“To cause needless suffering to animals is contrary to human dignity,” said Belgian Theologian Marie Hendrickx in an article published in L’Osservatore Romano in Italian in January 2001 and accessible here in English on EWTN’s Internet site.
She was commenting on this subject in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An important point of this Catechism also for Joseph Ratzinger–Benedict XVI, a friend of animals from his childhood, as he said to his biographer, Peter Seewald.
Hendrickx stresses the connection between holiness, reconciliation with nature and better relations with God.
To return to this reflection, so in harmony with the “Times of Creation” being observed from September 1 to October 4, 2020, and with the Laudato Si’ Year, is also a way to pay tribute to the Belgian theologian, Auxiliary of the Apostolate, who worked with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s team, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, and who died last August 16 at 67. She began her University formation by studies in communication and could have been a journalist.
In her article on the suffering of animals, Marie Hendrickx explains: “There is a suffering that borders on mystery, the mystery of the presence of evil in the world. This suffering is inevitable. There is another that belongs to the constitution of Creation itself, which can be controlled.”
“In the first case, suffering was assumed by the crucified Christ and He transformed it, making it for Himself and for those that “follow” Him, the way that leads to life in God,” explains the theologian.
“In the latter case, man is asked not to cause <suffering> without a valid reason and to halt it as much as possible,” she continues. “This duty applies to every individual and to others with whom the individual is in contact. Jesus’ preaching and the apostolic writings are full of instructions of this nature. Suffice it to mention the ‘Golden Rule’ proposed by Jesus, which summarizes the Law and the prophets: “Whatsoever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them: (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31; Romans 13:8-10).”
And she poses the question: “Is something akin applied to the animal world? More specifically, are we held morally <responsible> to do all <we can> to avoid making animals suffer? A current of thought that can be qualified as “egalitarian” (for example, that of Peter Singer) is one which refuses to admit that man has rights on other living beings. According to this theory, each time that a person is faced with two opposed interests, that of the better “gifted” living being must prevail, that is, the one who is more sensitive and more conscious of pain. From this point of view, an adult person would certainly prevail over an animal, but an animal would prevail over every human being in a state of “deficiency,” i.e. comatose, mentally handicapped, fetus whose capacity to feel pain is not yet developed, etc. According to this “egalitarian” logic, the vital interest of an animal would prevail over any secondary interest of a human being.”
What the Catechism Says about This
She explains the thought inspired by the Gospel: “Christian thought goes in a very different direction. Its center is Christ and, in Him, man. Strangely, it’s precisely because of this dignity attributed to man that certain ecologists accuse Christianity of not considering the natural milieu except as a context of human activity. Animals in particular seem to be reduced to the category of provisions. Man can draw from it according to his needs; he can use them or even abuse them at will, as simple tools towards which there is no obligation because they themselves have no rights. The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to confirm this view of things: “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity” (no. 2415), and God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom He created in His own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure” (no. 2417).”
Examples that Are Still Relevant Today
She diagnoses the problems which this poses, with a discernment that has acute relevance today: “Does the right to use animals to nourish oneself imply the right to raise chickens in minuscule cages where they live in a space that is smaller than a notebook? Or calves in compartments where they can never move or see the light? Or maintain sows pinned by iron rings in feeding position to enable a series of piglets to suck milk constantly and thus grow faster? Does the right to use animals to clothe oneself mean to let those that have valuable skins die slowly of hunger, thirst, cold, or hemorrhage <to death> in traps? Does the right to use animals for our leisure mean the right to stab bulls with banderillas, after having tormented them for a long time? Does this mean to let horses be disemboweled? Does it mean to throw cats or goats from the top of steeples? “
The theologian makes this observation in connection with laboratory experiments: “Before attempting to answer these question, it must be noted immediately that the next phase of the Catechism, which caused violent protests to the point that the Catholic position was accused of supporting vivisection, was modified between the first edition and the typical official edition. In fact, whereas the 1992 text said: “Medical and scientific experimentations on animals, if it is within reasonable limits, is a morally acceptable practice as it contributes to care for or save human lives: (2417), now it reads: “Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice provided it is within reasonable limits and contributes to care for or save human lives.” What is the difference? Simply in the fact that the “if” was replaced by “provided that,” namely, on the condition that . . . The credit is no longer accorded a priori to the medical or scientific experimentation on animals “to care for or save human lives” and, hence, to be morally acceptable practices. Before experimentations can be carried out legitimately, their usefulness must be demonstrated.”
