St. Jerome (AD 340-420) wrote to a monk in Milan who had abandoned vegetarianism:
“As to the argument that in God’s second blessing (Genesis 9:3) permission was given to eat flesh—a permission not given in the first blessing (Genesis 1:29)—let him know that just as permission to put away a wife was, according to the words of the Saviour, not given from the beginning, but was granted to the human race by Moses because of the hardness of our hearts (Matthew 19:1-12), so also in like manner the eating of flesh was unknown until the Flood, but after the Flood, just as quails were given to the people when they murmured in the desert, so have sinews and the offensiveness been given to our teeth.
“The Apostle, writing to the Ephesians, teaches us that God had purposed that in the fullness of time he would restore all things, and would draw to their beginning, even to Christ Jesus, all things that are in heaven or that are on earth. Whence also, the Saviour Himself in the Apocalypse of John says, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.’ From the beginning of human nature, we neither fed upon flesh nor did we put away our wives, nor were our foreskins taken away from us for a sign. We kept on this course until we arrived at the Flood.
“But after the Flood, together with the giving of the Law, which no man could fulfill, the eating of flesh was brought in, and the putting away of wives was conceded to hardness of heart...But now that Christ has come in the end of time, and has turned back Omega to Alpha...neither is it permitted to us to put away our wives, nor are we circumcised, nor do we eat flesh.”
St. Jerome was responsible for the Vulgate, or Latin version of the Bible, still in use today. He felt a vegetarian diet was best for those devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. He once wrote that he was not a follower of Pythagoras or Empodocles “who do not eat any living creature,” but concluded, “And so I too say to you: if you wish to be perfect, it is good not to drink wine and eat flesh.”
The 4th century St. Blaise is said to have established an animal hospital in the wilderness. The wildlife, in turn, protected him. St. Patrick (389?-481?) is said to have saved a mother deer and her baby from hunters. Commentators say it was this act of compassion which led to the conversion of the pagan.
“By saving the fawn they were about to kill,” writes Richard Power in The Ark, St. Patrick made the Christian religion meaningful to the hardened Ulster warriors. Before that act of compassion, his preaching had failed to convince them.” (The Ark is a bulletin published by the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare.)
St. Ciaran of Ossory noted in the 5th Century that animals have intrinsic rights because of their capacity to feel pleasure and pain. Butler’s four-volume Lives of the Saints describes many saints as abstinent from childhood, never eating flesh-meats, never touching meat or wine, compassionate to all creatures, etc.
According to Father Ambrose Agius:
“Many of the saints understood God’s creatures, and together they shared the pattern of obedience to law and praise of God that still leaves us wondering. The quickest way to understand is surely to bring our own lives as closely as possible into line with the intention of the Giver of all life, animate and inanimate.”
The Reverend Alvin Hart, an Episcopalian priest in New York, says:
“Many Georgian saints were distinguished by their love for animals. St. John Zedazneli made friends with bears near his hermitage; St. Shio befriended a wolf; St. David of Garesja protected deer and birds from hunters, proclaiming, ‘He whom I believe in and worship looks after and feeds all these creatures, to whom He has given birth.’ Early Celtic saints, too, favored compassion for animals. Saints Wales, Cornwall and Brittany of Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries AD went to great pains for their animal friends, healing them and praying for them as well.”
St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictine Order in AD 529, made vegetarian foods the staple for his monks, teaching, “Nothing is more contrary to the Christian spirit than gluttony.” The Rule of St. Benedict itself is a composite of ascetic teachings from previous traditions, such as St. Anthony’s monasticism in Egypt, which called for abstinence from meat and wine.
Aegidius (c. 700) was a vegetarian who lived on herbs, water and the milk of a deer God sent to him. One day the deer was being hunted by a king and his entourage, and fled to Aegidius for protection. Aegidius stopped with his right hand the arrow intended for the deer, but which only perforated his hand.
In the 7th century, the hermit monk St. Giles was an Athenian, who resided in a French forest, dwelling in a cave, and living on herbs, nuts, and fruits. One day the King of France came hunting in the forest. He pursued a young deer which took refuge in Giles’ arms. The King was so impressed with Giles’ holiness he begged forgiveness and built him a monastery.
