St. Francis Would Want Us To Be Vegan

Chicken living at a farm rescue and sanctuary. Photo credit: PETA.
Chicken living at a farm rescue and sanctuary. Photo credit: PETA.
I live in a bustling Philadelphia neighborhood, where the symphony of street racing, heated arguments and emergency sirens is punctuated by occasional, and very brief, stillness. A country girl at heart, I find solace at a Franciscan spiritual retreat center an hour south of the city, where a cluster of small, sparsely appointed cabins sit amidst a forest and foster the mental quiet necessary for deep connection with God. If visitors wake up early enough in the winter months, they are treated to a rainbow of color and chorus of praise as the birds of the forest gather around a wooden carving of St. Francis of Assisi holding a tray, which the sisters keep stocked with seeds. It serves as a reminder that God sees and cares for every one of God’s creations, no matter how small.

We will celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi October 4, and many churches will host Blessings of the Animals to honor the saint and the day. Bringing our beloved dogs and cats to church for a blessing is sweet, but I want to suggest that to better reflect St. Francis’ care and compassion toward all of God’s creation, we ought to be vegan.

You see, St. Francis recognized the connection we all have to one another and to God. In St. Francis’ view, animals weren’t unfeeling commodities to be used for our own greedy gain or fleeting satisfaction. His words and deeds reflected the truth that each animal is a living, breathing, worshiping creature of God. By preaching to birds and extending forgiveness and compassion to wolves, St. Francis radically undermined destructive early European philosophies, which pitted humans against nature and placed created beings on a socially constructed ladder to heaven (with rich white males at the top, of course!)

Today, when we protect wildlife and treat our companion animals as family, we are honoring the spirit of St. Francis. But we cannot stop there. St. Francis was a brother to all creation.

Cows, fish, pigs, turkeys and chickens are individuals who feel pleasure, loneliness and fear. They are individuals created and watched over by God, who worship God alongside us, in languages we cannot yet understand. In the meat and dairy industries, these animals are subjected to horrific abuses that would be illegal if dogs or cats were the victims.

In the last 100 years, the United States has industrialized animal agriculture in such a way that we now kill 27 billion land animals for food every year. More than 1 million chickens are killed every hour of every day of every year, in the United States alone. The vast majority of animals killed for food are raised on factory farms, which are hell on earth for animals.

On factory farms, creatures of God are crammed by the thousands into dark sheds and feedlots, living in their own waste, without ever feeling sunshine on their backs or grass beneath their feet. When it comes time for their slaughter, they are packed into trucks without any concern for their welfare. They are driven in weather extremes to filthy, terrifying slaughterhouses, where they have their throats slit and are dismembered piece by piece, often while fully conscious. For Christians, the overarching message of creation is that the world is good, that it is God’s, and that we humans are to be its caretakers. Breeding and killing animals by the billions just so we can eat them is the opposite of caretaking.

St. Francis was aware of the struggles faced by those in his community, and he worked to reduce suffering wherever he saw it, just as Jesus did. Perhaps you feel compelled to change, but you aren’t sure where to start. Or maybe you’ve tried to be vegan or vegetarian a few times, but it never really stuck, and you feel frustrated. I think we can look to St. Francis for help and encouragement.

St. Francis didn’t turn his life around the moment he met God. He resisted, stumbled, fell, and got a lot of things wrong. But he kept moving towards God. He kept choosing to follow God. And in doing so, he moved toward compassion and love for all. We can do that, too. Maybe you start with one vegan meal a day. The next time you need to replace your shampoo, leather shoes or kitchen cleaner, choose a vegan product. Go on an outing to a wildlife rehabilitation facility instead of the zoo. Adopt a homeless animal from a shelter, instead of buying one from a breeder or a pet store.

We make a hundred choices a day between cruelty and kindness, and until we start examining them, we may not realize that we have a hundred opportunities to choose. So, pick up soy or almond milk in place of dairy; gather around a delicious veggie roast at the holidays; enjoy any of the thousands of delicious vegan options at your local restaurant and grocery store. Whenever possible, honor the spirit of St. Francis, brother of all creation, and choose kindness.