Quid Sumit Mus? A Different Take and Answer

Quid Sumit Mus? A Different Take and Answer April 6, 2010

It has often been asked, what would happen if some animal, such as a mouse, were to get a piece of communion and consume it. St Thomas Aquinas, representing the Western tradition, provided one way to answer this question. In it, we see an indication that Thomas wanted to keep the sacramental benefits for humanity alone. He follows a typically Western approach through his understanding of transubstantiation, and tries to find a well-crafted answer so as to explain why the animal would not receive the sacramental presence, even if they consume the accidents. There is much positive value in this traditional Western approach, and yet I feel it is lacking — it is lacking the Eastern, cosmic understanding of the work of Christ, and how his sacrifice was not just for humanity, but the whole of the cosmos.

If people do not want to address this concern with me, if they are fine with Thomas’ explanation, theologically, it is their right; but we do not have to see ourselves limited to Thomas’ answer, and we can look at it differently, from a cosmic approach, and come to a different conclusion. It is not that his general theology of transubstantiation, and the good which comes out of it when understood properly, is the problem — it is how it can be used, and was used, in some critical, secondary points to limit the sacramental presence which can be troubling. And it seems it is because of his lack of respect for animals which led to his a-cosmic understanding of Christ’s sacramental gifts. For me, as someone who is interested in animals and their role in the eschaton, this cannot remain the final answer.

Sergius Bulgakov has, as he often does, given me my own understanding of the cosmic significance of communion through his essay, “The Holy Grail.” In it he points out how Christ’s sacrifice was not just for humanity, but for the whole of the earth, and that the earth itself received Christ’s body and blood for its own sanctification, leading to Christ’s continued abiding in the earth itself:

The whole world is the Holy Grail, for it has received into itself and contains Christ’ precious blood and water. The whole world is the chalice of Christ’s blood and water; the whole world partook of them in communion at the hour of Christ’s death. And the whole world hides the blood and water within itself. A drop of Christ’s blood dripped upon Adam’s head and redeemed Adam, but also all the blood and water of Christ that flowed forth into the world sanctified the world. This blood and water made the world a place of the presence of Christ’s power, prepared the world for its future transfiguration, for the meeting with Christ come in glory.[1]

What is important here is that Christ’s blood mixes with the world at the moment of his sacrifice; that it is given to the world for its glorification and participation in the life of Christ at the height of his ministry. It is for this reason why Bulgakov points out the way Christ’s soteriological work is given not just to us (through the drop of blood given to Adam), but to the whole of the world. The physical, and not just sacramental, blood is contained in the world and is transfiguring it from within — the world is the world of paradise, graced by the love of God.

But, taking what Bulgakov has started here, we can look at Christ’s body as well as having been given up to the earth, not just at his point of sacrifice, but throughout his life. He was, after all, human. Our flesh is consistently dying, and going back to the earth — consumed by the things of the earth (fungi, animals, etc). Life on earth is, in effect, one long living death until we are transfigured in glory. Jesus’ whole ministry itself was one of constant giving of himself to others, but also of his body (and blood) to the world, which was already feeding off of him, and not just in the sacrament of salvation (the eucharist). Are we to imagine that the flakes of dead skin suddenly lost their essential nature when they fell off of his body? I do not think so. Although his body did not suffer corruption when in the tomb, he willingly entered the human condition, and experienced it for what it was. It would be rather docetical if his body did not experience the normal cycle of life and death that ours have; indeed, that it was possible for this to happen should be easily discerned in his circumcision, where his body was cut, and blood already poured forth from the wound. This shows us that his body acted as all human bodies acted before the resurrection.

This brings us now to the question of animal consumption of the eucharist. If we already see the world itself can be and is transfigured by his blood, by his physical blood, which provided the same grace as in the sacrament, then it becomes difficult to believe there would be no sacramental effect in an animal who consumes communion. It is clear that St Thomas Aquinas, and others who follow him and his theological reasoning, are trying to avoid scandal by finding a way to suggest animals do not experience the sacramental presence of Christ when they consume the carriers of that sacramental presence. But why is it seen as a scandal? Animals for Thomas have value in relation to human use and rule over them; he does not seem them properly for the kind of glory they contain. He denies rational souls to them, and so uses the lack of reason as a way to deny them communion.

While I strongly disagree with St Thomas’ understanding of animals, I do not want to enter that debate here.[2] If one begins to base arguments of sacramental experience on reason, and what one knowingly gets out of them, troubles begin, the kind we see such as in those debates which came about during the Reformation about the grace conferred upon infants in baptism. Or, we can bring it further, and mention the way infants receive communion in the East. To limit sacramental grace and experience to those who know what it is they receive will have consequences which have not been properly thought out. In such a light, I find this response, though I understand why Thomas produced it, is dangerous. The grace is a gift of God, and it transcends us, and helps perfect nature. Of course, one can and should point out, the more potential one has, the greater the benefits available to them in the sacraments; that would be a fine and important point which could be used to help differentiate the grace available in the sacrament to different types of animals, if they should ever partake of it.