Boniface (672-754) wrote to Pope Zacharias that he had begun a monastery which followed the rules of strict abstinence, whose monks do not eat meat nor enjoy wine or other intoxicating drinks. St. Andrew lived on herbs, olives, oil and bread. He lived to be 105.
The early English mystic St. Guthlac of Crowland (673-714) is said to have been able to call birds in to feed from his hand. “Hast thou never learned in Holy Writ that he who led his life after God’s will, the wild beasts and the wild birds have become more intimate with him?” he asked. St. Gudival of Ghent once brought a slaughtered sheep back to life “because he saw in it Christ led like a sheep to the slaughter.”
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) “was moved to feelings of compassion for animals, and he wept for them when he saw them caught in the hunger’s net.” St. Richard of Wyche, a vegetarian, was moved by the sight of animals taken to slaughter. “Poor innocent little creatures,” he observed. “If you were reasoning beings and could speak, you would curse us. For we are the cause of your death, and what have you done to deserve it?”
Secular scholar Keith Akers writes:
“The ‘orthodox’ response to vegetarianism has been somewhat contradictory…The objection to meat consumption has been taken as evidence of heresy when Christians have been faced with outsiders; however, vegetarianism met with a kinder reception among the monastic communities…Vegetarianism does attain a certain status even in orthodox circles.
“Indeed, a list of known vegetarians among the church leaders reads very much like a Who’s Who in the early church. Peter is described as a vegetarian in the Recognitions and Homilies. Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius, said that James (the brother of Jesus) was a vegetarian and was raised as a vegetarian. Clement of Alexandria thought that Matthew was a vegetarian…
“According to Eusebius, the apostles—all the apostles, and not just James—abstained from both meat and wine, thus making them vegetarians and teetotalers, just like James. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, and Tertullian were all probably vegetarians, based on their writings…they themselves are evidently vegetarian and can be counted on to say a few kind words about vegetarianism. On the other hand, there are practically no references to any Christians eating fish or meat before the Council of Nicaea.
“The rule of Benedict forbade eating any four-legged animals, unless one was sick. Columbanus allowed vegetables, lentil porridge, flour, and bread only, at all times, even for the sick. A fifth-century Irish rule forbids meat, fish, cheese, and butter at all times, though the sick, elderly, travel-weary, or even monks on holidays may eat cheese or butter, but no one may ever eat meat.
“The Carthusians were especially strict about vegetarianism. The origin of their order is related by the story of St. Bruno and his companions, who on the Sunday before Lent are sitting before some meat and are debating whether they should eat meat at all.
“During the debate, numerous examples of vegetarians among their monastic predecessors are mentioned—the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Macharius, and Arsenius, are all cited as vegetarian examples. After much discussion, they fall asleep—and remain asleep for 45 days, waking when Archbishop Hugh shows up on Wednesday of Holy Week! When they wake up, the meat miraculously turns to ashes, and they fall on their knees and determine never to eat meat again.
“It is true that the church rejected the requirement for vegetarianism, following the dicta of Paul. However, it is interesting under these circumstances that there are so many vegetarians. In fact, outside of the references to Jesus eating fish in the New Testament, there are hardly any references to any early Christians eating meat.
“Thus, vegetarianism was practiced by the apostles, by James the brother of Jesus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, John Chrysostom, Tertulllian, Bonaventure, Arnobius, Cassian, Jerome, the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Machrius, Columbanus, and Arsenius—but not by Jesus himself!
“It is as if everyone in the early church understood the message except the messenger. This is extremely implausible. The much more likely explanation is that the original tradition was vegetarian, but that under the pressure of expediency and the popularity of Paul’s writings in the second century, the tradition was first dropped as a requirement and finally dropped even as a desideratum.”
In the (updated) 1986 edition of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, Keith Akers similarly observes: “But many others, both orthodox and heterodox, testified to the vegetarian origins of Christianity. Both Athanasius and his opponent Arius were strict vegetarians. Many early church fathers were vegetarian, including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Heironymus, Boniface, and John Chrysostom.
“Many of the monasteries both in ancient times and at the present day practiced vegetarianism…The requirement to be vegetarian has been diluted considerably since the earliest days, but the practice of vegetarianism was continued by many saints, monks, and laymen. Vegetarianism is at the heart of Christianity.”