Hendrickx specifies: “before continuing, we point out that these reactions to the Catechism were only partially justified because the last version only aims at clarifying the meaning of the previous edition. The admission a priori that animal experimentation is not morally licit except for its usefulness to man presupposes that a prior effort of discernment was made to consider it as such. Hence it can be said with perfect logic that the Catechism also pointed out clearly the criteria of a healthy and sensible reflection on the way to treat animals. “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly (no. 2418).”
Like the Catechism, Marie Hendrickx poses the following questions: “Of what does human dignity consist? Why is man superior to animals?” She answers: Genesis says that only the human species was created in “the image” and “likeness” of God (cf. Genesis 1:26). The faith of the Church has often identified this “image” with reason, the specifically human dimension of the intellect, which derives from a particular participation in the divine intellect (cf. for example Gaudium et Spes, no. 15). Animals certainly have an innate capacity that enables them to find ingenious solutions in difficult practical situations, to orient their means to the ends that instinct has given them. However, they cannot go beyond themselves to understand an object as such or their life in its whole. In a word, they cannot “intuslegere,” that is, read in beings and things.”
Human Liberty and the Reality of Sin
Theology underscores the specificity of human liberty. “Likewise the human will takes part specifically in the Will of God. It bears in itself first of all the desire to find its fulfillment in Him. In its origin, it is oriented fundamentally to the good. However, as it is sustained by an intellect that can go beyond itself, it is free, that is, it is capable of embracing the desire that founds it or of renouncing it, to let itself be fascinated by lesser, more fleeting, egoistic, or partial goods, and to seek immediate satisfaction, without considering the consequences for the future or for others. It’s the tragedy of sin.”
She recalls the human response to God’s call: To have (at least virtually) the capacity to perceive itself and to act as an “I” to a “you” is proper to human beings. In His Son, God has made of man a person, hence, His interlocutor, even if we do not know how the Lord maintains this relationship with the weakest and the most handicapped among us. From this undeniable truth, we can, nevertheless, be certain that God leaves someplace to the free response of each one (cf. for an analogous case see Gaudium et Spes, no. 22). “
The Wolf of Gubbio
Hendrickx recalls the episode of the meeting of Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio. “If our dignity is to be like God, it follows that the more we behave like God, the more we are ourselves. We can and must thank God for the beauty of a child, of a cat or a dog, as we do for the beauty of the sun, of the moon, and of the rain (cf. Canticle of Creatures). However, that’s not all. The Fioretti of Saint Francis also recounts the episode of the wolf of Gubbio. This ferocious beast had terrorized the region; the inhabitants asked Francis to intervene and he came to an agreement with the animal; the farmers would feed him and, in return, he would no longer feed on their livestock. “And while Francis stretched out his hand to receive his pledge, the wolf raised his right front paw and placed it delicately in his hand” (Fioretti, chapter 21).”
Harmony with the Creator and with Creation
The holiness of man also involves Creation, notes the theologian. “This shows that holiness, man’s reconciliation with God, has a sort of magnetic force that draws creation in a movement of global reconciliation. This is clearly suggested by Sacred Scripture. The prophet Isaiah described the messianic times in these terms: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them . . . The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp . . . for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11: 6-9). “Knowledge of the Lord”: the Hebrew word suggests something carnal, as a communion of life; to know the Lord means to become in some way consubstantial with Him. It is also to be perfectly reconciled with creation. Harmony restored with the Creator thanks to the messianic child will be expressed in new harmony with creation, to which the animal world also belongs. At the moment of our definitive meeting with the Beloved, our hearts will be like His, so that all our past affections no matter how humble they are, will find their place, after having been purified, rectified, and ordered for Him. For God, nothing of the human can be lost, not even the simple bonds that we wove with animal creatures that filled, for example, our moments of loneliness.”
No “Serious Reasons” to Make Animals Suffer
Marie Hendrickx returns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “If such is the case, we must repeat with the Catechism that man isn’t justified in making “animals suffer needlessly.” Therefore, he should abstain from doing so if he can avoid it or if there are no serious reasons to do so. The right to feed his family or a numerous population can certainly justify it, but not just for profit. Moreover, to take pleasure in the suffering of a living creature is always unhealthy.”
Fight against Sin
She notes that “physical suffering is a tangible sign of an attack on life; life is expressed as the biological support of relations. Now, even if that seems somewhat cryptic, two categories of relations can be distinguished: those that we have with persons and those that we have with non-personal beings. A being with whom we can relate to an end is a human or divine person.”
“An attack on life, suffering inflicted to the human being who is an end in himself, is not morally justifiable unless it enables the one that suffers it (and eventually others) to live better, to intensify and to improve his human relations, to draw closer to God. In the case of animals, suffering cannot be inflicted legitimately except in similar conditions,” she stresses.
