Our Food from God
Factory Farms & the Culture of Death
by Christopher Killheffer
Cardinal Newman, here in a Good Friday sermon, draws on a common and natural moral sense as a means of contemplating the mystery of our Savior’s Passion. Yet today many Christians—even those who think of themselves as serious or “orthodox” Christians—take the stance, more or less without thought, that the particular natural sensibility which “sickens us so much at cruelty to poor brutes” is one which ought to be mortified. The idea, or at least the implication, is that this sense is somehow illusory or false, that it is merely sentimental and therefore to be put aside. We assume that this natural sensitivity towards animal suffering must give way to an industrial progress that benefits mankind.
In practice, this attitude, whether it be justified or not, is the device by which Christians avoid the unpleasant thought of animal suffering—suffering which today exists in forms and on a scale unimaginable in Newman’s time. As a result many Christians, committed to indifference, remain ignorant of the suffering that is inflicted by the current system of agriculture and animal husbandry. This is a morally dangerous situation because the current agricultural system is one in which we all play a vital role. The industry responsible for inflicting the suffering exists only because of consumer support for it. The industry acts on our behalf; Christians will find no neutral ground. One must decide to support the system or to resist it.
The natural abhorrence of animal suffering, as a sentiment, is not sufficient, of course, to settle the matter. But then the notion that indifference must be maintained in support of industrial progress is no less a sentiment, and one which does not even have the advantage of being a natural one. We cannot rely on either of these sentiments alone to answer our question: Is there a justification for the current system based on Christian morality?
The ignorance of what happens on modern factory farms is widespread. The majority of the billions of animals raised and slaughtered in the United States are raised according to the new methods of “agribusiness,” methods developed and applied only during the last 50 or 60 years. The goal has been to increase productivity and profits by minimizing the need for the two things which had defined agriculture and animal husbandry for millennia: land and labor.
To this end, the raising of livestock—primarily pigs, chickens, and veal calves—was shifted from outdoor fields and pens to the darkened, mechanized interior of massive hangars. In these hangars, overcrowding and forced inactivity are the rule. Meat chickens are packed into these hangars to the standard of one 3.5-pound bird per square foot. Pigs are kept in small, stacked cages designed to severely restrict movement. Complete immobility is imposed on sows for long periods; for veal calves and egg-laying hens the forced immobility is for life. There is nothing in these hangars of the traditional associations of the barn: no hay, no bedding, no open space. Food and water are distributed mechanically. These conditions provoke behavior in animals that is unnatural; cannibalism, for example, is common among both chickens and pigs. In order to reduce the instances of cannibalism, producers remove teeth from pigs and burn all or part of the beaks off chickens.
This situation is very different from that of a man beating a dog in anger or out of a perverse desire to inflict suffering. Few Christians would hesitate to condemn such malicious behavior. The suffering caused on factory farms does not result directly from malice, but rather from depriving animals of the things that normal (either domesticated or wild) animal life requires.
The industrial system operates according to a notion that equates animals with machines or commodities, factory products which have needs only insofar as we would like to maximize efficiency in one aspect of their life for our benefit. It is acknowledged, for instance, that they have a need for food only because we wish them to put on weight. This notion is the premise behind the system and the root of all the suffering that it inflicts. Does this notion have a Christian basis?
Orders of Dominion
That mankind rightfully holds dominion over all creation, including animals, is a revealed truth based on man’s unique and exalted place in the terrestrial order. Scripture and Tradition bear witness to this truth, referring always to the original order of creation that is described in the first chapters of Genesis.
For our purposes, it is important to notice that the created order is not represented in Genesis as a simple scheme of man standing above a monotonous equality of other creatures. We see even in the structure of the days of creation that the world consists of different kinds or orders of creatures: an inanimate order, a vegetable order which grows and yields seed and fruit, an animal order which moves and has “the breath of life” (Gen. 1:30), and finally the human order, marked by its particular resemblance to God. We see that man is given a universal dominion, but that this dominion applies differently to the different kinds of creatures. In the first account of creation man is commanded to exercise dominion over all living things, but directly following this command he is bidden to eat things only of the vegetable order (Gen. 1:26–30). Eating is characteristic of his dominion only over plants, which are also given as food to animals, who are apparently vegetarian like man.
What shape mankind’s dominion over animals takes is unclear, but we see something more of it in the second account of creation. Here the difference between the vegetable and the animal is continued and enlarged. Again man is permitted to eat only the fruit of plants, and subsequently we find him giving names to the animals (Gen. 2:15–20). The significance in the Old Testament of names and naming as relating to identity and covenant is well known.
