Pope Francis chose to honor St. Francis of Assisi by his choice of name, but it has become clear that His Holiness didn't just want to pay homage to the humble saint; he wants the faithful to emulate him.
In his first homily as Pope, the Holy Father discussed God's command to protect the vulnerable, and he specifically and explicitly extended his call to compassion beyond humanity to "each of God's creatures." Such a sentiment is explicitly in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals.
As this first Advent of Francis' papacy is upon us, I would like to suggest a book for this time of preparation and contemplation that honors the spirit of our new Pope: For Love of Animals, by Fordham theology professor and Christian ethicist Charles Camosy. The book examines the faith basis of concerns for animals and puts together an expertly-crafted argument that ties concern for animals to the longstanding Christian preferential option for the unconsidered and reviled in our communities.
And in a particularly fortuitous although not surprising twist, the book is published by Franciscan Media.
Although important and noteworthy that Pope Francis' first homily was so overtly pro-creation and pro-animal, Prof. Camosy reminds us that the sentiments expressed by His Holiness go back in our tradition to the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Garden of Eden which was peacefully vegetarian, through to the eschaton visions of complete nonviolence foreseen by the prophets.
Camosy reminds us that John Paul II declared that other animals have souls, and that "It is my hope that the inspiration of St. Francis will ... remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over [animals and the environment] with care." Benedict XVI went even further, stating that "animals, [like humans], are God's creatures." Benedict explicitly denounced as unchristian and anti-Biblical the "degrading of living creatures to a commodity," specifically singling out battery cages, which confine 95 percent of our nation's egg-laying hens.
We should not be surprised to find such strong statements from the heir of St. Peter, Camosy explains. After all, the Catholic Catechism declares that the "Word of God and his Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature," not just human beings. It also pronounces that "Animals are God's creatures ... We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals ... It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly."
After the thorough review of Biblical and Church teachings, Camosy sums up his argument by suggesting that animals are "a vulnerable population that has been pushed to the margins of our culture and society. Those of us who follow the example of Jesus Christ, therefore, should give them special moral consideration and attention."
Prof. Camosy acknowledges that taking the call to compassion seriously will require a change in behavior for most Christians, since the area of greatest interaction with animals for most Christians "is when we eat them." Prof. Camosy goes into mercifully brief detail regarding how farm animals are treated, summing up with the fact that sadly "the logic of profit and consumerism has taken over completely."
Prof. Camosy's book is engaging and fast-paced, but most critically, it's written with the view toward discussion that comes, I suspect, both from being a university professor, which entails stimulating one's students to think critically about the covered material, and a Catholic theologian, which entails encouraging people of faith to engage meaningfully with Church doctrine.
For this Advent, the first Advent of the first Pope to take the name of the patron saint of animals, we could do no better than to prepare for the celebration of Christ's birth by prayerfully contemplating how humans interact with the rest of God's creatures.
For that reflection, we will find no better guide than Prof. Charles Camosy's engaging book.