Vegetarian writer Steven Rosen explains:
“...over the centuries, there has arisen two distinct schools of Christian thought. The Aristotelian-Thomistic school and the Augustinian-Franciscan school. The Aristotelian-Thomistic school has, as its fundamental basis, the premise that animals are here for our pleasure—they have no purpose of their own. We can eat them, torture them in laboratories—anything...Unfortunately, modern Christianity embraces this form of their religion.
“The Augustinian-Franciscan school, however, teaches that we are all brothers and sisters under God’s Fatherhood. Based largely on the world view of St. Francis and being platonic in nature, this school fits in very neatly with the vegetarian perspective.”
It is said that St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) bought two lambs from a butcher and gave them the coat on his back to keep them warm; and that he bought two fish from a fishwoman and threw them back into the water. He even paid to ransom lambs that were being taken to their death, recalling the gentle Lamb who willingly went to slaughter (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29) to pay the ransom of sinners.
“Be conscious, O man, of the wondrous state in which the Lord God has placed you,” instructed Francis in his Admonitions (4), “for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son—and (yet) all the creatures under heaven, each according to its nature, serve know, and obey their Creator better than you.” St. Francis felt a deep kinship with all creatures. He called them “brother,” and “sister,” knowing they came from the same Source as himself.
Francis revealed his fraternal love for the animal world during Christmas time 1223: “If I ever have the opportunity to talk with the emperor,” he explained, “I’ll beg him, for the love of God and me, to enact a special law: no one is to capture or kill our sisters the larks or do them any harm. Furthermore, all mayors and lords of castles and towns are required to scatter wheat and other grain on the roads outside the walls so that our sisters the larks and other birds might have something to eat on so festive a day.
“And on Christmas Eve, out of reverence for the Son of God, whom on that night the Virgin Mary placed in a manger between the ox and the ass, anyone having an ox or an ass is to feed it a generous portion of choice fodder. And, on Christmas Day, the rich are to give the poor the finest food in abundance.”
Francis removed worms from a busy road and placed them on the roadside so they would not be crushed under human traffic. Once when he was sick and almost blind, mice ran over his table as he took his meals and over him while he slept. He regarded their disturbance as a “diabolical temptation,” which he met with patience and restraint, indicating his compassion towards other living creatures.
St. Francis was once given a wild pheasant to eat, but he chose instead to keep it as a companion. On another occasion, he was given a fish, and on yet another, a waterfowl to eat, but he was moved by the natural beauty of these creatures and chose to set them free.
“Dearly beloved!” said Francis beginning a sermon after a severe illness, “I have to confess to God and you that...I have eaten cakes made with lard.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia comments on this incident as follows: “St. Francis’ gift of sympathy seems to have been wider even than St. Paul’s, for we find to evidence in the great Apostle of a love for nature or for animals...
“Francis’ love of creatures was not simply the offspring of a soft sentimental disposition. It arose from that deep and abiding sense of the presence of God. To him all are from one Father and all are real kin...hence, his deep sense of personal responsibility towards fellow creatures: the loving friend of all God’s creatures.”
Francis taught: “All things of creation are children of the Father and thus brothers of man...God wants us to help animals, if they need help. Every creature in distress has the same right to be protected.”
According to Francis, a lack of mercy towards animals leads to a lack of mercy towards men: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
One Franciscan monk, St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), who preached throughout France and Italy, is said to have attracted a group of fish that came to hear him preach. St. James of Venice, who lived during the 13th century, bought and released the birds sold in Italy as toys for children. It is said he “pitied the little birds of the Lord...his tender charity recoiled from all cruelty, even to the most diminutive of animals.”
St. Bonaventure was a scholar and theologian who joined the Franciscan Order in 1243. He wrote The Soul’s Journey into God and The Life of St. Francis, the latter documenting St. Francis’ miracles with animals and love for all creation. Bonaventure taught that all creatures come from God and return to Him, and that the light of God shines through His different creatures in different ways:
“...For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom. Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God.”
St. Filippo Neri spent his entire life protecting and rescuing other living creatures. Born in Florence in 1515, he went to Rome as a young man, and tried to live as an ascetic. He sold his books, giving away the money to the poor. He worked without pay in the city hospital, tending to the sick and the poor. He gave whatever he possessed to others. St. Filippo loved the animals and could not bear to see them suffer. He took the mice caught in traps away from people’s homes and set them free in the fields and stables. A vegetarian, he could not endure walking past a butcher shop. “Ah,” he exclaimed. “If everyone were like me, no one would kill animals!”
