Thursday, 25 November 2010

Meat-Eating in the Orthodox Church

We have received a request for a post and we would like to respond. This turns out to be our Thanksgiving post. But the question is about the Orthodox attitude to meat-eating. We think the timing is coincidental. But here you have our 2010 Thanksgiving post, those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving today.
The request goes like this, (slightly edited, see the comment on our post New Look for the original text):
I would be interested in reading a post that addresses compassionate diet and its relation to Orthodoxy. To elaborate, over time I have become increasingly concerned with unnecessary animal suffering as a component of human dietary patterns. Of course, this concern presupposes:
that animals are capable of suffering; as may be evident from:
(1a) scientific evidence wherein we can observe biological prerequisites for pain;
(1b) psychological evidence wherein we can observe stress, pain avoidance patterns, etc;
(1c) human-commonality wherein God-image differentiated sentience does not seem to confer an entirely unique mode of suffering (i.e. when I suffer, there is a strong existential analogy to how animals suffer, and as such I should be able to empathize in a real way);
that there is a standard of necessity; ostensibly that:
(2a) necessary suffering either has some teleological good in view (i.e. if I choose to suffer breaking my attachment to meat as a way to reduce animal suffering) or it is unavoidable in the course of mitigating or preventing an even greater suffering;
(2b) pleasure (at least impassioned) is not a teleological good if it is acquired in a manner which causes suffering (sadism?). If the basis of this concern is well-founded, then it seems that there is a good warrant to examine one's own dietary practices.
In addition to the above, I wonder whether a diet which minimizes death and suffering is:
  1. prophetic insofar that it points to an eschatological reality where death and suffering are no more (perhaps akin to how celibacy may be prophetic);
  1. a way to be more consistently pro-life;
  1. part of a compassionate Christianity which is not surpassed by Buddhism's regard for animal life;
  1. consistent with a eremitic/monastic precedent (which would seem related to the prophetic aspect at least).
What has to be discussed is Orthodox anthropology in relation to animal suffering and in relation to Buddhist anthropology.
Let us state the obvious. Christianity arises out of the Old Testament and can only be understood in that framework. This is not to say that both the Lord and the Church did not look at the Old Testament in certain ways that are now normative. It is to say that ‘Salvation is from the Jews’, as Our Lord said; that he was a Jew according to the flesh; and that he followed the Mosaic Law.
The basic element of Orthodox anthropology that concerns us is the creation of Man, and the relation of Man to the animals. Man is different from the animals in that God himself fashioned Man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him a breath of life, later taking a rib from Adam from which to fashion Eve. In the case of the animals, God merely gave a command and they were created.
Man was created in the image and likeness of God. The animals were not. There is a disjunction between the nature of Man and the nature of animals.
This is different from Buddhism in that Buddhism treats all sentient beings (‘sentient’ means ‘having sensation’) as being the same sort of thing. In Buddhism there is a continuity between Man and the animals. Indeed Buddhism treats all animals as ‘mothers’ to Man because of the doctrine of reincarnation: all animals were once men and all men were once animals. So there is a very big difference between Orthodox Christian anthropology and Buddhist anthropology.
St Gregory of Nyssa addresses the creation of Man in a work called On the Making of Man. This work was written to finish his brother St Basil the Great’s own work On the Six Days of Creation, interrupted at the creation of Man by Basil’s death.
The interesting thing that St Gregory does in On the Making of Man is combine Aristotelian psychology with the Genesis creation narrative in a way which really seems to foresee the Theory of Evolution. In Aristotelian psychology, there are a number of souls—the plant, the animal and the human—which coexist in Man. We might look at these various souls as functionalities in man. The Vegetative functionality is mere cellular nutrition; the Animal functionality is the sentient experience of one’s environment; the Human functionality is the image of God in Man. Man as the union of body and soul has all these functionalities.
Moreover, according to St Gregory these different souls or functionalities were created by God in stages (the days of creation). The Vegetative soul or functionality was created when the Lord created the plants. The Animal soul or functionality was created when the Lord created the animals. So in On the Making of Man we have the outline of a theory of evolution which treats of the gradual development of vegetative and animal functionalities in the world; and when man is created and given human functionalities, it is on the foundation of these lesser vegetative and animal functionalities which already exist in Creation.
Now the issue that ‘Memory of Death’ is raising revolves around the nature of suffering. Is it merely something that Man has because he has the Human functionality (soul) of the Image of God, or is it something Man shares with the animals as part of his animal functionality?
Clearly, all animals, by definition sentient, can feel pain. No one ever suggested that only Man can feel pain. Moreover, we do not think that anyone would want to insist that animals cannot suffer.
However, in the Old Testament, despite the fact that they can suffer, animals are eaten and sacrificed to God. When Our Lord cleansed the Temple, he did not suggest that sacrificing animals to God was wrong; he was reacting to the avarice of the men buying and selling in the Temple. At no time did Our Lord ever say that we should not eat meat. While he himself is recorded in the Gospel of John only as eating fish (after his resurrection), he attended various meals during his ministry and meat would have been served at those meals. At no time is he recorded as objecting to the meat.
Moreover, Our Lord at no time taught that sacrificing animals was wrong. Indeed, he directed at least one person he healed to show himself to the priest and to make the prescribed sacrifice so as to demonstrate that he was now clean.
Our Lord’s mother and Joseph the Guardian offered the prescribed sacrifice of two young birds when Our Lord was presented in the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.

