The Other Saint Francis

La Vierge en gloire avec saint Laurent et saint François de Paule The Immaculate Conception with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis of Paola. Image Source: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo – Own work, Ji-Elle – CC BY-SA 3.0

There are a lot of Christian luminaries who were sympathetic to animal suffering I’d like to learn more about. But perhaps none is more interesting to me right now than Saint Francis of Paola. Named after the more famous Saint Francis of Assisi, this Italian friar lived over 90 years, from 1416 to 1507.

He was the founder of the Order of the Minims, which still exists today. In addition to taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, members were required to observe a permanent Lenten fast, which meant abstaining from meat, eggs, and dairy products. Aside from wearing a wool habit, they seem to have essentially been vegan.

I’ve noticed within the mainstream Christian tradition, vegetarians typically ascribe their motivations to asceticism or health concerns. For instance, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, abstained from meat, abhorred animal cruelty, and believed our fellow creatures would join us in the afterlife. And, yet, he was defensive when questioned about his diet.

In a letter to the Bishop of London, Wesley assured the clergyman he didn’t believe Christianity required vegetarianism and abstained from flesh only for health reasons. Wesley noted he had even returned to meat-eating for a number of years to prove it wasn’t a matter of conscience for him.

Similarly, most sources seem to describe the diet of Saint Francis of Paola, and that of the order he founded, as an example of asceticism. Perhaps, this was the case. But some of the most popular legends surrounding the Christian luminary suggest his near veganism could have been motivated by an opposition to interspecies violence.

For instance, in one story, Saint Francis of Paola raised his pet lamb from the dead, who was killed and eaten by workmen. In another, he raised his pet fish from the dead, who was killed and eaten by a priest. Surely these legends say something about the saint’s views of animals, or at least a popular understanding of them?

And yet, as I’ve said, Saint Francis of Paola’s diet generally isn’t described as an ethical choice. Maybe it wasn’t. But the consistent refusal of mainstream Christian vegetarians or their orthodox biographers to acknowledge such motivation is notable, if unsurprising. To do so would implicitly criticize Jesus of Nazareth as falling short of a moral ideal.

I’m attracted to various elements of Christianity and Hinduism, but more than anything else, I’m a perennialist. For me, the best way to know whether a religious belief is true is whether it makes you a better person. If a belief makes you more compassionate and loving, it might not be literally or wholly true, but there is some element of truth to it.

In contrast, a belief that makes you less compassionate and loving must be false in some way. This comes to mind when I think about those who object to ethical vegetarianism or veganism because it conflicts with Christian orthodoxy. In other words, if believing Jesus was God and ate meat makes you less caring, than your theology needs some work.

Unfortunately, there appears to be only one English-language biography of Saint Francis of Paola. Written by Gino J. Simi and Mario M. Segreti, St. Francis of Paola: God’s Miracle Worker Supreme was originally published in 1977. It seems to be out of print now. Hopefully, I can get my hands on a used copy in the near future.

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