each take steps toward a kinder, more just society, by leading kinder, more compassionate lives.
Amen to that.