First Things is a journal published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York, founded by the late Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus and now edited by Joseph Bottum. At the end of every issue there is a section headed “While we’re at it”, containing various tidbits, some quite amusing, from the world of religion. In the October issue there is a brief story about an incident at St.Peter’s Anglican Church in Toronto. A first-time visitor to the church took along his dog to the communion railing. In what was described as a spontaneous gesture of inclusiveness the officiating priest, the Reverend Marguerite Rea, administered the sacrament to both the human visitor and his canine companion. A parishioner was offended by this and complained to the bishop, who replied “It is not the policy of the Anglican Church to give communion to animals,” adding that, “I think the reverend was overcome by what I consider a misguided gesture of welcoming.”
One first wonders whether this incident may herald an interesting expansion of the concept of “inclusiveness,” which currently is a major concern of Christians in North America. This apparently was not the intention of the officiating priest, because she apologized and promised not to do it again. The current tribulations of Anglicanism offer good entertainment to an outside observer. However, after one has been entertained by this little story, one should reflect that behind this incident there are serious questions, the answers to which are by no means easy: Why should communion not be offered to animals? Where is the boundary between human beings and animals? (Or perhaps one should rephrase this question, as concerning the boundary between humans and other animals.) And then there is what is close to the ultimate question: What is man? Conversely, who is not a man? Children who grieve over the death of a dog will spontaneously enact a little funeral service as the dog is buried. If they have benefited from religious education, they are also likely to ask whether the dog will go to heaven. Parents are likely to have a hard time answering.
Of course the question of how to define a human being has preoccupied philosophers for many centuries. The question of the ontological status of animals has surfaced a number of times in history. I think that Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis had something to say about this. (I have been told that writing a blog does not require extensive research.) In any case, the question has a number of times become highly relevant legally. Brutal treatment and enslavement of indigenous people was common when Spanish rule was established in the Americas. One rather clever justification went like this: The native inhabitants of the continent were separated by a huge ocean from where the Garden of Eden was presumably located; therefore they could not be descended from Adam and Eve; therefore they could not be considered truly human. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest who became the first bishop of Chiapas in southern Mexico, was profoundly shocked by this argument and by the atrocities it served to justify. In a number of writings he became a passionate advocate of the humanity and the rights of the Indios. The Catholic Church, to its credit, agreed with him. (Just to confirm that even saintly types can have an ugly side, Las Casas recommended the importation of African slaves so that there would be no need to enslave Indios. To his credit, he later changed his mind and opposed African slavery as well.)
If I had nothing else to do, I would love to explore the topic of human/animal relations through history. North American Indians had a personal relationship with the totem animals of their tribe, which arguably was closer than the relationship with humans from another tribe. The Hittites, a warrior people who invaded the Near East from the north around the fourteenth century B.C.E., introduced the chariot as a combat vehicle, which gave them a great military advantage. Naturally, horses were very important to them. Their laws gave a special status to horses not accorded other animals. Offences against horses were punished almost as severely as offences against people. The belief in reincarnation of the religious traditions originating in India serves to blur the boundary between humans and animals—the dog in front of me may have been an emperor or even a divinity in a past life, and I may be reborn as a cockroach in the future if I accumulate enough bad karma. Buddhism enjoins compassion toward all “sentient beings.” The Buddhist emperor Ashoka instituted a sort of welfare state in ancient India. In a decree listing his accomplishments in this area he listed hospitals for sick animals along with various benefits to his human subjects.
But one doesn’t have to go back into the distant past to find different definitions of the boundary separating the human from the non-human. People have long attributed human-like qualities to pets of whom they have become fond. Dog lovers are particularly prone to do this. I am skeptical of the belief that kindness to animals is evidence of general goodness. Hitler was very fond of dogs. Sometimes, it seems, treating animals as if they are people may lead to treating people as if they are animals. In any case, the moral injunction to treat animals “humanely” did not imply, until recently, that they are in fact human. The animal rights movement may not completely endorse the latter implication, but it seems to get close to it. The controversy over abortion has sharply brought into the open the same boundary question. The use of language nicely illustrates this. Pro-life activists speak of “unborn children,” their pro-choice adversaries of “fetuses”. When, if at all, in the nine months of pregnancy does a person distinct from the mother exist, with the concomitant claim to human rights?
There is a novel which deals with the topic in an instructive if shocking manner—in the English translation titled You Shall Know Them (1952), by Vercors, the pseudonym of Jean Bruller, a French lawyer who had been a leader in the Resistance. The novel begins with the discovery of a tribe in New Guinea which seems to be the long sought-after missing link between homo sapiens and the anthropoid apes. The creature is given the scientific name paranthropus erectus, “tropi” in short. An Australian company seizes some tropis and employs them as slaves on one of its plantations. When there are protests against this, the company responds that the tropis are not human beings, and to use them as slaves is no more illegal than the similar use of horses or donkeys. No one quite knows how to counter this argument. An Englishman who has become fond of the tropis decides on an extreme step to force the issue. He impregnates a tropi female by artificial insemination, smuggles her, heavily veiled, into England as his wife, has her officially registered with some government authority and (if I remember correctly—I don’t have the book before me) has her baptized in the local Anglican church. He then kills her by lethal injection and calls the police. Bruller’s background as a lawyer now comes into play: There is a corpse and an avowed murderer. The police must charge him, the crown must prosecute him. At that point the entire majesty of the common law goes into action. The judge of course does not know how to proceed. There are no useful precedents. A long array of experts are called in to help the judge decide whether the topis are human and thus whether a crime of murder has been committed. After that, I am afraid the novel becomes disappointing. There is no real resolution. There could not be.
Of course it is possible to produce abstract definitions of man as distinct from other creatures. These definitions tend to be of little use in concrete situations. The title of Vercors’ novel was meant ironically—the suggestion is that we do not “know them.” Yet I think that, contrary to the author’s intention, that is probably as close as we can get to an answer—we know someone as a fellow-human by looking at him, and this perception carries with it the claim that he is entitled to certain basic rights. I also think that such a perception comes into sharp view when we are confronted by egregious violations of humanity, committed by people who, precisely, refused to look. This is exactly what happened with the explosion of human-rights discourse in the wake of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. When all is said and done, man is a mystery. I think it was one of the pre-Socratics who wrote: “Many things are awesome. None is more awesome than man.”
I cannot resist the temptation of telling a joke, which, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with the preceding discussion. Mr. Shapiro, a very wealthy elderly widower, has a dog of whom he is very fond. He calls the dog Max. The dog dies. He asks his rabbi to perform a funeral service for Max. The rabbi refuses, saying that there is nothing in Jewish law that would allow him to do this. Mr. Shapiro takes out his cheque book and says, by the way, he had intended to give a million dollars for the new educational wing of the synagogue. The rabbi says that he will do some studying, next day informs Mr. Shapiro that he has found a little-known passage in the Talmud that would indeed permit a funeral service for a dog. But on the morning of the service the rabbi is taken ill and is rushed to the hospital. At the last minute the rabbi of a neighboring congregation is asked to perform the service. When it comes to the eulogy, the substitute rabbi says: “As you all know, I was just called in to perform this service for Max, and I know very little about him. But from what I have heard I can say the following—Max was a kind and generous individual, always ready to help. He was a faithful friend and companion to Irving Shapiro here, who will greatly miss him. Last not least, Max was a good Jew and a staunch supporter of the State of Israel.”