Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. He is the patron of animals, who he had a great love for. Yet, St. Francis loved animals so much because he loved God first and most.
If you have ever seen an animal in physical pain, it can be quite distressing. The question certainly can arise - "why do animals have to suffer?"
My dog was attacked by another dog and mortally wounded a few years ago. For more than 24 hours she suffered physical pain until the Veterinarian advised us to have her euthanized, because she would not be able to recover. It was a horrible experience for us all, in fact just thinking about it really saddens me.
A few points about the suffering of animals:
- We have to delineate the suffering of animals from the suffering of humans. Humans can suffer in number of ways - physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. Animals' suffering is more limited. They do not have an intellect, will, or immortal soul as we do
- God does not like pain and suffering, nor did He create the world for it.
"Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being" -Wisdom 1:13-14. We should never kill or harm an animal without serious reasons, though they are not human."
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
CCC 2418"It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly....One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons."
When humans fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, all of creation fell from grace with them. In other words, all of the created universe suffers from Man's sin. This is because all of creation was made for humanity and suffers because the purpose of the created order suffers. Animal suffering is part of the suffering and death brought about by sin. Creation is united, for good and bad, together. But, humans have a special role to play in the created order, because we are the only creatures made for our own sake.
As stewards of the rest of creation, we have a duty to see to it that animals are treated with the respect they deserve - which does not equal human respect. In fact, the respect due to animals comes from our respect of God who created them. We should not abuse His great gifts.
That being said, there is no easy answer as to the suffering of animals, because ultimately, there is no obvious good we can see in it. For humans, we can find meaning in our suffering and good can come out of it. This is because humans can combine their suffering to Christ's suffering and participate in our own redemption by offering our suffering for ourselves or others. Thus, we can grow in virtue and holiness through it. For animals, there isn't such a meaning. But, there is hope that all of redemption shall one day be redeemed, as St. Paul says:
"For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."- Romans 8: 19-23Then there is the prophecy of Isaiah:
"Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair." -Isaiah 11: 6-8One day all suffering will be over with, including the physical suffering of animals. Ultimately, there is no adequate answer I can give you as to why animals suffer. John Paul II echoed this mystery in his masterful encyclical on suffering - Salvifici Doloris:
"It is obvious that pain, especially physical pain, is widespread in the animal world. But only the suffering human being knows that he is suffering and wonders why; and he suffers in a humanly speaking still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer. This is a difficult question, just as is a question closely akin to it, the question of evil. Why does evil exist? Why is there evil in the world? When we put the question in this way, we are always, at least to a certain extent, asking a question about suffering too."
The Good News is that one day there will be no more suffering! St. Francis knew this. He knew that all of creation cries out for redemption and salvation.
The reason St. Francis had such a love of animals and nature is because he loved God first. He saw the great goodness implanted in all of God's creation and knew that creation, including animals, are a link to God! They tell us something about God. Many legends say that St. Francis preached the Gospel message to animals, because they were also in need of Christ's redemption.
This is a beautiful reminder to us of the greatness of God's love for everything He created. But, we must always remember - there is nothing greater that God has ever created than the people around us and ourselves!
St. Francis pray for us, the animals, and all of creation!