“Nor will this Earth serve him; he sinkes the deepe
where harmless fish monastique silence keepe,
who (were death dead) by roes of living sand
might spunge that element and make it land.”
—John Donne, “Elegie on Mistris Bulstrode”
John Donne reminds us of a natural fact that most of us would rather forget: the necessity-of death. On this earth, life without death would be poetry without rhythm: limitless and therefore pointless. Without sex and death, life might have evolved into one great super-organism, immortal as well as immoral, resembling the modern pantheists’ conception of Gaia, the vast living eco-system and planetary consciousness of which each human individual is but an infinitesimal part.
Donne was no pantheist but a Christian whose respect for harmless fish would have been limited to their edibility and their symbolic utility as an anagram for Iesous Christos Theos Soter. The proliferation of fish qua fish (or condors qua condors) has little appeal for any Christian less tender-hearted than St. Francis, who preached sermons to birds and addressed the fire that burned his flesh as “brother.”
“Mere existence” of any kind, for the Christian, is never the issue, though a fearful Samuel Johnson once declared that it was “so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain than not exist.” Death is central to the Christian creed: it is punishment for sin. Christ himself endured the torments of death in order to redeem mankind, and each of us must die in order to gain eternal life.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12:24-25)
It is death that makes life so precious. Even Adam and Eve, without knowing it, lived under the shadow of the death that might come to them if they rebelled against their creator, and some sexless, deathless protoplasm that went on growing throughout eternity would endure an existence without moral significance. It is the moral dimension of life that makes it sacred to the Christian. St. Thomas speaks of man’s rational life or soul as the quality distinguishing him from the beasts, and some libertarian philosophers (e.g., Tibor Machan) have concluded that it is reason that must be protected. Since unborn babies and the mentally defective are no more rational than fish, their lives would not, in the rationalist’s view, he covered by prohibitions against murder, while computers (if one accepts the fiction of artificial intelligence) might some day possess a higher right to life than human beings of ordinary intelligence.
But for Christians, reason is significant only because it enables people to make moral choices. Birds and beasts—one is tempted lo throw in certain professors of philosophy—are not moral creatures, even potentially; the fact of their low intelligence is incidental, and if we are occasionally obliged to preserve their lives or protect them from suffering, it is an obligation we owe not to them but to ourselves and to the God who created birds and beasts and man. Up to a certain age (somewhere between 12 and 20) children, whether born or unborn, are not capable of moral reasoning. However, strangling a fifth-grader for impudence or aborting an unborn baby on the grounds of inconvenience are not moral options, because as human beings our children have the potential capacity for making moral choices. Computers, on the other hand, whatever their analytical “skills,” are not moral beings; indeed, they are not beings at all, and when science fiction writers endow them with human qualifies, it is only to diminish our sense of the human.
There is no unqualified right to life, even to human life. Human life per se is precious and is to be preserved—within certain limits. Bv committing sins we earn, once again, the wages of sin that our original parents passed down to us, and whatever a Christian might think about the inhumanity of the death penalty, no philanthropic illusion should blind him to what the cold-blooded murderer has deserved by carrying out his decision to take an innocent life.
I have heard liberal Catholic priests and Protestant ministers who say that there is something “unchristian” about the death penalty. I have even heard those who say that the Church has always been opposed to executions, but I challenge them to cite one passage of Scripture or one creed, one conciliar document, one encyclical that unequivocally condemns capital punishment.
From the first homicide, our human responsibility has been clear: to preserve the sanctity of life by killing those who have abused it. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6), and the Old Law lists a great many crimes for which the penalty is death: homicide, witchcraft, idolatry, incest. It is even permitted to kill a thief with impunity: “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him” (Ex. 22:2). And the Christ who came not to change one jot or tittle of the law did not overturn its foundations.
The Christian Church more than once declared executions to be right and proper, and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, while recommending mercy in language whose vagueness approaches equivocation, includes the concession that:
the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.
What does it mean, then, when Pope John Paul II asks for clemency for cold-blooded killers? These interventions, although they seem (to many Catholics and Protestants alike) to display a callous disregard both for law and for the protection of the innocent, must be understood within the context of a long Christian tradition which forbids bishops and ministers to involve themselves in bloodshed. The Church has always spoken the language of mercy, knowing full well that in most ages of the earth, that voice will be drowned out by the cries for blood. The issue is captured perfectly in an interchange of letters between St. Augustine and Macedonius, Vicar of Africa. As a provincial administrator and yet a Christian, Macedonius asked Augustine to justify his pleas for clemency. The bishop began his response by conceding that the state has been given the power to correct wickedness:
Surely, it is not without purpose that we have the institution of the power of kings, the death penalty of the judge, the barbed hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the right of punishment of the overlord, even the severity of the good father. . . . While these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked.
The Old Law, continued Augustine, did preach harsh justice, but the New Testament urges us to pardon offenders either that we may be pardoned or as a means of commending gentleness. After surveying a number of arguments (not all of them convincing) for mercy, Augustine concludes that there is good both in the magistrate’s severity and in the bishop’s plea for mercy. “Do not be displeased at being petitioned by the good, because the good are not displeased that you are feared by the wicked.”
