In the week leading up to today's Feast of St. Francis, it fell to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to decide whether the sale and production of foie gras should be terminated in California on the grounds of cruelty to animals. At first, the governor called the proposal another "silly" example of a legislature with too much time on its hands. But then Wednesday he signed the bill into law, apparently finding that the cruelty questions are not so easily shrugged off.
Following the usual pattern of these debates, advocates gave us the harrowing details of how the product is made – by repeatedly shoving a pipe down the throat of a duck or goose, until the creature's liver has swelled to 10 or 12 times its natural size. Opponents, meanwhile, expressed indignation at being lectured to about their habits and favorite fare. David Shaw, food critic for the Los Angeles Times, called the whole business a "ridiculous excursion into political correctness," adding: "I'm not ready – never will be ready – to give up steaks, lamb chops, roast chicken, veal chops or anything else just because a bunch of fanatics want to suck on celery sticks and make goo-goo eyes over farm animals."
I'm always struck by this attitude, as if one should be able to have foie gras, veal, "or anything else" without being burdened with the knowledge of how it was obtained. Foie gras and veal are both, by definition, the product of sick, maltreated animals. However one cares to react to this datum, it is not fanatical or ill mannered to point it out, but a frank acknowledgment of the moral costs. Nor is it clear, in Mr. Shaw's case, that a man rising in angry defense of a table treat has any business telling other people to get serious.
To his credit, however, at least this food critic makes no pretense of any loftier motive than having his favorite delicacy. For those who profess a higher code, it is a different matter. Christians in particular, as they honor the example of St. Francis today, would do well to examine some of their own attitudes about the treatment of farm animals.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, leader of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was asked recently to weigh in on these very questions. Animals, he told German journalist Peter Seewald, must be respected as our "companions in creation." While it is licit to use them for food, "we cannot just do whatever we want with them. ... Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."
Sometimes the most radical thing is to be confronted by one's own standards, and if the cardinal is correct here, then we've got some real problems. Across America and the world, millions of our companions in creation are locked away in industrial "mass-confinement" farms, never feeling soil or sunshine. If they ever see pasture land, it is only from trucks hauling them to industrial abattoirs that kill at a hellish pace of thousands per hour. On hog farms like the Smithfield facilities I toured a few years ago in North Carolina, even the littlest mercies – a bit of maternal care, room to roam outdoors, straw to lie on – have long since been taken away as needless and costly luxuries.
News reports following each new "mad-cow" scare – of calves fed a swill of blood and excrement, of downed animals unable even to walk to their death – give the merest glimpse of all the moral shortcuts and man-made miseries of the factory farm. Moral concern has surrendered entirely to economic calculation, leaving no limit to the hurt and privation that "growers" are willing to inflict upon animals to keep costs down and profits up. And far from "making goo-goo eyes" at farm animals, as Mr. Shaw puts it, we don't think of them at all. Or else we readily accept the pious-sounding justifications invoked by factory farmers to cover their cruelties – a little cheap grace to go with their cheap meat.
Critics like Mr. Shaw want us to take a hard, unsentimental view of animals. They never seem to take a hard, unsentimental look at themselves and the demands they place upon the humble animals. Hence this sniveling about the loss of a frivolous little meal starter, as if his pleasure is everything and their suffering nothing.
Religious people answer to a different standard, however, as we were reminded in this weekend's blessing of the animals. It was said of St. Francis that "he walked the earth like the pardon of God." What would this man make of our factory farms, and what Christian in his presence would dare defend them?
Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter to President Bush and the author of "Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals," can be reached at www.matthewscully.com.