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Question Corner: Interestingly, the Church has clear teachings on the ethical treatment of animals

Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: What is the church’s position on the treatment of animals? My vegetarian friend believes it is immoral to kill animals even for food. We recently hired an exterminator to eliminate rodents. This friend implied we should humanely capture them and release them, instead of killing them. This is not the company’s way, and it has not worked in the past. Is there a moral issue here, or just someone’s opinion?

A: The short answer to your question is that while we are morally obliged to treat animals decently and avoid animal cruelty, it is morally licit to kill animals for food or certain other legitimate purposes.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this issue in paragraph 2417: “God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.”

As we read in Genesis 1, God created everything that lives, including animals, and God’s creation is fundamentally good and worthy of respect. But unlike animals, human beings were created as rational beings (that is, capable of intellectual thought and abstract reasoning) endowed with free will. In this way, humanity was made in God’s image; and God has given us the honor of being “co-creators” with him in several respects.

As we read in Scripture: “God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth … God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth” (Gn 1:26, 28).

Among other things, God calls humanity to be stewards of his creation, which means that we are to actively care for creation and be concerned for the flourishing of even the nonhuman life around us. As the catechism notes: “Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness” (CCC 2416).

But at the same time, we believe that all of nonhuman creation is ultimately meant to serve humanity, which is why we are permitted to kill animals for food and to meet other reasonable needs. While a Catholic is certainly free to adopt a vegetarian diet — either out of concern for animal welfare or for other reasons — the Catholic Church does not teach that vegetarianism is required. So, a Catholic who argues that you should become a vegetarian is simply expressing an opinion.

With respect to your question about exterminating rodents, I think in principle this kind of pest control is morally licit. Rodents can cause some serious and troublesome issues when they infest a home, such as the potential for spreading disease or damaging the infrastructure of a house. Although pest control is not the scientific research mentioned in paragraph 2417, pest control can still be considered part of “caring for or saving human lives.”

If a “catch and release” system is not effective or practical in your specific situation, killing the rodents can be justified. Still, some means of rodent extermination are more humane than others. Since the catechism tells us that it is “contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer needlessly” (CCC 2418), it would be worth considering which specific methods of rodent extermination cause the least amount of suffering for the animal.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.