A Word About Sparrows: Evangelizing the Animal Rights MovementHELEN M. VALOIS
Like all errors, the animal rights movement contains elements of truth. Like the feminists who represent themselves as opposed to rape, unequal wages, and (until recently) sexual harassment in the workplace, the animal rights activists lead with issues we can all agree on.
I was, spiritually speaking, loaded for bear. A young and zealous revert — that is, a cradle Catholic who wandered away only to find that there’s no place like home — I was anxious to test out my new apologetical acumen on someone in need of it. Who better, I figured, than my good friend and college roommate, who had wandered like me but hadn’t found her way home. So I decided to ask her directly why she had left the Church.
Knowing Lisa to be an ethical person of clean life (my friend isn’t really called Lisa, of course; the name has been changed to protect the apostasized), I knew her motive wasn’t immoral. I wasn’t dealing with someone simply rationalizing a decision to sin. As a dedicated intellectual, Lisa did live in the realm of ideas, so I suspected the underlying cause would be doctrinal. It was, but what it was, I wasn’t quite prepared for.
“Hit me with your best shot,” I was thinking after putting forth the six-million-dollar question. Is it the Immaculate Conception? Just wait until she gets an earful of Duns Scotus. Or maybe it’s the bodily Resurrection. A few facts about the Shroud of Turin ought to appeal to her scientific bent. How about the miracles Our Lord worked? Would I have to debunk the myth of demythologization? “It’s the sparrows,” Lisa said simply, as I was lining up all these arguments in my mind.
“The sparrows?” I stammered.
“Yeah. You know, that part of the Gospels where it says something about one human being being worth more than a whole bunch of sparrows. While this Jesus of yours seems like a good person in other respects, I just can’t accept this teaching. And if he could be wrong about something as so important, I am simply forced to reject the rest of the Christian worldview as well.”
So, one of my earliest stabs at participating in the “new evangelization” left me feeling deflated. Why wasn’t the theology of sparrowhood covered in any of the apologetics manuals I had been so gleefully devouring? Why would anyone feel compelled to take exception to Our Lord’s remarks on the subject of backyard birds? And why, just for good measure, did He pause to comment on so petty a matter in the first place?
Not for the birds
I have had cause to ponder these questions in the years since this conversation took place, and have found that they have very revealing answers. My friend’s viewpoint, far from being puzzling or idiosyncratic, is actually representative of a major school of thought in contemporary society — a school of thought quite actively inimical to Christianity. As we approach the third millennium with our Holy Father fervently enjoining us to evangelize the world anew, I offer a word about sparrows.
Lisa, as you have by now surmised, is a member of the animal rights movement. Her type usually gets one of two reactions: a pat on the head by those who see them as soft-hearted, soft-headed pet lovers, or a contemptuous wave of the hand by those who see them as fur-fighting, monkey-freeing crackpots. The animal rights movement, however, should be neither under nor overestimated. It’s a principled, growing cultural force deserving intellectual consideration and refutation.
Like all errors, the animal rights movement contains elements of truth. Who likes to hear of bunny rabbits having harsh chemicals put in their eyes, or of helpless baby seals being clubbed to death by greedy fur traders, or of downcast horses left unattended in their stalls until they’re emaciated? Like the feminists who represent themselves as opposed to rape, unequal wages, and (until recently) sexual harassment in the workplace, the animal rights activists lead with issues we can all agree on. Indeed, the Catechism affirms, “Animals are God’s creatures . . . It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (nos. 2416, 2418).
We’re mistaken, however, if we imagine that it begins and ends here. If it did, why would Lisa feel she had to leave the Church? The root of the animal rights issue goes much deeper.
Why not feed them?
Atheistic evolutionism, not Christianity, informs the worldview from which this movement springs. This movement doesn’t see mankind as the pinnacle of creation, given dominion over the other creatures and charged to dispose of them properly. Instead, it imagines all life forms as the remote descendants of the amoebae that originally and inexplicably emerged from the primordial soup. In that case, it would be pretentious indeed for any one life form to use another. Speciesism is the charge lodged against those who hold, as the Catechism does, that “it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. . . . One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (nos. 2417-18). Lisa was basically calling Jesus a speciesist, then, for attaching special significance and value to the human animal. “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) co-director Ingrid Newkirk once declared.  Animal rightists like Lisa and Newkirk believe in the radical equality of all life forms.
Or, do they? Like the feminists who advance the radical equality of the genders only to end up championing abortion, the animal activists’ stance veils an incitement to violence. It turns out that some animals are more equal than others — more equal than the human animals, for example. “I don’t believe human beings have the ‘right to life.’ That’s a supremicist perversion,” Newkirk concludes. Animal rights theorist Peter Singer agrees. He is (in)famous for arguing that, since a pig may be more intelligent than a retarded child, it is all right to have an abortion but not to eat bacon. Personhood, for the atheistic evolutionist, isn’t bestowed by God but “reached” by certain life forms. Chickens are another species whom they think might have reached it, leading one commentator to quip that, in that case, the greatest mass murderer of all time wasn’t Adolph Hitler or Ghengis Khan, but Colonel Sanders. Still, the animal rights viewpoint is no laughing matter.
Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, for one, didn’t think so. “We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude toward these human animals,” he once said of the concentration camp internees. Contemporary animal rights activists agree with him about what a “decent attitude” consists of, at least as far as unwanted human animals are concerned.
I caught Lisa in this inconsistency. Raging against the practice of deer hunting, she declared,
“It’s not just! They say there are too many deer, but how many are ‘too many’? They say the deer will starve if they aren’t hunted, but why not feed them? It’s all a big excuse for the killing they want to do anyway!”