None of the animals is satisfactory as a companion to the man, in the way that the woman will be a companion; yet animals are nonetheless the creatures closest to mankind in nature and dignity. They were created on the same day as man, and like him they have the breath of life and are bidden to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22). They are something different and higher than plants, related closely to man though under his dominion. In giving names to the animals Adam recognizes the distinctness of their created natures and enters into a relationship with them as things certainly lower than his fellow and equal Eve, but things as certainly higher than the vegetable creation. In this account we see more clearly the original and absolute difference between the vegetable and the animal orders, and that mankind’s dominion consists partly in recognizing and establishing this difference, in defining through name the created dignity of animals over plants.
It is remarkable that man is not given permission to eat animals until the time of Noah, long after the fall has distorted his relationship to God and to all of creation. What can we make of this new allowance? It must be considered in light of the immense changes that have occurred in the created order as a result of the fall. The universal peace of Eden which God pronounced very good has now become “corrupt in God’s sight and . . . filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Corruption has so defaced the goodness of creation that God is determined “to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (Gen. 6:13). Even in this unhappy state we see the close relationship between mankind and animals, for it is only man and beast that are singled out for destruction (Gen. 6:7).
And again, we see that Noah, the righteous man, is chosen to preserve from the coming catastrophe not only humanity, but “every living thing of all flesh” (Gen. 6:19). We see in Noah’s mission something of mankind’s original benevolent dominion over animals, the ark becoming a last island of Eden-like peace in the chaos and violence of the fallen world. When the flood subsides, God makes an eternal covenant not just with Noah but also “with every living creature with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Gen. 9:10).
The Lifeblood of Animals
But the flood has not restored creation to its original peace; after it has passed we find the same corruption and violence which characterized the world beforehand. Specifically we see how the relationship between mankind and the animals has deteriorated: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth” (Gen. 9:2). It is in this fallen, disordered, and violent world, far removed from the original peace intended by God, that mankind is given leave to eat animals. And while this permission may appear to level the differences between plants and animals, it comes with an immediate and highly significant restriction: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its lifeblood” (Gen. 9:4).
The blood, which is the “life” or spirit of the animal, is the possession of God alone, and is not to be arrogated to men. In recognition of this, the blood of a slaughtered animal is to be offered ritually to God in sacrifice. The newly allowed act of killing and eating animals is justifiable and meaningful only within the context of sacrifice and worship of the Creator whose dominion, unlike man’s, is absolute.
This same restriction appears again in the Law of Moses, in which the stipulations surrounding the slaughter and eating of meat are elaborated and codified. In the Law the significance of offering the blood to the Creator as a sign of his ownership is even more clear:
The restriction against eating flesh with its blood does not appear, as so much does in the Law, in terms of ritual purity; rather it is the restriction by which man avoids laying claim to the “life” or spirit of the animal even while laying claim to its flesh.
Regarding our question, we can see two significant points in this fundamental restriction, one evident, the other strongly implied: first, that an act abnormal and abominable by the standards of Eden is made justifiable only by being taken up into the worship of God as an act of sacrifice and reparation; and second, that the specific nature of mankind’s original dominion over animals is not simply erased in this new dispensation. The restrictions and context—which are not necessary for killing and eating plants—keep man ever mindful of the absolute difference between plants and animals. There is something exceptional in eating an animal; it requires a sacred purpose. Animals are creatures of a higher order, to which man owes a greater responsibility.
We see this recognition also in the occasional but significant stipulations in the Mosaic Law which forbid specific cruelties against animals, the most notable of these being against the muzzling of an ox which treads the grain (Deut. 25:4).2 It is fitting for a man to put an ox to work for him; it is disordered for him to frustrate the ox’s natural tendencies, or to deny the animal any benefits of the work it performs. This law suggests that domestic animals are to be treated in some way as members of the community who are not to be excluded from the community’s prosperity.
That animals were to enjoy such consideration is perhaps more strongly suggested by the fact that they were included in the Sabbath day rest. Exodus 23:12 goes so far as to explain the purpose of the Sabbath in terms of giving rest specifically to animals and to the disenfranchised human beings of the community: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondsman, and the alien, may be refreshed.” And of course the Sabbath economy made room even for the wild beasts, as rightful claimants of gleanings from the fields (Ex. 23:10).
The Christian Options
So our question—is the current agricultural system justifiable by Christian moral standards?—would be easier to answer if we were living under the Law of the Old Covenant. The industrial system would be an obvious abomination. But all has changed with the coming of Jesus Christ. The meaning and justification for killing and eating animals becomes obsolete with the one Sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The un-bloody Sacrifice of the Eucharist replaces animal sacrifice; the Atonement and Redemption that were the necessary context of the old sacrifices is achieved definitively.
What ought the response of the disciple of Christ be to this change? What meaning can eating meat, a practice only of the fallen world, continue to have in a world redeemed? This is a difficult question that hinges upon the mystery of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that now is and yet which is still to come. In the light of this mystery two options have been possible for the Christian.
