All We Can Eat? Thinking about Vegetarianism

Article excerpt

After living in England for a year, and eating one too many dishes of poorly cooked, unidentified meat, I came home to the United States a vegetarian. Over Thanksgiving dinner, my uncle jokingly proclaimed that I had become an Episcopalian. Admittedly, what makes the joke funny is obscure. But there is a hint in it that becoming a vegetarian is not, well, altogether kosher--that it is something like giving up old-world Catholicism for new-age Episcopalianism. The joke hints that there is something about being vegetarian that isn't very Catholic, and perhaps even a little ... heretical. Which is perhaps why, even if the joke isn't very funny, it somehow makes a bit of sense.

Generally speaking, vegetarianism is, as the French say, pas tres Catholique. From very early in church history, abstaining from meat was met with suspicion. (The unappetizing word "vegetarian" dates from only the nineteenth century.) Origen distanced "our ascetics" from the Pythagoreans, who abstained from meat "on account of the fable about transmigration of souls" (Against Celsus). Augustine praised "perfect Christians" who abstained from meat "in order to gain mastery over their passions," but attacked the Manichean elect who abstained as a matter of doctrine (On the Morals of the Catholic Church). And it goes on. Augustine argues in The City of God that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" does not apply to animals, since "these do not share the use of reason with us." Instead, "by the most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our needs." The text in question here is Genesis 9:3, where after the flood God gives Noah and his family "every creature that is alive ... to eat." Lest there be any doubt, Aquinas affirmed the justness of God's "ordinance" many centuries later in Summa contra gentiles. He reasoned that, since man is the end toward whose generation all of nature is directed, man rightly "employs all kinds of things for his own use: some for food, some for clothing." In the words of Psalm 8, quoted by Aquinas, everything has been put at our feet.

Or so it was once thought. But should we, many centuries and several conceptual revolutions later, still believe it today? The growing ranks of vegetarians and vegans have answered no, and it appears that many others don't know quite what to think. The remarkable number of discussions in our periodicals of what we eat and how we raise our food, along with the popularity of "free-range," "cage-free," "grass-fed," "organic-pastured," suggest that change is afoot. And that makes sense. The question of meat eating has long been bound up with the question of human beings' status in nature. As the historian Tristram Stuart observes in his new book, The Bloodless Revolution, there is a deep connection between "the ancient question of man's nature" and "the equally ancient question of man's natural food." Against the background of major changes in our conception of nature, the question becomes natural itself: What ought we--and in particular we Catholics, committed as we are to the dialogue of faith and reason--to think about meat-eating today?

The news hasn't gotten to my uncle, but I am no longer a vegetarian. I'm an omnivore again, though there is still much that I won't eat and think others should not eat. What follows is an account of some of the thinking that got me to my current position, and some of the quite difficult issues that a person who takes the question of meat eating seriously must reckon with nowadays.

It is true that there are some dissonant voices on the question of meat eating in the tradition. For example, St. Jerome considered God's giving Noah the animals to eat a grudging concession to our fallen nature. After all, in Genesis 1, God gives humankind "every seed-bearing plant over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it" as food; it is only after learning that "the desires of man's heart are evil from youth" that God relaxes the rules in Genesis 9. …