“I agree!” I said, adding, “and isn’t that just the same garbage they try to hand us about the unborn children?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, suddenly wary. But it was too late.
“I mean,” I went on placidly, “that they say the same things to justify abortion as well. There are too many human beings, but how many are ‘too many’? The children will starve if born, but why not feed them? It’s all just a big excuse for the killing they want to do anyway!”
“That’s totally different,” she snapped, and tried to change the subject.
Dog eat dog world
The “difference” alleged by the animal rights movement turns out to be a deep one indeed. In fact, the animal rights activists themselves are the ones who turn out to be “speciesist” — pro-every species except for man. Listen to any nature show, and hear how man is taking over the planet, disrupting other creatures’ lives, destroying the environment, and generally making a dangerous nuisance of himself (except, of course, for the handful of biologists responsible for the show). But if evolutionism is true, and life is one big struggle for existence in which the fittest rightly survive, then man is only doing what every red-blooded species ought to be doing. Is it his fault he happens to be doing it better?
The anti-man attitude extends all the way to the wish that our species be wiped from the face of the earth. “The planet will rid itself of this cancer,” declared the participants in a recent environmentalist gathering, approvingly. Never mind the fact that the extinction of any other species is regarded as an irrevocable loss. Without man, the biosphere would regain its pristine harmony, and life forms would live happily ever after. There are two very curious points about this scenario that we need to question.
First, without the intervention of man, is the natural world really so harmonious? The activists ask us to envision a sort of cosmic Mr. Rogers neighborhood, devoid of strife or suffering of any kind. Have they not been watching their own programs? In reality, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly admirable about the way the non-human species treat each other. Conniff offers as an example a graphic description of an elk’s encounter with a bear, which I will not here recount. He goes on to explain: “I mention these unseemly details to suggest that if people wish to think clearly about nature, the proper context was not Muffin the cat but an eviscerated elk calf. Nature is a slaughterhouse — vast, brutal, gory, and efficient.”  The lion may be destined to lie down with the lamb, but he sure as heck isn’t doing it yet. And if there is nothing ethically objectionable about a lion killing a lamb, what is ethically objectionable about a man killing a lamb, or a lion?
Genesis of problem
Which brings us to point number two. Man, the activists point out, kills in an unbalanced way, for sport. If he would kill naturally, to eat, as the other animals do, it would be all right. We’ll leave aside the fact that Muffin the cat seems to take more sport than necessary in arranging the demise of the mouse intended for dinner. We’ll leave aside the fact that some of the killing man does is much more humane than the “natural” method would be. We’ll stipulate that what the activists allege is really true: that man truly is an aberration in the natural world, affecting the environment and utilizing other species in a way no other known life form does or can do. But, why is man like this? Or more accurately, how could he be? I queried Lisa on this point in a conversation that went more or less like this:
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but your worldview holds that man is no special creation of God, and that the scriptural account of things is so much unscientific hogwash. Rather, all life is the result of a blind evolutionary process. Mankind happens to represent the most highly evolved species so far, but that’s all.
“And this same species has now gone haywire, endangering itself and all other life forms through its unnatural exploitation of the planet, which must be stopped.”
“Then can you tell me, please, how this most highly adapted of all species became so maladaptive?”
“If man is the most highly evolved, and evolution involves ever higher degrees of correspondence with one’s environment, how is it that man is now — as you attest — so much at odds with the environment? Either evolution produces maladapted creatures, or something went wrong somewhere along the line. Which is it?”
“Well, . . .”
“Scripture recounts that something that did go wrong. It’s called original sin. Due to this moral fault committed by man, the whole cosmos was thrown out of whack. Suffering and death entered the world, for man and for the other creatures as well. Enmity came between them. When Jesus Christ came to earth, it was precisely to correct this ongoing, intolerable problem of sin. His teaching is the source of man’s obligations toward himself and other creatures. But you reject all of this! You adhere to a worldview that can’t even account for the state of affairs it is trying to correct. You appeal to the ethical imperatives of a Savior you claim is discredited.”
That is about as far as I got before Lisa “rejected” this line of reasoning.
But there is no running away from the San Andreas Fault of all animal rights argumentation. Conniff captures it well:
How could animal liberationists argue on the one hand that humans were merely a part of nature, no better or worse than other animals, and on the other that our species alone was obliged to give up practices with which it has naturally evolved, like killing and eating animals and wearing their skins? How could they argue that humans have no inherent moral superiority, and at the same time argue that we have a high moral obligation to treat animals more humanely than they would treat us or each other? 
How can they urge us to behave like any other animal in nature, when “[i]f we were to follow its example, we would kill whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, by whatever means came in handy”?  The Nazis, believing themselves to be “blonde beasts” possessing the best gene pool on the planet, showed us how human beings act when “nature” rather than Christianity becomes the normative worldview. This worldview surely didn’t lead to the obliteration of suffering, which animal rights activists say they wish to foster.
The theology of sparrowhood that needs to be developed on the threshold of the third millennium must address all of this. We need this type of apologetics because the animal rights movement is leading souls like Lisa away from the one true Church. We also need it because this movement is fueling the ongoing holocaust of abortion, as it fueled the earlier holocaust under the swastika. As we build the “culture of life,” we must consciously extend it to the realm of non-personal creatures as well, with all due distinctions observed. The more we do this, the more we will alleviate the confusion of those whom the “animal rights” movement has claimed.
Valois, Helen M. “A Word About Sparrows: Evangelizing the Animal Rights Movement.” Lay Witness (September 1999).
Republished with permission of Lay Witness.
Copyright © 1999 Lay Witness.
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