The Great Hierarchy of Being

Feast of St Paul the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople

Creation_Square.jpg“O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our little brothers whom Thou hast given this earth as their home in common with us. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve better in their place than we in ours.”                    – St. Basil the Great

I HAVE waited to share my thoughts on the furor over “Cecil the lion vs. the Babies” in the hopes that passions have cooled enough to consider the issue from another perspective.

Let me first say that Planned Parenthood's callous harvesting and sale of organs from aborted babies, some still alive while being vivisected, has rightly aroused civic outcry. Many news outlets, however, focused instead on the vicious killing of a beloved sanctuary lion named Cecil. This inequitable coverage rightly stirred outrage. But I think responding as though animals are mere things, towards which we have no moral restraints, is also unbalanced.

Granted, animals and humans are not created equal. A lion is not a human person and does not have human rights. Human beings, and only human beings, are made in the image and likeness of God. But this inequality does not relegate the lesser creatures to no status at all. Rather, each creature has its proper place in the hierarchical order of creation. And a protected, semi-tame animal, one who was known and loved by many people, has a place in this scheme of things. Our dominion over creation does not give us the right to do whatever we like to other creatures. To think it does reveals a diminished understanding of stewardship and our own status as creatures.

In Paradise, Adam did not kill and eat animals. Nor did he kill them for the sheer pleasure of it. He ate plants. Likewise, the animals. “Behold,” God says to Adam, “I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen 1:29, 30). In an account so spare, these words are not without import.

Adam was called to be the steward of God's creation, including sentient animals who were his first, inadequate, companions, and moving down the line through plants and lastly the earth. There was no fear between man and animal, because there was no killing. This intimate relationship of man to nature, in particular his call to understand and name the creatures, is beautifully explained in St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body. Human stewardship over creation, however, was not as one among equals. Rather, man was God's representative over each creature in its proper order, with each to be cared for with accountability to God for the exercise of that privilege.   

The killing began after the Fall, when Cain murdered Abel and all hell broke loose throughout God's beautiful creation. Perhaps Darwinian thinking might be excused for seeing nature running on the law of tooth and fang, because creation in its fallen state is quite bloody. We Christians follow suit when we fail to see all creatures, human or animal, as part of an inter-related, ordered whole created by God and returning to God. We reflect Darwinian influence when we see other beings (even other human beings) as competitors and rivals or mere things to be used in any way that suits us.

After the flood, in a nod to man's fallenness, killing is permitted, but only within limits. “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth . . . Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. . . . For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of every man. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:2-6). 

Man is permitted to kill animals for food and for sacrifice. Killing or tormenting animals for pleasure is not included in the Noahic covenant. Nor has mankind ever been given carte blanche over creation to do with as he pleases.    

Though fallen, we remain stewards. And as stewards, we are still answerable to God for the way we care for creation. In the ordered, hierarchical whole of creation, killing innocent human beings and tearing their organs from them is a crime of a radically higher sort than killing an animal for pleasure. Their blood, like Abel's, cries out to heaven for justice. But the killing of Cecil the lion is also sinful, because the steward of creation, acting in a way beneath his humanity, and beneath his call to stewardship, has shown himself to be vicious and cavalier towards a fellow, sentient creature. It's not an either/or situation, but a both/and, distinctions within an ordered whole.

From the beginning, the Fathers of the Church have pointed to our hope and belief that, in the end, all things will be recapitulated in Christ, the perfect Man, and returned to God the Father. For as St. Paul tells us, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it to hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:19-23).

May we strive towards this redemption in the exercise of our stewardship!


Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.

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