- Die Würde des Tieres ist unantastbar: Eine neue christliche Tierethik by Kurt Remele
The history of Christianity has hardly been one of concern for nonhuman animals (henceforth “animals”). That has much to do with the Old Testament claim that God has created humanity in his image and likeness and granted it dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:26), which has generally been taken to imply, perhaps most prominently by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the value of animals is merely instrumental. Accordingly, if there are any moral constraints in our interaction with animals, this is only because fellow human beings are indirectly affected. Animals in their own right have no moral standing.
In his new book, whose title translates as “The Dignity of the Animal Is Inviolable: A New Christian Animal Ethic,” Catholic theology professor Kurt Remele challenges his readers to look beyond the historically dominant view of animals as mere property and tools and makes a passionate plea to Christians and all people of good will to recognize that each individual animal has a value independent of the utility value he or she might have for us, and live accordingly. The view that animals have such intrinsic value has recently received an endorsement of unprecedented authority. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis explains that dominion does not include oppression and exploitation but “should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (sec. 116); “each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself” (sec. 140). Remele shows in fascinating detail that, while undoubtedly historic, the encyclical does not stand in isolation but is part of a long line of animal-friendly episodes that punctuate the Christian tradition—including saints who loved animals, such as St. Philip Neri, and Pope Francis’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi (pp. 126f.), Christian activists who were a driving force in the antivivisectionist and vegetarian movements in 19th-century England, and recent and contemporary theologians such as Johannes Ude, Anton Rotzetter, Eugen Drewerman, Andrew Linzey, and Rainer Hagencord (pp. 128ff.). Part of what makes the book important is that it sheds light on this not-well-enough-known side of the history of Christian thought, on which Remele then builds a new Christian animal ethic that further draws extensively from research in cognitive ethology, moral philosophy, and other religious traditions, particularly those of India.
Discussing the central text of the Christian faith, Remele argues against “uncritical Biblicism” (p. 59) and instead urges a critical interpretation of the Bible that carefully takes into account both its historical, social, and cultural context as well as the reality of the world we live in today. For example, he says that it would be a mistake to take the [End Page 113] sentence, “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you” (Genesis 9:3), as a divine sanction of meat-eating that is valid for all times and places. Rather, God here makes an exception for Noah, his family, and their near descendants in the context of the time shortly after the Flood, when plant-based food was rare (p. 60). That is why in the Garden of Eden and the eschatological Kingdom of God, where circumstances are different, the diet prescribed by God does not include “everything that lives and moves” but is instead a vegan one (Genesis 1:29–30; Isaiah 11:6–8). Given that, at least in most places, we today can easily live healthy lives without consuming meat or other animal products, there is no necessity that would prevent us from attempting, however imperfectly, to realize this aspect of heaven on earth (p. 65). If Jesus lived today, and knew about the horrors of factory farming and what we now know about animal sentience and cognition, he would be “a vegetarian or probably even a vegan” (p. 72), and so should we.
This “vegetarian/vegan imperative” (p. 148) is an implication of a more...