The first and most obvious option is vegetarianism. From the early years of the Church there have been those Christians who have considered it their duty to live in the original justice restored by Christ’s victory; that is, to realize the redemption in their own lives by behaving toward animals in accordance with the principles of Eden. We see examples in the desert fathers, in the many medieval saints of whom St. Francis is the best known, in later saints like St. Philip Neri and St. Martin de Porres, in the continuous tradition of many of the contemplative orders.
The second option is less simple, but equally legitimate. It is based on the truth that the kingdom of God has in some ways not fully arrived; certainly creation is not yet released from her bondage. The consequences of the fall still hold sway over this world, and it may be that among these consequences is a dominion over animals that includes eating them. While it is an aspect of man’s original and future glory to be in a purely benevolent dominion over animals, here and now that dominion may be unavoidably disordered, and so it is allowable for the Christian to continue to eat animals in this life. How can this be?
An analogy may be drawn with the relationship between husbands and wives. St. Paul speaks of the headship of husbands, and he draws this idea from the original relationship of man and woman (1 Cor. 11:3,8; Eph. 5:22). But he calls for obedience of wives to husbands, something we hear nothing of in their original relationship; it is only after the fall that God tells Eve that her husband shall rule over her. Though at times St. Paul speaks of an equality between men and women, he also clearly accepts the rule of husbands as still operative after Christ’s victory (Col. 3:18). He accepts it as an unavoidable reality of earthly life, but a reality that we are to transform by allowing God’s love into what could be a tyranny. To the husband he says: you are head of your wife; only be head as Christ is head of his Church (Eph. 5:25–33). A lamentable consequence of the fall becomes a high calling and an opportunity for charity.
In the same way the Christian freedom to eat animals has not been a license for tyranny. With the coming of Christ we were freed from the specific observances of the Law, but not from the principles which the Law had been meant to safeguard. All aspects of eating animals, though outside of the sacrifice, must continue to reverently acknowledge, first, the Creator’s ownership of his creatures, and secondly, the specific dignity of animals over that of plants and inanimate things. In practice these two principles are the same thing. “Each creature,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “possesses its own particular goodness and perfection . . . man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator.”3
In the Christian dispensation, simply treating animals as animals, not as human beings, not as plants, not as stones, has been an act of justice and of giving glory to the Creator. Over the course of 20 centuries, Christians who have eaten meat have found their justification in bringing this teaching to bear on their relationship to creatures, that is, in their raising, slaughtering, selling and eating of animals. In the absence of the Temple and the Law, the activities of daily life and labor took on great importance. Again the Catechism: “Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.”4
The earthly reality of properly ordered husbandry, which of course is not specific to Christendom but rather has been the norm of human dominion over animals for all places and all times, became itself the means of glorifying God and giving due respect to his creatures. This freedom has been exercised, with more or less success, by farmers and husbandmen and butchers and consumers throughout the Christian era, success defined by how well they animated that reality with the Spirit of Christ, by what extent they included the creating and redeeming God in their earthly work.
These are the two ways which the Christian dispensation has offered us, and it is not my concern to argue for one option over the other. My concern is with the distortion and demise of the second option, which has happened during the past 50 years. Considering again the current practice of the industrial system, we see that it is precisely the traditional principles of agriculture and animal husbandry that have been abandoned.
The premise of the industrial system is that an animal is not an animal, but a “bio-machine” or a commodity, something whose needs are not defined by its created nature but by the standards of mass production efficiency. The problem with this system is not that it denies to animals the personal liberties and rights proper only to human beings. The problem with this system is that it denies to animals the necessities of proper animal existence, which of course are quite modest: some space in which to move, some earth to scratch or root around in, natural daylight, natural food, some straw or other bedding.
The industrial system of raising animals is not disordered because it kills chickens; it is disordered because it first, from the very start of their lives, deprives chickens of their chicken-ness. Creatures God created for open air, earth, and sky, it forces into crowded steel cages stacked several levels high inside factory buildings. It causes immense suffering through the distortion of their created natures, thereby achieving exactly the opposite of what Adam achieved in naming the animals.
Rather than seeking to cooperate with the Creator in recognizing the distinctness of his creatures and stewarding them according to their specific natures, it seeks to transform their natures into a single pattern determined entirely by industrial efficiency. The warning of the Church echoes now as a condemnation: “Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator.” The factory farm’s torment and distortion of animals is nothing less than contempt for the God who created them.
Despite the commonly heard accusations of animal rights and environmental advocates, Christianity is not to be blamed for creating the industrial system of agriculture. It is not a development of Christian belief or an outgrowth of Christian culture. Christianity has not taught man to see the created world only in terms of utility. From Christianity, as well as by his very nature, man knows to be disgusted by this way of perverting and abusing animals.