The Trappist monks of the Catholic Church practiced vegetarianism from the founding of their Order until the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. According to the Trappist rules, as formulated by Armand Jean de Rance (1626-1700), “in the dining hall nothing is layed out except: pulse, roots, cabbages, or milk, but never any fish...I hope I will move you more and more rigorously, when you discover that the use of simple and rough food has its origin with the holy apostles (James, Peter, Matthew).
“We can assure you that we have written nothing about this subject which was not believed, observed, proved good through antiquity, proved by historians and tradition, preserved and kept up to us by the holy monks.”
A contemporary Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast points out that the lives of the saints teach compassion towards all living beings. “Unfortunately,” says Brother David, “Christians have their share of the exploitation of our environment and in the mistreatment of animals. Sometimes they have even tried to justify their crimes by texts from the Bible, misquoted out of context. But the genuine flavor of a tradition can best be discerned in its saints...
“All kinds of animals appear in Christian art to distinguish one saint from another. St. Menas has two camels; St. Ulrich has a rat; St. Bridgid has ducks and geese; St. Benedict, a raven; the list goes on and on. St. Hubert’s attribute is a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. According to legend, this saint was a hunter but gave up his violent ways when he suddenly saw Christ in a stag he was about to shoot...Christ himself is called the Lamb of God.”
According to Brother David, “...the survival of our planet depends on our sense of belonging—to all other humans, to dolphins caught in dragnets, to pigs and chickens and calves raised in animal concentration camps, to redwoods and rainforests, to kelp beds in our oceans, and to the ozone layer.”
Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90), wrote in 1870 that “cruelty to animals is as if a man did not love God.” On another occasion, he asked: “Now what is it that moves our very heart and sickens us so much at cruelty shown to poor brutes? I suppose this: first, that they have done us no harm; next, that they have no power whatever of resistance; it is the cowardice and tyranny of which they are the victims which make their sufferings so especially touching...there is something so very dreadful, so satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us and who cannot defend themselves; who are utterly in our power.”
Cardinal Newman compared injustices against animals to the sacrifice, agony and death of Christ upon the cross: “Think of your feelings at cruelty practiced upon brute animals and you will gain the sort of feeling which the history of Christ’s cross and passion ought to excite within you. And let me add, this is in all cases one good use to which you may turn any...wanton and unfeeling acts shown towards the...animals; let them remind you, as a picture of Christ’s sufferings. He who is higher than the angels, deigned to humble Himself even to the state of the brute creation...”
Another cardinal, Henry Edward Manning (1808-92), spoke out against cruelty to animals, especially experimentation upon animals. In a letter dated July 13, 1891, he wrote: “We owe ourselves the duty not to be brutal or cruel; and we owe to God the duty of treating all His creatures according to His own perfections of love and mercy.”
Bishop Westcott wrote, “Animals are in our power in a peculiar sense; they are committed by God to our sovereignty and we owe them a considerate regard for their rights. No animal life can be treated as a THING. Willful disrespect of the sanctities of physical life in one sphere bears its fruit in other and higher spheres.”
Cardinal Francis Bourne (1861-1934) told children in Westminster Cathedral in April 1931: “There is even in kindness to animals a special merit in remembering that this kindness is obligatory upon us because God made the animals, and is therefore their creator, and, in a measure, His Fatherhood extends to them.” Cardinal Arthur Hinsley (1865-1943), the former archbishop of Westminster, wrote, “The spirit of St. Francis is the Catholic spirit.” According to Cardinal Hinsley, “Cruelty to animals is the degrading attitude of paganism.”
A Roman Catholic priest, Msgr. LeRoy E. McWilliams of North Arlington, New Jersey, testified in October 1962 in favor of legislation to reduce the sufferings of laboratory animals. He told congressional representatives:
“The first book of the Bible tell us that God created the animals and the birds, so they have the same Father as we do. God’s Fatherhood extends to our ‘lesser brethren.’ All animals belong to God; He alone is their absolute owner. In our relations with them, we must emulate the divine attributes, the highest of which is mercy. God, their Father and Creator, loves them tenderly. He lends them to us and adjures us to use them as He Himself would do."”
