Seven-year-old Skylar Butler is an animal lover through and through. She adores Lucy — the dog her family rescued from a puppy mill — and even likes spiders and snakes. Yet Skylar’s love for animals recently triggered some conflict in the Butler household.
Skylar believes it’s wrong to kill animals, so it’s therefore wrong to eat meat. Her mother, Nicole, worries that without meat in her diet, Skylar won’t receive all the nutrients a growing child needs. Such other protein sources as tofu and beans have not been an alternative thus far, as Skylar dislikes them.
On March 12, the second Sunday of Lent, the Butlers attended Mass at St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls, and the first reading — the Genesis account of Abraham being tested by God — prompted her to reiterate her refusal to eat meat. The reading recounted how God had commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and as Abraham was about to do so, God stopped him, providing a ram to be sacrificed instead. Skylar took issue with the story, contending that it’s wrong to kill any living thing, human or animal.
She is not alone in her struggle. Although most Catholics believe that humans are called to be stewards of God’s creation, they may not know where that call came from or how to interpret it.
Jonathan Schott, associate director of Christian formation at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford, said the book of Genesis makes it clear that humans are called to be good stewards of all God’s creations. The first chapter of Genesis recounts the story of God’s creation of man and woman and what he told them immediately after creating them.
God said, “‘Let us make man in our image. … Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground. … God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on earth. God also said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food” (Genesis 1:26-29).
In the second chapter of Genesis, God settled Adam in the Garden of Eden and told him to care for and cultivate the garden. The book’s seventh chapter is the story of Noah, who also is shown to be a good steward of God’s creation, Schott said. Although humans’ dominion over the rest of creation is clearly stated in Scripture, this dominion comes with responsibility, he added.
“Scripture has told us that we humans have dominion over all the earth and the animals, the plants and the trees, but that dominion does not imply exploitation. We’ve been given a very special commission by God to be stewards and caretakers of all of God’s creation,” Schott said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized this call in a 2003 statement titled “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers.” In this document, the bishops sought to challenge Catholics to become more aware of the way their food is produced and the effects its production has on the earth’s population and resources. The document also highlights the central relationship between humans and the rest of creation, which humans should care for and protect.
The first few lines in the book of Genesis affirm that God is a loving god, that all he created is good, and that humans are called to care for everything he created, noted Kathy Dubel, justice-and-peace director for Catholic Charities of Chemung, Schuyler and Tioga counties.
“We learn in Genesis that God blesses us — woman and man — with life and with the gifts of creation, and entrusts to us and every generation stewardship of all these gifts,” said Dubel, who also serves on the diocesan Public Policy Committee as a resource staff person on environmental justice. “This stewardship implies use of all the gifts by all humanity, but also care for all the gifts of creation so that future generations can share in the blessing.”
These gifts are everywhere and include the complex systems that make up the human body as well as the order and interrelationships between all the natural systems on earth. If humans don’t care for and protect the world God created for them, that world won’t be around for future generations to enjoy, Dubel said.
“These gifts of creation inspire awe … and gratitude to our creator and should lead to a desire to not place the gifts in peril nor to exclude others from a share in the gifts,” she said.
Each being on earth leaves behind an effect on the environment, sometimes referred to as an ecological footprint, Schott noted.
“All living things make an ecological footprint, whether it’s a fish in a remote waterway or a bicycle messenger in lower Manhattan,” Schott said. “Obviously that biker cannot transform Manhattan into a never-ending green space worthy of crop rendering, and obviously that fish cannot do more than live a fish’s life.”
Unlike fish, humans have the ability to learn about their ecological footprints and examine the ways they interact with the environment around them. When people begin to do this, Schott said, they move one step closer to doing what the bishops urge Catholics to do in “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food.”
“The stewardship of creation is about knowing and working toward promoting a harmony of spirituality, faith and ecological management that can foster a deepening of the sense of the kingdom of God,” he said.
In “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food,” the U.S. bishops urged Catholics to ask themselves how land, water and other elements of God’s creation can best be preserved, protected and used for the common good. Although everyone is called to respect creation, farmers and those in rural communities have an extra responsibility to do so because they are “uniquely dependent on land, water and weather,” the document states.
Farmers do have a symbiotic relationship with the land they work and the animals they raise, observed John Lincoln, a local dairy farmer who is president of the New York Farm Bureau. It makes sense for farmers to be concerned about preserving and protecting their land and animals, he added.
“As a farmer, that’s what we depend on for our living,” said Lincoln, a member of St. Bridget/St. Joseph Parish in East Bloomfield. “God created all creatures and ‚Ä¶ they are in our care and we try to do the best we can, and in turn they provide a living for us.”
Nurturing and tilling the soil, caring for animals and harnessing the power of water to grow food are all forms of good stewardship, according to the USCCB document.
Becoming a steward
In order to be good stewards of the gifts of creation that they’ve been entrusted with, Lincoln said he and many other farmers follow a number of “best-management practices.” For example, he protects his soil’s fertility by spreading manure evenly over it and keeping track of the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that go back into the earth.
Few Catholics today have such an intimate relationship with the natural environment around them, but even those in the most urban settings can take steps to improve their stewardship, Schott noted. He suggested that all people can and should assess the effects of their consumption on the environment.
“Learning more about how some common foods are produced is a good way to assess one’s ecological footprint,” Schott said. “For example, if one were to do research and uncover that a certain restaurant chain used beef for their hamburgers from a cattle farm where the cows were maltreated … and then made a choice not to partake of that restaurant’s foods, then you’re assessing your ecological footprint from a Christian point of view.”
According to the USCCB document, Catholics also can become better stewards by examining the agricultural policies of the societies in which they live. When considering these policies, people should determine whether they meet the church’s criteria for just and fair agricultural policies.
According to the bishops’ statement, a just agricultural policy takes into account everyone and everything the policy affects. Such a policy would not only protect God’s creation, for example, but would also help overcome hunger and poverty and ensure a decent life for farmers and farm workers.
“The Church has repeatedly taught that the misuse of God’s creation betrays the gift God has given us for the good of the entire human family,” the document states.
The meat question
So, does a human’s dominion over creation give him or her the right to kill animals for their meat? Is it possible to be a good steward and a carnivore?
According to those familiar with the church’s teachings on stewardship, this is largely a personal decision.
“Whether or not you choose to eat meat is a choice of your will and a choice you make in your relationship with God. I don’t think you’ll find in church doctrine anywhere that one must eat meat,” Schott said.
Yet neither is there a church teaching that forbids Catholics to eat meat, except during Lent to show a sacrifice for God, said David Stosur, associate professor of systematic theology and liturgy at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
“However, the call to stewardship of creation is part of Catholic teaching, and it would be incumbent upon all to consider how what one eats affects their own health and the environment,” Stosur said. “How one considers this would largely be a matter of conscience that draws on Catholic teaching, rather than direct teaching.”
For the time being, Skylar and her mother have settled on a compromise. Skylar still believes it’s wrong to kill animals for meat, but she understands that her mother is worried about her health, so she’s decided to occasionally eat organically produced meats. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, meat labeled as organic comes from animals that are not given growth hormones or antibiotics; are fed organically produced feed; and have access to the outdoors.
“Organic meat is a kind of meat that came from an animal that lived a happy life,” Skylar said. “The animals were treated very nice and were happy when they died.”