Augustine and Pope John Paul have simply repeated Christ’s admonition to be merciful; they did not repudiate the death penalty itself or call for an unqualified defense of life for life’s sake, unlike the modern theologians who, in attempting to weave a seamless garment of life, are really swaddling unborn babies in the uniform of the death-row convict. If all human life is equally precious, then none can be very valuable. In most eases, perhaps, the proponents of a seamless garment have simply failed to understand the consequences of their reasoning. But in using the same language to defend the innocent unborn and the condemned murderer, they are equating innocence with guilt. Part of the explanation lies in moral cowardice. As Christians, they have to incur unpopularity by opposing abortion, but if by opposing the death penalty they can prove that their support for life is based on no moral considerations, it is easier to maintain their respectability as leftists. On a deeper level, though, they are deliberately confounding the categories of good and evil, willfully perverting the teachings of Christ and His Church to celebrate sin as sin, evil as evil.
Authentic Protestants will search their traditions in vain for arguments against the death penalty. In their renewed emphasis on the Law, reformers were sometimes even more severe than their opponents, and good Lutherans have always based their view of government on the explicit testimony of Romans 13, that the rulers do not hold the sword in vain. Neither Luther nor Calvin displayed any hesitation when they needed to call upon secular power to execute heretics and scoff-laws.
Catholics have, if anything, even less excuse for their confusion. St. Thomas, sorting through this question with his typical thoroughness and acuteness (Summa Th. II ii, 64), concluded that it is both licit and necessary to kill sinners. Malefactors are to be put to death for the health of the community, and he compares the duties of rulers and physicians: it is the physician’s duty to preserve life and health in individuals, and rulers have been given the power to protect the community.
With a logical shrewdness that now looks like prophecy, Thomas began his discussion of homicide by disposing of the fallacy that it is life per se that is to be preserved. If plants and animals are part of the divine order of things, then, he asks, is it wrong to kill them? If, after all, homicide is a sin only because it deprives a man of his life, the same prohibition extends to animals and plants, with whom we share life. However, Thomas points out, plants and animals were made for human use. That animals feed upon plants, and man upon animals, is part of the divine order.
By implication, then, it is not only natural for human beings to eat meat, but it is also divinely ordained. Vegetarianism (except for reasons of health or Christian askesis), therefore, would amount to a rebellion against the divine and natural order. Once upon a time, vegetarianism had a limited following of the usual cranks: spiritualists, unitarians, and religious cultists who foreswear coffee, tobacco, and wine. Today, however, a vegetarian is as likely to be a high school cheerleader, starving her body to remain a size 5 and convinced that cows are affectionate pets or that red meat is a kind of spiritual poison. This teen philosophy, which might be summed up as “meat is ucky,” is so prevalent that I have to ask my children what their friends will eat when they come to supper.
The Vegan Society, which knows when it is on to a good thing, passes out lengthy and detailed propaganda to aspiring teen vegans, complete with nutritional charts and sample weekly diets, all couched in the usual peppy language of the professional uplifter:
Aged between 13 and 19 years of age? Want to be a Vegan? You’ve come to the right place. .. . The vegan diet is nearer to government health recommendations than any other dietary group. . . . So, providing teenagers follow the guidelines in this booklet, transition to a vegan diet should be trouble-free.
Just the sort of language to send the average adolescent to McDonald’s.
I wonder, sometimes, if the most perverse heresy of modern times is not Marxism or feminism or homosexualism, but vegetarianism. Marxism, despite the demonic assumptions on which it is based, is aimed primarily at destroying the foundations of property and status; feminism and homosexualism go further in undermining the natural relation between the sexes, which is the basis of the entire social order; but vegetarianism is a complete and thorough rejection of the normal, an overt rebellion against both creation and Creator.
When Adam and Eve could not resist the temptation to become as gods, they did not taste of forbidden beef It was an apple or—still better—it was generic fruit from a tree “desired to make one wise,” and because our first parents ate of it, their God drove them from Eden to keep them from deciding to “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” Christians and Jews have to assume that God knew what he was doing, that Adam, led on by his lust for knowledge and power, would make a raid on life itself in defiance of his Creator. The enemies of Christendom have always dreamed of perfecting human life and gaining immortality on earth: alchemists and mystical Freemasons with their mumbo-jumbo of pyramids and homunculi; Benjamin Franklin and William Godwin who thought science could make man immortal (how that scheme has to turn out was revealed by Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley); Lenin and Stalin who had to content themselves with the illusion of eternal mummification; and the current proponents of gene-splicing, cloning, and life made-to-order.
In promoting the cause of “life” without qualification or distinction, pantheists and vegetarians are serving a master other than the Creator of life. Is it an accident that so many vegetarians and animal rights activists are also “pro-choice”? One ancient writer who opposed the Pythagorean prohibition on meat-eating argued that the net result would be cannibalism. Unable to kill the birds and beasts that ravaged their fields, men would be compelled to attack and eat each other.
