October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and a popular celebration is the blessing of the animals. On this day, people bring household pets to their parish church for a blessing ceremony. At the same time, animals around the world are being slaughtered for food products and other uses, often in ways that critics say are inhumane. What would Saint Francis say about how we treat animals today?
Every Catholic family that loves pets has taken their critters to the parish priest for a blessing. The occasion is a little chaotic, usually taking place in the parking lot. The patient priest reads the blessing then sprinkles the crowd with holy water. The animals are more interested in each other, or in clawing their way into their owners’ chests.
The blessing ceremony shows how much we love our animals. Saint Francis believed that how a person treats animals is a sign of how they will treat one another. There is a lot of truth in that belief.
Yet after the blessing ceremony, many of us will return to our daily lives and sit down to a supper that includes meat. All of that meat is harvested from a once-living animal that was raised and slaughtered for the specific purpose of providing us with a meal. Given that aim, the comfort and welfare of the animal is subordinate to the concerns of economical production.
The sad reality of meat production and the use of animals for various other purposes is a source of great discomfort for Catholics who otherwise love animals. We love our pets, but we also enjoy fresh milk, eggs and an occasional steak.
Saint Francis himself was not a vegetarian. He once proclaimed, “On Christmas even the walls should enjoy meat.” Still, he lived in an age before the industrial farm. Most farm animals lived a bucolic life before being turned into food by their owners. Today, the process is incredibly insensitive and far from pleasant.
It’s probably safe to say St. Francis would not approve of modern, industrial farming.
Yet, the future may soon resolve this dilemma. The industrial production of synthetic meat is soon to begin. Several startup companies have formed with the aim of growing meat and other animal products in a laboratory from stem cells. Your hamburger will grow in a lab tray, instead of inside an animal. This means no creature will have to be killed to provide your meat.
Such meat will be raised without antibiotics, parasites or other contaminants that are often found in meat. Scientists think they can also modify the fat content and cholesterol in the meat. It will be real meat, made from actual meat cells, but it will be synthetically grown.
Synthetic meat is expected to come to market within the next five to ten years. It will be cheaper than meat taken from live animals. It will be faster and easier to produce. It will be healthier. Modern ranches will be quickly rendered obsolete. Live meat taken from live animals will become an expensive delicacy. The free market will force its adoption since the product will be cheaper, healthier and faster to produce than ranched meat.
Saint Francis would probably approve. Enough meat can be cheaply produced by this means to feel the poorest of the poor. And the need for inhumane ranches and slaughterhouses will diminish to a minimum.
There will always remain demand for live animals to eat. But as the price of synthetic meat drops and the quality of the product improves, it will dominate the market within a short span of time.
On this feast day of St. Francis, it’s good to imagine a future in which humans take his message to heart when dealing with animals.