Long before he was the pontiff, when he was just a young man named Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict was known as a cat guy.
Growing up in the village of Hufschlag, about 55 miles southeast of Munich, Benedict’s family always had pet felines and he fed strays who spent time in their garden. During his years teaching theology to students at Bavaria’s University of Regensburg in the 1970s, then-professor Ratzinger was often seen followed by an entourage of cats — the little ones he fed and cared for — as he crossed campus.
“They knew him and loved him,” said Konrad Baumgartner, a fellow theologian at Regensburg.
His affinity for his four-legged friends never faded, even as he took on more responsibility and had more demands on his time. Cardinal Tarsicio Bertone, one of Benedict’s colleagues, said the German clergyman had a natural connection with animals.
“On his walk from Borgo Pío to the Vatican, he stopped to talk with the cats; don’t ask me in what language he spoke to them, but the cats were delighted,” Bertone recalled. “When the cardinal approached, the cats raised their heads and greeted him.”
As pope, Benedict continued to care for strays, and had two cats of his own — one who’d been with him since before he was made the leader of the global church, and another he rescued off the streets of Rome.
Photos of Pope Benedict with cats are different than the typical shots showing him meeting with world leaders or waving to crowds. His expression and posture are more relaxed in the presence of felines, and he’s often smiling in the images that show him holding a cat.
But it wasn’t just personal for Benedict.
“Dominion” over animals
For centuries, some people — mostly outside Catholicism, but some Catholics too — have argued that animals exist for the use of mankind, that their purpose on this Earth is to serve as resources. Proponents of the view point to a handful of Old Testament quotes, including a famous quote from Genesis that says God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Genesis 9:3 attributes this quote to God: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.”
Other verses detail precisely which animals they can eat and remain in His good graces, and many Christian sects see those lines as a clear indication that God intended for animals to serve the needs of men.
But the Old Testament also tells us we can take slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46), that parents can have their kids stoned to death for disobeying them (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), that when children make fun of others, it’s totally cool to call upon righteous bears to maul them to death (2 Kings 2:23-24), and that people with blindness, flat noses and other ugly “blemishes” should wait outside church with the rest of the rejects while the good-looking people pray. (Leviticus 21:17-24).
Don’t even get me started on Sampson and the Book of Numbers.
The point is, if you’re going to be a stickler for things supposedly okayed or forbidden in the Old Testament, animals are the very least of your problems, especially if you trim your beard, let your hair get too long, wear shirts made of two different materials, or have ever placed a bet on DraftKings.
“Animals are God’s creatures”
As we look back on the life of the late pope emeritus, it’s worth noting that Benedict and his successor, Pope Francis, have rejected the view that animals are God’s version of scripted NPC automatons who exist so we can eat steak and wear leather jackets.
“Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures,” Pope Francis declared in 2015.
Benedict spoke out about the cruelty inflicted on animals, the incalculable suffering of animals in industrial farming circumstances, slaughtered by the billions for food after short, brutal lives in which no consideration is given to them as living, sentient creatures.
In a 2002 interview, Benedict called animals “companions in creation” and criticized the modern food industry for its “degrading of living creatures to a commodity.”
“Respecting the environment,” he said in a 2008 interview, “means not selfishly considering [animal and material] nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests.”
Francis made the church’s position absolutely clear with an encyclical — an official letter to members of the church — called Laudato Si. In it, he condemned the “ruthless exploitation” of animals as commodities and asserts they are individuals who are recognized by God. He urged Catholics to treat them well, to respect and protect wildlife and the environment they depend on.
Animal life has “intrinsic value,” Francis said, adding that Christians must reject the idea that animals are “potential resources to be exploited.”
As if speaking directly to people who use the aforementioned Old Testament quotes to support practices like factory farming, harvesting animals en masse for pelts and hunting for the “fun” of it, Francis said:
“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
Both popes also noted that, in addition to the suffering we cause, when we exploit animals as are also behaving in a way beneath the dignity of humankind. It’s a stain on our collective identity as a species, a betrayal of our roles as wardens of the planet.
Let’s put aside the moral considerations for a moment. The continued existence of the complex ecosystems on our planet — and indeed of humanity itself — depends on the many roles animals play, from carrying seeds to pollinating plants, limiting the growth of flora that would otherwise dominate and destroy other plants, rerouting water systems by creating dams, controlling the populations of creatures that would otherwise multiply unchecked, and the thousands of other roles they play in maintaining the balance of ecosystems.
Benedict left this Earth on Dec. 31, 2022, at a time when we have killed off almost 70 percent of all wildlife in the entire world. It’s not just a matter of living on a lonely planet, or tucking future children into bed while telling them that, no, they can’t see elephants or tigers because the last of them are dead. Removing keystone species, extirpating entire genera while rendering vast stretches of the planet uninhabitable, purging the oceans of life as they accumulate literal continents of plastic waste, means we’re marching toward a cascade failure most of us won’t even see coming as we argue about carbon credits, politicize common sense, tinker with viruses and edit genomes.
It’s long past time we recognize the fact that we share this planet with billions of other minds and start living in a way that respects them. If we can save them, perhaps we can save ourselves too.