Vegetarians can pick as many holes as they like in this fanciful myth, but any form of life altruistic enough to sacrifice its own well-being for the sake of lower animals is putting itself on the endangered species list, and vegetarians are like bellwethers leading their pals up to the abattoir: “Take us, take us,” they cry, “we’re too soft to handle the reality of life.” Even in this technological age, humans are compelled by ancient necessity to defend themselves against other species. How would vegetarians deal with rats or cockroaches or adders? Like the Jains of India, perhaps, they should adopt veils to keep from inhaling insects to their doom. But why stop at insects? Amoebas have a right to live, too, perhaps more of a right than human beings who knowingly slaughter their fellow-creatures, and if life is all that matters, viruses—who enjoy near-immortality on the frontier between life and non-life—should be elevated to the highest place on the scala naturae.
In making no distinctions between man and other forms of life, pantheists are really expressing hatred and contempt for human life. The animal rights demonstrators who interfere in blood sports or throw red paint on fur coats have no qualms about attacking hunters and fur-bearing starlets. The attitude is summed up succinctly in the Declaration of War found on the Deo Frugi Gratias website:
Matar a Personas
Para Salvar a Animales
El Medio Ambiente
“Kill people to save animals and preserve the environment.” Not that it would be much fun to be any higher mammal in a vegetarian regime. The Vegan Society promotes vegetarian diets for cats and dogs, arguing that it does not violate the cats’ rights, since, in the wild, cats would be unable to eat chicken or beef Putting cats on a vegetarian diet is not really “playing god” or “meddling with ‘nature’ . . . there is nothing that is strictly natural in any sense that means it is independent from human behavior and observation.”
So the real focus, after all, is on man and his point of view, and vegetarian self-hatred must now be extended to our pets and, ultimately, to all the creatures on the planet, none of whom is really “independent from human behavior and observation.” Christians understand that no one can love another if he has not first loved himself. This is the wisdom of Bernard de Clairvaux, who said that nature directs us to love our own flesh but teaches us also to limit our self-love to minister to a brother’s need. This insight on moral development stretches back to the ancient Stoics and to Aristotle.
Who can love another species, if he has not first loved his own? Love of God and His creation begins with the infant’s love of self, the child’s attachment to his mother, and grows ultimately to a love that transcends even the self from which it began. “Whosoever loves God aright,” says St. Bernard, “loves all God’s creatures.” Failure along the way results in a stunted personality, a perverse being whose hatred of his parents, for example, may be expressed in apparently humanitarian gestures toward the children of the world but cannot disguise the disordered and spiteful character of the cold-hearted philanthropist.
St. Francis’ bizarre affection for the birds and the fishes was not at odds with his love of his fellow-man. Delusional he may have been, or simply too good for this world, yet Francis never asked ordinary people to deny their human nature or to elevate the dumb beasts to the human level. In the rules drawn up for his order, he deliberately did not exclude meat from the diet of his fratres minores, because he did not want them to put themselves above secular priests. Francis may have preached to the fishes, but he also sent baskets of fish to the monks who gave him the use of a church, and when he was told of the hunger crazed wolf that was ravaging the livestock and killing the people of Gubbio, he made the wolf promise to leave people and chickens alone in return for being fed by the people of the town. We are not told that he expected the wolf to go vegetarian.
Man was made to live in the company of God’s other creatures, that Francis celebrated in his famous cantico: “Laudato sie, mi Signore, con tutte le tue creature.”
This may be why, the more we cut ourselves off from the natural world, the more we adopt pets and indulge in a perverse sentimentality toward rabbits and even toads, until we can no longer distinguish our child from the photograph of a starving Somali baby, our next-door neighbor from our neighbor’s Akita, a rapist and murderer on death row from the unborn baby it is our duty to protect. The “telescopic philanthropy” that Dickens derided in the international busybodies of his own day has been extended to an all-encompassing embrace of life for life’s sake that diminishes—and perhaps annihilates—the sacredness of the innocent lives that are entrusted to our care. In weaving a seamless garment of life, theologians have really stitched and patched a motley garment with bits and pieces of Scripture sewn into Enlightenment universalism and an oriental pantheism whose origins are more satanic than divine.
The true garment of life was revealed to St. Peter in Acts 10. Reluctant to eat unclean meat with the gentile Roman centurion, he fell into a tiance, and he saw descending from heaven a great vessel, taking the form of “a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
“And there came a voice to him. Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” And when Peter still refused that which was common and unclean, the voice spoke to him again, saying “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” Obedience is the point, whether we are the first man in the garden, the first aposfle to preach to the gentiles, or the first man on the block to own an “assault” weapon. We human beings are, as we were made, eaters of meat striving to maintain a precarious order against the forces of darkness that threaten to break through the walls of our civility and engulf us. Today, there is a moral and spiritual war to defend life going on, and vegetarians, pacifists, and deathrow protesters have enlisted with the enemy.