Normally Catholic theologians would be studying theology, but one group thinks that freeing an elephant from the zoo is a moral imperative.1
Free the Elephant!
A group of five Catholic theologians made common cause with the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) over the “solitary confinement” of a 50-year-old Asian elephant named Happy who resides at the Bronx Zoo. In December 2018, thanks to the NhRP, Happy became the first elephant to have a habeas corpus(unjust imprisonment) hearing in New York.
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The five Catholic theologians who are supporting the case are John Berkman, Ph.D. (University of Toronto); Charles Camosy, Ph.D. (Fordham University); Allison Covey, Ph.D. (Villanova University); Celia Deane-Drummond, Ph.D. (University of Notre Dame, University of Oxford); and Christopher Steck, SJ, Ph.D. (Georgetown University).
The theologians wrote a brief requesting the acceptance of the NhRP’s appeal. They say that “Happy is not a thing for us to confine, use, and put on display in a zoo (even in an attempt to produce a good outcome), but rather a particular kind of creature who God made to flourish in a particular way—a way some academics refer to as a telos. As we explain [in this brief], we believe Happy cannot flourish as this kind of creature while captive in the Bronx Zoo and that she would be significantly better able [to] become the kind of creature God made her to be in a sanctuary … Non-human animals belong to God, not to us. They are God’s creatures, not ours.”
Understanding Man’s Role Over Creation
While the theologians’ statement may cause some pity for the elephant, the whole case is flawed because it puts human beings and animals on the same level.
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Catholic social teaching emphasizes that there is a huge difference between man who is rational and has an immortal soul and an animal that lives according to its instincts.
From the beginning of creation, God gave Adam and his descendants charge over all creation, saying: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28).
Thus, God created animals to serve men, not to be served by men. The idea that animals are “God’s creatures, not ours” is absurd because God gave Adam and his descendants the right to rule over animals, albeit in a just way.
What Does the Catholic Church Say About Animals
Although animals do not have rights, the Church teaches that they should nonetheless be appropriately treated. Tommaso Maria Zigliara, a nineteenth-century cardinal and theologian, states that: “The service of man is the end appointed by the Creator for brute animals. When, therefore, man, with no reasonable purpose, treats the brute cruelly he does wrong, not because he violates the right of the brute, but because his action conflicts with the order and the design of the Creator.”
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Likewise, Cardinal Henry Manning observes that “we owe a seven-fold obligation to the Creator of those animals. And therefore, although a poor mule or a poor horse is not, indeed, a moral person, yet the Lord and Maker of the mule is the highest Lawgiver, and His nature is a law unto Himself. And in giving a dominion over His creatures to man, He gave it subject to the condition that it should be used in conformity to His perfections which is His own law, and therefore our law.2
Why Do Animals Have Human Rights But the Unborn Don’t?
This elephant human rights case illustrates the insanity of modern culture. The child in the womb has no rights, but an elephant in the zoo does.
This lawsuit is the result of a society that is no longer governed by the moral law. Once God and natural law are out of the picture, man easily and falls prey to errors. This will inevitably lead to laws based on emotions rather than upon the solid foundation of reason guided by faith.
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