Animal welfare, whether in an agricultural context or domestic, can be a polarizing issue, and we want to treat this question with seriousness and care, considering all of the factors. It is all too easy to become passionate about an issue like this and take a political “side”—sometimes demonizing the opposing stance. However, when we, as Catholics, take things into consideration, we must first look to Church teaching to form a judgment and act accordingly. We must look at these questions with the gaze of Christ. Not everyone has been formed in this way, and we must meet people where they are at and walk together toward a Christian way of thinking and being.
This means living in “right relationship” to the world in which we live—our land, our resources, and each other. Living in right relationship means putting Christ at the center of our lives and the meaning of our actions. To begin this dialogue, we would first like to point out the Church’s teaching on this question by referencing particularly important texts.
What does the Church teach about the treatment of animals?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church relates the question of animal welfare to the Seventh Commandment, in terms of the respect for the integrity of creation.
2415 The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
2416 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. (…)
2417 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.
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. (…)
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church takes this further by relating the stewardship of creation to a transcendent relationship and communion with God and others—regarding all creation as gifts from God. Furthermore, we have a moral responsibility to ensure the environment—land, animals, food, etc.—is safe for all.
464. A vision of man and things that is sundered from any reference to the transcendent has led to the rejection of the concept of creation and to the attribution of a completely independent existence to man and nature.
(…) “it is the relationship man has with God that determines his relationship with his fellow men and with his environment. This is why Christian culture has always recognized the creatures that surround man as also gifts of God to be nurtured and safeguarded with a sense of gratitude to the Creator. (…)  There is a need to place ever greater emphasis on the intimate connection between environmental ecology and “human ecology”.
465. The Magisterium underscores human responsibility for the preservation of a sound and healthy environment for all. 
In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expounds upon this by explaining this communion: when we fail to care for creation—the gifts we are given—we lose this sense of communion in our hearts and begin to lose the sense of fraternity with our fellow human beings. In essence, cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to humans. Furthermore, he says that we cannot put animals above humans in our care—we should not be so focused upon the treatment of animals that we forget to care for our brothers and sisters who need our help.
89. The created things of this world are not free of ownership: “For they are yours, O Lord, who love the living” (Wis 11:26). (…)”
90. This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. (…)
92. Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”.
We can gather three main points from the Church’s teaching:
- We are to respect the integrity of creation by caring for all creation as gifts from God—including animals.
- We are to ensure that our environment and food is safe for all.
- We are to be aware of our treatment of animals as: 1. in relation to our treatment of our fellow human beings; and 2. as not above or somehow more important than our treatment of other human beings.
What does this mean for us right now, concretely? What does this have to do with current agricultural practices and our food system? How do our current practices in the US measure up to the Church’s teaching? What is working well in our current food system? What are the impacts of our current practices on the environment? These questions and more will be answered in Part II, as we go deeper into the question and how it relates to the way we live and work.