Animals and Laudato si’

Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recently, I asked on Reddit if anyone was aware of notable Christians who had seen Christ, in some sense, in animals. I knew of two examples: the contemporary Franciscan Richard Rohr and the 14th-century mystic Margery Kempe. To my surprise, an anonymous commenter said Pope Francis was another. I thought this was going to be a somewhat fringe phenomenon, but apparently not.

The commenter pointed me in the direction of the pope’s second encyclical. Sure enough, at the end of Laudato si’, the head of the Catholic Church offered a devotion called A Christian Prayer in Union with Creation. I’m fairly ignorant of theological debates, but this strikes me as a remarkable text. Let me quote the most relevant portion of the prayer:

Son of God, Jesus,
through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
you became part of this earth,
and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature
in your risen glory.
Praise be to you!

The Pope seems to be endorsing a panentheistic conception of God, in which animals aren’t merely created by the divine, they’re filled with the divine to some extent. Again, I don’t know much about theology, but this view appears to be far more common in Hinduism than Christianity. It opens up a lot of anti-speciesist possibilities.

For instance, if we truly accept the Risen Christ is in every creature, what does that mean? I prefer the Universal Christ concept, but the point remains the same. How must we remake society if Christ is in the chicken killed for meat, the rat tortured for science, the deer shot for sport, the elephant caged for entertainment, or the cow slaughtered for clothing?

At this point, I imagine the pope would say he wasn’t calling for anything so radical as animal liberation. He likely just wanted more benevolent forms of exploitation. But why stop there? If Christ, in some sense, experiences the suffering of more than a trillion aquatic and land animals we kill every year for food, surely we must do something about it.

Even if we could somehow kill animals without making them suffer, a practical impossibility, isn’t ignoring their desire to live a diminishment of God? Isn’t ignoring their desire for freedom a similar diminishment of the Christ within them? Obviously, there are some pragmatic exceptions to this. I don’t think existing domesticated animals would benefit from being released into the wild, for instance.

Similarly, I believe you can justify the initial biopsy that cultivated meat requires, based on the untold number of animals the technology could save. But that’s a concession to a fallen world, to use Christian language. It’s a comparatively minor intervention done in the service of animals. I don’t think you can reasonably say the same about most of the ways we use nonhumans.

All that said, suppose we interpreted Pope Francis’ prayer in a more conservative manner, like he intended. Wouldn’t that still entail significant reform? I don’t see how it couldn’t, given the barbaric way we treat our fellow creatures. We should encourage Christians to see Christ in animals.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at