Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine March-April 2010


One of the latest pamphlets to be published by the Catholic Truth Society is the intriguingly titled Concern for Animals. In its 50 short pages it carefully analyses the Catholic approach to the treatment of animals, from the evidence of Scripture and Church Tradition, right up to our own day in the pronouncements of Pope Benedict XVI. A helpful quotation comes from the pen of John Paul II, before he was Pope: "Since [animals] are beings endowed with feeling and sensitive to pain, man is required to ensure that the use of these creatures is never attended by suffering or torture." The pamphlet quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute" (n. 2415). It adds that "by[animals'] mere existence they bless [God] and give Him glory. Thus men owe them kindness" (n. 2416); and also that "it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly" (n. 2418).

However, more controversially, the pamphlet attests:

"To counter the notion that 'animals do not have souls,' Pope John Paul II declared in a public audience on 19 January 1990 that 'animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren'. He went on to state that all animals are the 'fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect' and that they are 'as near to God as men are'."

This citation and quotation, as well as the conclusions drawn from it, are acutely problematic. The words are at best a very rough translation and they convey a sense which is in tension with Church Tradition concerning the uniquely spiritual (non-physical) human soul. (In addition, the date given is wrong: the particular Wednesday General Audience in question was 10 January 1990).

Translating from the official Italian version on the Vatican website we see that the Pope actually stated: "Other texts, however, admit that animals too have a breath or vital spirit received from God. In this regard, man, coming from God's hands, appears in solidarity with all living beings" (n. 4). He was speaking of Psalm 104, which focuses upon the shared dignity of all living creatures. The Pope also affirms that "when Genesis chapter two speaks of the creation of the animals (Gen 2:19), it doesn't mention such a close relation with the breath of God" (n. 3).

Furthermore, the sentence about animals being "as near to God as men are" simply does not appear in the Pope's text at all. (This phrase, and the above rough translations, are in fact in an online translation of a Roman priest's apparent paraphrasing of the audience, just after it took place, as quoted by Genre magazine.)

The Catechism teaches clearly that man is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake" (n. 356, cf. also 358), and affirms the uniquely human spiritual soul in n. 363 ff. Contrary to the impression given by the CTS pamphlet (and it's unusual for a publication from that organisation to be misleading in this way), the servant of God Pope John Paul II was clearly, as ever, combining orthodoxy with sensitive insight.


On 4 January, the American Astronomical Society awarded its George Van Biesbroeck Prize to the Jesuit priest Fr George Coyne, for his work in the field of astronomy. This prize is "for long-term extraordinary or unselfish service to astronomy." Fr Coyne, who is 77, was Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006; after a pastoral year in a North Carolina parish he returned to the Vatican Observatory as the President of the "Vatican Observatory Foundation."

Towards the end of his time as Director he criticised Christian creationism, as evinced by, for example, the Intelligent Design school, in a Tablet article, "God's Chance Creation" (6 August 2005). In this he argues that evolution involves the interaction of "chance and necessity":

"Take one simple example: two hydrogen atoms meet in the early universe. By necessity (the laws of chemical combination) they are destined to become a hydrogen molecule. But by chance the temperature and pressure conditions at that moment are not correct for them to combine. And so they wander through the universe until they finally do combine."

The problem with this is that modern science does not so radically separate those conditions which lead to such a constructive, substantial combination (a "substantial change') from those which don't. The concept of ecosystem and environment captures the unifying, inter-relativity of local physical phenomena even when they don't result in new chemical or biological unities. Actually, we would argue, none of the cosmos's natural processes are truly "chance" (see, for example, our November 2006 editorial).

Fr Coyne goes on:

"For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves."

Fr Coyne thus risks confusing the complementarity of the distinct realms of determinism and freedom; this complementarity is inherent to human, self-conscious, creative engagement with our deterministic environment - an engagement which modern science exemplifies in such an important way. He thus risks confusing the complementary distinction of the physical and the spiritual, of matter and mind, which is inherent to Catholic teaching. While he clearly does not intend to, he thus risks confusing Creation and Creator.

We can do better than this, without falling into Creationism.

Faith Magazine