International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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18th World Vegetarian Congress 1965
Swanwick, England

(A Catholic's Views on Vegetarianism)


At this Conference you will be considering the vegetarian way of life from various points of view - hygienic, aesthetic, economic and so on. I should like to speak from one point of view only, the ethical and religious, and take the rest for granted.

We all know that the best hope for a long and healthy life is to abandon the eating of corpses. We know too that the problem of feeding the world's rapidly increasing population is likely to be solved in the long run only on vegetarian lines. And we are agreed in regarding the sight of butchers' shops and the very existence of slaughter-houses as an affront to decency and a mockery of civilization.

Let us go a little deeper now and explore the ethical and religious roots of our convictions.

Man as he emerges from the prehistoric age is a savage, much more "red in tooth and claw" than the rest of nature. He is at war with the animal species, hunting them for his food and clothing; and as often as not he is also at war with his human neighbours. But there is evidence in the oldest human traditions that this is a state of decline, the result of some great catastrophe. The primitive legends of many races speak of a past Golden Age, when there was neither war nor bloodshed and man lived in friendly companionship with the other denizens of the earth. Then some-thing terrible happened. Scientists call it the Ice Age, or a succes-sion of ice ages. Christians call it a fall from divine grace. What-ever it was, it was a great disaster both for man and for his animal neighbours.

To take the most familiar of these earliest memories of our race: the first chapters of the Book of Genesis tell of man's primeval happiness in the Garden of Eden. The Creator made him last of all, as the culminating point of the created world, and placed him in charge of the lower creatures, saying: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over everything that moves over the earth" (Gen. 1. 28, R.S.V.). Then God is made to say: "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has breath of life, I have given every green plant for food" (1. 29-30). The Creator's original plan, then, was that both man and the animals should be vegetarians.

Then comes the story of the Fall of Man. He had been told that he might freely eat of every tree of the garden, except one: "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" - to eat of that would be to incur death (2. 16-17). That is just what man did: he ditched his Creator and ate of the forbidden fruit, and immediately he lost his garden and his innocence, peace and happiness, and walked in the shadow of death (Gen. 3).

We next hear of Abel his son keeping sheep and bringing the "firstlings of his flock" and their "fat portions " as an offering to the Lord (4. 2-4). Then came the first murder, followed by many others, and the story of the Flood as punishment of men's wicked-ness. After the Flood God blesses the human survivors and again says: "Be faithful and multiply and fill the earth." But he continues in a very different strain from the former occasion: "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are -delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you ; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything . . ." (9. 1-3). Man's fall from grace seems to have brought about a drastic alteration in his relations with the lower creatures. He was now to rule them by fear and to prey on them for his food. We are not given any explanation of the altered relations of the animals among themselves, no longer subsisting exclusively on the "plants," but preying on one another. Some Christian writers have attributed this to the work of evil spirits, after they too had rebelled against their Creator.

The actual course of events is lost in prehistoric darkness and can only be conjectured. It is likely enough that migrations and climatic changes contributed to man's change of diet, from natural to the unnatural. From an emergency measure, flesh-eating became an acquired taste, a perversion, and man has not yet returned to what is normal, sober and sane. The Biblical account then, is a significant allegory of what must have been the historical sequence: first, an age of peace and happiness under natural conditions ; then the entry of crime and violence, with the disruption of natural conditions and the change to a savage diet.

Similarly, the Greek poet Hesiod (roughly contemporary with Genesis) speaks of five ages of man, the first or Golden Age being the best and the fifth or Iron Age, in which he is writing, the worst. The fruits of the earth, he says, spontaneously supplied all the wants of the golden generation, and it was only in the third or Brazen Age that flesh-eating and war began. After describing the wickedness and perfidy of the present generation, the poet foretells that Aidos and Nemesis (i.e., Reverence and Retribution, or Compassion and Justice) will finally gather their white robes about them and depart from earth to heaven, leaving men to their well-merited fate. (Works and Days, 109-20i.)

In the same poem we read: "This law God has ordained for men: that whereas fishes and beasts and winged fowls eat one another, since justice is not among them, to men he has given justice, which is far the best gift . . ." (276-280).

The Bible goes further and adumbrates the return to natural and ideal conditions of life in some future age. We need only recall Isaiah's prophecy that "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain" (65. 25, cf. 11. 6-9) ; and St. Paul's prophecy in the Epistle to the Romans that all Creation will eventually be liberated from its "bondage to decay " and its "groaning" and "travail" and share in the "glorious liberty of the children of God " (8. 19-23).

There are similar prognostications in the classical poets, of which the best known is Vergil's rapturous Fourth Eclogue on the return of Justice and the Golden Age at the birth of a certain child.

Once more, the allegory has a deep truth and significance. If we did not share this confident expectation of a return to better things in the future, we should have to despair of man's destiny.

There is an essential and intimate connection between the carnivorous diet and the age of violence in which we live. This age of violence has continued for thousands of years, and nobody knows how much longer it will continue. We can only expect that, as the technique of violence becomes more scientific and wholesale, the story of man's degradation may soon end in the extermination of the human race and of all other life on earth.

