Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(3) August 2015


Report on the First Annual Oxford Summer School on Animal Ethics, 21-23 July 2014

Alan Bates MD PhD FRCPath

Over 150 academics from every major religious tradition gathered in Oxford for the world’s first major international meeting on religion and animal ethics. The historic Anglican theological college St Stephen’s House, formerly the mother house of the Society of St John the Evangelist (better known as the Cowley Fathers), hosted the event, which was organized by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, an ecumenical institute founded by the distinguished theologian Professor Andrew Linzey, whose work over the past few decades has done much to increase awareness of animal welfare issues among Christians and others.

The meeting opened with an address from the Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, who has recently acted to clarify Church teachings in Cyprus in response to concerns that the traditional Orthodox position, particularly on the nature of animal souls, was being misinterpreted and used to justify cruelty. For the Church of England, Bishop John Pritchard of Oxford spoke of the recent progress made, and also the difficulties faced, in raising concerns over animal experimentation and factory farming. Catholic delegates included representatives of the leading animal welfare organization Catholic Concern for Animals, who have supplied information to assist Pope Francis who is said to be preparing an encyclical on the subject of ecology.

Of particular interest to the medical professionals present were some fascinating presentations on the ethics and theology of animal experimentation in science and medicine. From a historical perspective, the religious roots of animal experimentation were explored in a paper by Joseph Wolyniak on Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian vision of a ‘new science,’ which involved ‘parks, and enclosures of all sorts, of beasts and birds [to be used for] dissections and trials,’ a plan that was realized in the work of institutions such as the Royal Society, and which remains the dominant model for animal experimentation today.

The response of the Catholic Church to the use of animals in nineteenth-century science was addressed by the medical historian Professor Chien-hui Li, whose work has highlighted the major contribution made by Christians to the anti-vivisection movement in the nineteenth century. Some prominent Catholics were supporters of the cause. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote: ‘cruelty to animals is as if we did not love God.’ Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, called vivisection ‘a detestable practice … immoral in itself,’ and was a founder of the Victoria Street Society, which became the National Anti-Vivisection Society. However, since the Church had no official position on animal experimentation, and Rome remained silent on the matter, the anticruelty movement had to rely on private initiatives from concerned clergy and laity. The Church’s somewhat ambiguous attitude to animals – concern on the part of individuals and associations but indifference from many theologians – meant that, according to the former editor of the Catholic Herald Dr Deborah Jones, Catholicism has historically proved ‘both a blessing and a curse’ for animals.

The current teaching on animals and their uses in medicine was analysed in a paper, entitled ‘A strange kind of kindness,’ by the Austrian theologian Professor Kurt Remele. The title was taken from paragraph 2416 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that ‘Animals are God’s creatures…. Thus men owe them kindness.’ However, the following paragraph regards ‘Medical and scientific experimentation on animals’ as licit, provided it remains ‘within reasonable limits’. How to balance these already contradictory demands with the ‘kindness’ and ‘stewardship’ towards animals enjoined in paragraph 2457 is likely to be further discussed in next year’s Summer School, the theme of which will be animal experimentation. There were some valuable ecumenical perspectives on a variety of topics related to healthcare. Anthropologist Dr Samantha Hurn’s five-year study of the Skanda Vale Ashram in Wales, the subject of unwelcome publicity during the 2007 bovine tuberculosis epidemic when a resident bullock was euthanized, examined the religious and practical aspects of the community’s care for terminally ill patients in their hospice. Testimonies from members of the community, which is primarily Hindu but modelled on the Franciscan order, indicated that euthanasia in animals often failed to provide the ‘good death’ that could be achieved through effective palliative care. The positive experiences of devotional care given to dying animals in the Ashram and patients in the hospice both vindicated the monks’ refusal to consider euthanasia as an acceptable alternative to proper end of life care. The spiritual practice of compassion for all living things was also commended in a talk on Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of ‘reverence for life,’ which inspired both his work as a medical missionary and his active concern for animals.

A conclusion that emerged from the meeting was that compassion for human suffering and concern for animal welfare more often turn out to be complementary principals than conflicting interests.

It is salutary to see ourselves as others do. More than one speaker quoted Garrison Keillor’s claim that Roman Catholics are more bloodthirsty than other Christians. ‘Was there ever a Methodist bullfighter?’ Keillor asks. Surprisingly, we heard about several priests who had entered the ring as matadors, undeterred by Pius V’s bull De salutis gregi Dominici declaring them excommunicate. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy the peaceful cloisters, gardens and private chapels of St Steven’s House between sessions, and to dine in the magnificent grade I listed church, and look forward to returning again next year.

A.W.H. Bates MD PhD FRCPath
Hon. Senior Lecturer, Department of Cellular Pathology,
Royal Free Hospital, London NW3 2QG
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7830 2227 ext. 34603
Facsimile: +44 (0)20 7435 3289