Moreover, Our Lord, as a devout Jew, would have eaten the Passover lamb every year.  The Mosaic Law is clear that anyone who does not eat the Passover lamb is to be cut off from the Jewish people.  Clearly, if Jesus was not keeping the Passover, that would have been one of the charges against him in his trial.
(We are referring to the sacrifice of animals not in relation to Thanksgiving but to discuss Our Lord’s attitude to animals. Thanksgiving is a secular feast having its roots in Puritan culture in early America; it has nothing to do with Orthodoxy.)
In the New Testament, it is evident that some Christians (including, we believe, St James the Brother of the Lord) ate only vegetables. In the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem where St James was present, the Gentile converts to Christianity were exempted from the ritual provisions of the Mosaic law except that they were not to eat blood or animals that had been strangled (both things forbidden in the Mosaic law). Clearly, meat-eating was permitted.
In Acts St Peter was shown a vision of a sheet held up by its four corners that was full of all the animals of the earth and told to eat of all of them. He at first refused, saying that he had never eaten anything unclean, but God insisted. Hence, God explicitly allowed the eating not only of animals but of animals that Jews had previously considered unclean.
In his Epistles St Paul legislates that meat-eating is acceptable. He makes some points: we should not eat meat that we know is sacrificed to idols (although we can eat meat sold in the market without raising questions on the grounds of conscience if we do not know if the meat was sacrificed to an idol); we should not have disputes between those who eat only vegetables and those who eat meat: St Paul would rather not ever eat meat than cause scandal to a brother who eats only vegetables. Hence, St Paul has no problem with meat-eating but he also has no problem with people who are vegetarian. He thinks that the issues are elsewhere.
It should be clear from the above that there can be no dogmatic basis in Christianity for a ban on meat-eating.
Some points.
  1. From the beginning, being vegetarian was acceptable—but as a personal choice, not as a dogmatic position.
  2. Monks in the Orthodox Church do not normally eat meat. This derives from 4th Century Egypt. We don’t really recall a long explanation of why. If there is a prophetic or eschatological element in this, it is not emphasized. Moreover, in cases of serious illness monks are served meat.
  3. If an Orthodox Christian follows the fast rules of the Church, he will not eat that much meat. This is good from the point of view of the person’s health since a high-meat diet is dangerous from a medical point of view. The fast rules of the Church are based on the Mediterranean Diet, which is considered beneficial.
(The situation among the religious in the Roman Catholic Church is somewhat more ambiguous: the older orders with deeper roots in Egyptian monasticism do not ordinarily eat meat. The Cistercians come to mind. However newer orders which are not really monastic, such as the Jesuits, do eat meat.)
Now given that animals do suffer, should a Christian take this into account? We would imagine that a Christian would want to slaughter an animal with the least suffering simply on the basis of being a human being with a conscience. But we have never heard of the Bishops of the Church occupying themselves with slaughter-house practices.
It is true that industrial meat-raising—such as of pigs or chickens in sheds—is terrible from two points of view. First the animals are treated as commodities or machines, so they presumably suffer. Second, they are filled with all kinds of drugs and chemicals and whatever to get them ready as fast as possible for slaughter at a good price, and the food these animals are provided is an unnatural concoction. Apart from any issue of compassion for sentient beings, this makes the meat potentially dangerous for human consumption. But it is a long way to go from finding these practices distasteful to reaching a dogmatic position on meat-eating.
It should also be pointed out that although Buddhist anthropology makes the human nature continuous with the animal nature, Buddhist norms on meat-eating are by no means consistent across all forms of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, for example eats meat, by all accounts with a good appetite. Only some schools of Mahayana Buddhism absolutely forbid the eating of meat. Hence, trying to accommodate Orthodox Christianity to Buddhist compassion for all sentient beings is to follow a will-o’-the-wisp.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers!
Orthodox Monk


  1. Thank you for the important distinctions and clarifications you've made in this post!

  2. Great post! I would like more information on the role of meat in the Orthodox church. I know that abstaining from meat is a part of many fasts. Where does this come from historically?

  3. I'm an Orthodox inquirer, also considering vegetarianism, and would love to hear more on this topic.

    My reason for vegetarianism would be the regular cruel treatment of animals in our culture today. But I fear it would dilute my spiritual focus during the fast.

    Also, reading from the fathers (St. Basil, St. Jerome, and St. John Chrysostom), they all seem to suggest that God only allowed the eating of meat because of the "hardness of our hearts." So then wouldn't it be good for us to give it up?

    I am getting confused by the various ethical, theological, and ascetical aspects of the question. Perhaps you could write more on how a lay person might address the desire to be a vegetarian?