Q. There is increasing scientific evidence that animals have sophisticated social networks, complex emotions, the ability to communicate them, and intelligence rivaling humans. What makes people different from animals? Do we have the same ethical responsibilities to people as to animals?
A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. … God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.”
At the same time, “one can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” People are different from animals because people are made in the image of God. We are created for a kind of unity with one another, and with God, for relationships of unity and reciprocity that animals can not have. Human beings have souls with the capacity for freedom, and for eternal unity with God. Animals have souls, but they are not immaterial like human souls. They do not have the capacity for moral agency that people do.
Although animals are different from people, and not able to love or be loved in the same way, they are worthy of our respect, so that we honor God by becoming good stewards of his creation.
Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to P.O. Box 80328, Lincoln, NE 68501-0328. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.