Rather it is from the Enlightenment that he learned to put aside his natural and Christian sense of propriety and get on with the mastering of the universe. It is through the lens of rationalism that all life—including human life—becomes biological machine, and all things bow before the reason and will of a humanity which knows no judge or guide outside itself. “The very experiences of the dissecting room and the pathological laboratory,” writes C. S. Lewis, thinking of the twin evil of vivisection, “were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies was the first essential for progress.”5 The factory farm, indeed all of the technological and industrial destruction of creation, is part of the ongoing Enlightenment project of restructuring the world according to the vision of a deified human reason. “The victory of vivisection,” concludes Lewis, “marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law.”6
This “ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism,” which has given us the factory farm, is better known, thanks to John Paul II, by the name of “the culture of death.” And of course it is not surprising that the culture of death should seek to transform not only our marriages and families and arts, but also our labor and our meals. What is surprising is that Christians have reacted so indifferently to the growth and dominance of this cruel system, that they have without compunction benefited from its handouts, that they have even lent to it, if vaguely and illogically, the semblance of a Christian justification.
But there is a reason for the easy submission to this and all aspects of the culture of death: while it is relentlessly hostile to Christian culture, it is not openly hostile to the profession of Christian belief and the practice of Christian Liturgy. This monster, unlike fascism and communism, does not outlaw Mass, bomb churches, or gun down priests. But it has, like these others, sought to end the practice of Christianity in daily life, in our labors and pleasures, in our relationship to the earth and to other creatures, in the marketplace and on the farm. It has offered us one or two hours on Sunday mornings in exchange for the rest of our lives, and we have blithely accepted.
The modern Christian thinks to sanctify his work by being cheerful and obedient interiorly while with his body, his skill, his money he participates in the desecration of the world he was called to tend with reverence. We are left singing praise songs while we turn the cranks in Satan’s factories. “To be uninterested in economy,” Wendell Berry insists, “is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life?”7
This is a daunting question, but we are blessed that there are some immediate and practical answers before us. First, we must stop, today, buying any meat produced by the industrial system. Again we are blessed that this need not mean buying no meat at all. There are farms that continue to raise and slaughter animals according to the principles of the great tradition—the meat and eggs they sell are commonly advertised as “free range.” Some grocers may not offer free-range meat and eggs. Again we are blessed that we can easily convince grocers to stock free-range products simply by asking for them; we can and should create a demand.
It will be noticed that this meat is more expensive than factory meat. Of course it is more costly to raise and slaughter animals according to just principles, and these small producers are not subsidized by the government like the large industrial producers. But we may be tempted to disregard all this when we are in the market. This is the moment of decision: How serious will we have our Christianity be? We know of course that price and expediency are of no importance in deciding an ethical matter. We know this though it may mean eating less meat. For some of us without much money, it may mean eating meat about as often as most of humanity during almost all of history has eaten meat. It may mean, that is, eating meat as often as our Lord ate meat, rather than as often as did Herod or Pilate.
Bringing an end to the division between Christian belief and Christian practice is urgent not only because of the miserable plight in which billions of animals now find themselves, but also because the life and evangelization of the Church is crippled when a genuine Christian culture is submerged in the culture of death. Despite the warnings coming from the Church for more than a century we have not put aside our commitment to the luxuries of consumerism, including of course the luxury of cheap meat. This commitment is noticed by the very people we would seek to evangelize. Already much of the world, our own country not excluded, largely identifies Christianity with modern Western civilization and the global industrial economy.
Our resistance must be comprehensive: Every aspect of the culture of death that is left unchallenged is a confusion of the Church’s proclamation. Resistance means taking a stand against abortion and euthanasia, it means revitalizing the arts, it means protecting our families from disintegration, and it means working and living in justice toward all of God’s creation. If the new evangelization is to flourish, it will be from within an authentic and compelling Christian culture, where the voice of the Church takes flesh in our daily lives and choices.
1. Newman, John Henry. “The Crucifixion” (1842) in Parochial and Plain Sermons. 8 vols. (London: Rivingtons, 1868), vol. 7, pp. 136–137, quoted by James Gaffney, “Can Catholic morality make room for animals?” in Animals on the Agenda, ed. Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 100–112.
2. Some examples are Ex. 22:30; Lev. 22:27–28; Deut. 14:21, 22:1–4,6–7,10. Also notable is Prov. 12:10.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 339.
4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2427.
5. Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner Paperback [Simon and Schuster], 1996), p. 203.
6. Lewis, C. S. “Vivisection,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 224–228.
7. Berry, Wendell. “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993) pp. 99–100.
Christopher Killheffer was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1998, and since that time, he has been a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church, served by Dominican Friars, in New Haven, Connecticut. He works on a farm near New Haven.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.