But to accept this prospect would be to despair. We are bound to hope that it will be averted, and to look for means of averting it. The most radical means of curing man's addiction to violence would be the reform of his diet; and this is perhaps the only answer to the problem.

As things are in our society, man is conditioned to violence and bloodshed from his earliest years by the uncriticized belief that it is necessary for him to kill and eat animals in order to live. Being firm in this belief, he (or she) can look unmoved on the ghastly display of mangled limbs and bleeding carcasses in a butcher's shop. And he (or she) can see nothing but fun in the cruel massacres that are perpetrated in the name of "sport."

From this it is but a step - and an easy step - to accepting the dismembernient and massacre of one's fellow-men in war as part of the necessary order of things, something which only fanatics and eccentrics would dream of abolishing. Even the bitter experience of war and its atrocities does not as a rule shake this attitude of blind acceptance. And while such an attitude prevails, there can be no hope of banishing war.

Our best hope, then, is to attack the deeper level of man's psyche and recondition him in his attitude to the animals. If we can convince him of the essential outrageousness of killing or injuring an animal, he will be far less disposed to kill or injure a fellow-man.

Such a reconditioning of modern Western society may seem so wildly improbable as to be hopeless. But the thing has happened before, and it could happen again. The movements associated with Buddha and Pythagoras had a profound influence on the world of the direction of non-violence and respect for life. True, they have been largely suppressed or diverted, but the influence still persists. The Christian gospel is a similar force, with its accent on love and compassion, though it has not yet succeeded in overcoming the violent tendencies of the unpromising society in which it has grown up, and Christians have signally failed to extend their charity to the whole animal world.

The history of Christendom hitherto is a history of conflicts and divisions and of compromise with uncongenial philosophical and political systems. Europe has proved to be the worst of seed-beds for the Christian faith. But what are two thousand years in the life of religion? Christendom may yet have many millennia before it, in which it may overcome its divisions and coalesce with those extra-European streams of thought which are really much more in tune with the spirit of the gospel than the culture of Greece and Rome. When the Church espoused the Peripatetic philosophy, she married below her station and the resulting progeny has not done credit to her. We see her children quarrelling and fighting and killing one another in the name of petty patriotisms, and many of them hunting, shooting and tormenting their fellow -creatures for sport. How much brighter, dare we say, will be the prospect when the gospel joins hands with the Vedântic philosophy of India, with its deeply contemplative, pacific and humanitarian spirit, its compassion and reverence for all life! The Vedânta can supply much that is now painfully wanting to the Christian Church, as on the other hand the gospel of Christ can supply what is wanting to the Vedânta.

The Church has been too long divorced from the humanitarian movement. The seeds of humanitarianism are in the gospel, but they have not been allowed to grow to maturity. Christ's Sermon of the Mount is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and those who should be preaching it day in and day out find it strangely embarrassing and are apt to explain it away as a "counsel of perfection" for the few rather than accept its implication of non-violence as a requirement for all who follow Christ. We are accustomed to explain the cruelties we read about in the Old Testament as phenomena of a primitive state of society. But we often forget that our own state of society we call "Christian civilization", is only a little less violant and cruel and falls lamentably short of the humane standard gospel.

Humanitarians themselves are not always consistent. Some condemn blood-sports and turn a blind eye to vivisection, others vice versa. Some can denounce sundry cruelties while going about. in fur coats obtained by extremely cruel means. Others are anti-this and anti-that, but still cling to their meat and fish diet as if there were no alternative.

Compassion cannot be rationed and confined in this way. The acceptance of one cruelty, under whatever pretext, predisposes men to accept and excuse any and every other cruelty, given suitable pretexts. The one case of cruelty to which most man extend their compassion is the case of slaughter for food. They will often salve their conscience by advocating this or that mitigation of the pitiful circumstances in which animals are slaughtered; but the crowning horror, the slaughter itself, they will not touch. That is necessary, they will plead, and turn blind eyes to the ever-accumulating proofs that it is not necessary. The tacit acceptance of that cruelty, I think, is what conditions men to accept and tolerate the other cruelties - vivisection, hunting, trapping and so forth.

The irresistible conclusion, then, is that there is little hope of abolishing the manifold cruelties to animals which disgrace our society, until men give up the habit of eating flesh. While they think it is necessary, a matter of life or death to themselves, to prey on animals, the very suggestion that animals have rights and feelings similar to their own sets the instinct of self-preservation in motion, and a defensive reaction is set up which effectively pushes the rights out of sight and masks any cruelty that may be involved. It is not seen as cruelty where self-preservation is at stake, or thought to be at stake. The beast of prey is driven by sheer necessity and gives no thought to the sufferings of his victim. It is possible that man himself may once have been in the same condition. He is certainly no longer in it, but the majority of men have not yet realized the happy fact.

When men's eyes are opened to this fact, they will open to many other facts too, and cruelty of any kind will become intolerable and unthinkable. Then the Golden Age will indeed have returned.