Msgr. McWilliams also issued a letter to all seventeen thousand Catholic pastors in the United States, calling upon them to understand “what Christianity imposes on humans as their clear obligation to animals.”
Father Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest, author, and founder of the Riverdale Center of Religious Research in New York, wrote in 1987, “Vegetarianism is a way of life that we should all move toward for economic survival, physical well-being, and spiritual integrity.”
In an editorial that appeared on Christmas Day, 1988, Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, a prominent Catholic writer and a vegetarian, observed: “A long raised but rarely answered question is this: If it was God’s plan for Christ to be born among animals, why have most Christian theologians denied the value and rights of animals? Why no theology of the peaceable kingdom?...Animals in the stable at Bethlehem were a vision of the peaceable kingdom. Among theology’s mysteries, this ought to be the easiest to fathom.”
Mother Teresa, honored for her work amongst the poor with the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote in 1992 to Marlene Ryan, a former member of the National Alliance for Animals. Her letter reads:
“I am praying for you that God’s blessing may be with you in all that you are doing to create concern for the animals which are often subjected to much cruelty. They, too, are created by the same loving Hand of God which created us. As we humans are gifted with intelligence which the animals lack, it is our duty to protect them and to promote their well being.
“We also owe it to them as they serve us with such wonderful docility and loyalty. A person who shows cruelty to these creatures cannot be kind to other humans also. Let us do all we can to become instruments of peace—where we are—the true peace that comes from loving and caring and respecting each person as a child of God—my brother—my sister.”
In an article entitled “The Primacy of Nonviolence as a Virtue,” appearing in Embracing Earth: Catholic Approaches to Ecology (1994), Brother Wayne Teasdale wrote: “One key answer to a culture’s preoccupation with violence is to teach, insist on, and live the value of nonviolence. It can be done successfully, and it has been done for more than 2,500 years by Jains and Buddhists. Neither Jainism nor Buddhism has ever supported war or personal violence; this nonviolence extends to all sentient beings. Christianity can learn something valuable from these traditions. This teaching on nonviolence has been incarnated in the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama with significant results...”
According to Teasdale: “...it is necessary to elevate nonviolence to a noble place in our civilization of loving-compassion because nonviolence as ahimsa in the Hindu tradition, a tradition that seems to possess the most advanced understanding of nonviolence, IS love! Love is the goal and ultimate nature of nonviolence as an inner disposition and commitment of the heart. It is the fulfillment of love and compassion in the social sphere, that is, in the normal course of relations among people in the matrix of society.”
Brother Aelred (Robert Edmunds), a Catholic monk living in Australia, discusses the moral question of killing animals for food in his book Encounter: Christ and Krishna. He points out that Jesus Christ greatly expanded the interpretation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to include not getting angry without cause:
“My position is that Jesus’ teachings on mercy in the Beatitudes require an open-ended ethical inquiry. I ask, for example, how a Christian may speak of ‘mercy’ in the terms of Jesus Christ, and deny mercy to creatures of God who, as we do, experience fear and suffering. Isn’t it the case that Jesus constantly went beyond the ‘letter of the law’ to its spirit?”
Brother Aelred quotes the prophecies of Isaiah (11:6-9, 65:25) concerning the coming Kingdom of Peace. “The passage sees a time when pain and bloodshed will be no more; when prey and devourer will be reconciled. What a vision! Even if the passage is seen as just poetic exaggeration, it is clear that there is hope for a future which will be very different to the world we know. And surely we, as Christians, must be part of this ‘peace process.’ Perhaps our main burden, as Christians, is to be part of this message of hope and reconciliation.”
Brother Aelred concludes: “An Anglican Franciscan superior, in Australia, tells his novices that if they wish to eat flesh they must go out and themselves kill the animal. The moral responsibility must be theirs alone. I consider this a thoroughly sound position, and any Christian reading this article might well reflect on the brother’s teaching. In conclusion, I must report a sad truth. My own Christian formation taught me many things of great value, but ‘respect for all things living’ was not part of that formation. It was other religious traditions and ‘secular’ insights which gave me teaching in this area.”