Respect for animals is part of the struggle against sin. “The dynamic of relations in the world was corrupted by sin. In his fight against sin, the Christian will tend to give them back the sense of grace, of reasonable love for all living beings.”
The Spectacle of Violence to Animals
There is no collective purification when violence against animals is made a show, deplores the theologian. “This observation can help to clarify the problem of amusement implying violence to animals. These emissions are often a celebration of color and movement, and it’s understandable that the crowds are fascinated by seeing human intelligence triumphant over the brute force unleashed. One can also understand that sentiment of solidarity can result, a common sentiment that enables them to justify the sacrifice of the animal and the risk for man. But is it real solidarity? Does it really bring people together? Is there really a collective purification of aggression? If the theory of a “catharsis” is true, society would be all the more peaceful as its shows would be brutal. Now, we all know that the contrary is true. If it is so, all means should be used to attain what represents the value of this amusement without its being to the detriment of the animal or cause excessive risks for man.”
Holiness, Reconciliation with Nature and with God
For Marie Hendrickx, this relation is part of the history of holiness, “because if holiness leads to reconciliation with nature, it’s probable that reconciliation with nature, well understood, fosters in its turn better relations with God. Or, if a good relationship with God makes people just to others and gentle with animals, the gentleness with animals could, in turn, awaken sentiments of admiration and praise in the human heart for the Creator’s great work of the universe.”
Some Other Subjects Addressed by Marie Hendrickx
She wrote her thesis at Louvain-la-Neuve on Saint Thomas Aquinas; it was then that I met her at Saint Francis’ parish, without knowing that we would see each other again in Rome. Her thesis is entitled: “Wisdom of God and Wisdom of Men. Commentary on Saint Thomas Aquinas on 1 Corinthians 1-4 and His Confrontation with the Great Gloss of Peter Lombard.” She did a synthesis of it in the Nouvelle Revue Theologique (110, no. 3, 1988).
The same Review published one of the articles on “The Magisterium and the Death Penalty: Reflections on the Catechism” (NRTh – 1, Volume 118 January-February 1996), and it’s known that the Catechism of the Catholic Church evolved on this point, as Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer explained to the Bishops of the whole world in 2018: in the name of “respect due to each human life,” capital punishment was deleted from the Catechism.
Marie Hendrickx also formed part of the Historical Commission (presided over by Rene Remond) during the diocesan phase of the Cause of Beatification of Father Joseph Wresinski (February 12, 1917 – February 14, 1988), Founder of ATD-Fourth World. She did a piece on Mary in the thought and theology of Father Joseph. With the Postulator, Marc Leclerc, also Belgian, who died on April 15, 2018, they launched a Joseph Wresinski Circle of Thought at the Vatican, which included Lucienne Salle, who worked at the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
Among numerous works, it’s necessary to recall the theologian’s participation in a collective work of Annals 2006-2007 of <Catholic Action> on education and social studies entitled: “Man and Woman He Created Them.” Marie Hendrickx treats feminism there according to John Paul II, stemming from his affirmation: Loved to love in turn,” basing herself on the encyclical Redemptoris Mater, the “Letter to Women” and the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem.
In the same line, she recalled the role and place of women in the Vatican, speaking on Vatican Radio in 2007.
The diocese of Liege published this biography of Marie Hendrickx
Born in 1953, she is the second of a family of 11 children and spent her youth taking care of her brothers and sisters to relieve her mother.
After studies of Social Communication sanctioned by a Master’s, enabling her to address the profession of journalist, she pointed herself to Theology in which she obtained a Doctorate from the University of Louvain with the highest grade. Going on, she obtained a Licentiate in Philosophy from the same University, while <at the same time> collaborating with one of her professors, Abbot Michel Schooyans. While waiting for the teaching post assigned to her, she pursued studies in Moral Theology at Milan. It was there that she was entrusted with the task to reread John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem.” When this Letter was published in 1988, she was put in charge of its presentation to the press.
It was then that Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, noticed her and asked her to work with him in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She returned speedily to the Vatican as Moral Adviser.
She worked there for close to 18 years. Thus she held a post in the Vatican rarely attributed to a woman in an essentially masculine milieu. In 1997, she worked with the Auxiliaries of the Apostolate.
Sadly, illness constrained her and after a few years, she returned to Belgium to take early retirement. During long months, she saw her health decline and offered her suffering in prayer. She died on August 16, 2020.
Her modesty and discretion in carrying out her functions did not open to her the audience of the great public. However, her formation and engagement placed her at the highest level of competence in the Church on questions of Philosophy and Theology.