Nonetheless, it still seems that the central concern is one which ignores Christ’s cosmic role, and wants to limit his work to that of humanity alone. It ignores the real world experience of Christ, the real work of Christ. What Christ himself offered to the world cannot be an abuse if the world, in one fashion or another, receives it. Of course, this is not saying we should be out and about and providing the sacraments to animals (that question is more complicated than this), but it does not mean we need to deny them sacramental grace if they happen to partake of communion. For me, what happens if a mouse partakes of communion is easily answered: the mouse receives the medicine of immortality, opened to them by God because Christ has already given everything, body and blood, to world and all that is within it. We do not have to assume that the sacraments, as we know of them, are normative for others beyond ourselves; he might have, through his sacrifice, offered other, normative ways of grace for animals. It is for this reason such extraordinary circumstances, when they happen, become the exceptions which prove the norm.

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, “The Holy Grail,” in The Holy Grail & The Eucharist. Trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1997), 44.

[2] See instead my essays “God and Creation: Are Humans the Only Ones Made in the Image and Likeness of God?”, “All Creation Sings The Glory of God: Who Are We To Kill Such Songs?” and “On The Mediatorial Relationship of Humans with Animals.”

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  • brettsalkeld

    Interesting Henry. As far as I can tell, the sacramental grace conferred on baptized infants or infants receiving the Eucharist is dependent on their membership in a community of faith. Without this, claiming sacramental grace for those who lack understanding looks a bit too much like magic for my liking. This is not to totally dismiss the possibility of grace for animals, but to say that the question must be framed within a broader context about the divinization of all of creation. The West has some sense of this in making the Eucharist the body of Christ that sanctifies the Church and the Church the body of Christ that sanctifies the world, including, presumably, animals.
    Have you read Gustave Martelet’s The Risen Christ and the Eucharistic World? I think you would like it. It doesn’t deal directly with animals, but Martelet’s reflections, following Teilhard, on the transubstantiation of the world might provide some fodder for your thoughts on this issue.

    • Brett

      Yes, the community aspect is there, but nonetheless, even then, there are other cases, like Augustine’s friend who was baptized while unconscious. But I would also add that I think the sense of community could be enlarged to include animals (Brother Wolf, for example), so that one could use that as a way to deal with Aquinas’ understanding and engage a different conclusion. Obviously, I am coming to this from a “Church as Sacrament” view, and an Eastern view which says “don’t number the sacraments and limit them to those we have numbered.” I think the ordinary case for animals would be something we don’t understand, though connected with and through humanity.

      No, I have not read Martelet; I have to admit, sacramentology has not been my main area in systematic theology — of course, it is studied, but I’ve focused more on eschatology and Christology, so it also helps explain why I come to this from a different perspective, and I think and hope, a way which can bring further dialogue and discussion on issues by looking at them in means which have not yet been done.

  • Henry –

    while I admire your approach to creation, and share many of its tenets, as you well know, I also disagree with what I take to be your refusal to distinguish the modes of ensoulment (rational, sensible, vegital). I’m sure you can recall the long debate we had on this matter on our blog.

    Anyway, my only concern with your position here is that it seems to make the grace in the eucharist too objective! In other words, it tends to view the consecrated bread as if it were a ‘holy power pill’ whose holiness is entirely and unqualifiedly independent of our participation in the mystery.

    Now, to be sure, I would not deny that the sacramental “power” in the eucharist exceeds all participation, and in this regard can be thought of as “objective” (a term I loathe, but one that in this context works), and independent of human participation. Nor would I reduce the sacras potestas of the eucharist to the “subjective” (ugh..) level of the community of believers.

    Instead, the two work in a mode of mutual intermediation. So while I would oppose views of the Eucharist that would appropriate all the efficacy to the community of believers, so too would I oppose the view that eliminates this.
    It seems to me that your position draws near to such an elimination.

    Now, perhaps, you would respond by advancing an analysis of “mouse” participation, maintaining that although the way a mouse would participate in the Eucharistic efficacy is not like a human, there is nevertheless a participatory role for the mouse.
    I suppose I could concede that in the grand scheme of cosmic redemption this view is theologically defensible. And given my own Dionysian proclivity to the world as theophany, such a concession would not be straining.

    But what is participation, really, for a soul that is not rational in the scholastic sense of the word? My answer would be: it is gift for the rational soul! Animals participate insofar as they serve as illuminations of God’s glory. But in this sense they are meant for us humans, and not for themselves. Or rather – their being is given to them insofar as they are given to us (thus recapitulating for our understanding the same dynamic in terms of our giving our being to God in order to secure it for ourselves). A mouse in its own existence is born, eats, grows, reproduces and dies. It leaves no mark in history (as narration, not as ontological fact), does nothing to consciously promote the glory of God. The only way it promotes God’s glory occurs only insofar as it is perceived, seen and taken in by the rational soul.

    I think that your desire to ‘humanize’ animals, if I many speak in this way, while admirable opens to a univocal predication of being – and I know you wouldn’t want that.

    Anyway, I know we have discussed this at length before. Still, with respect to this particular point, I do think that you over-objectify the grace in the eucharist, which itself opens to the risk of commodifying the grace itself – that is, turning the grace into some reified commodity to be received by accumulation (over-quantifying it, so to speak).

    • Brendan

      Yes, I know we can and will probably discuss these issues in length, from time to time. I am just going to make a few responses here, because I do know we are not far apart in many ways, and we are far apart in others. I know my views of animals are contra-the Western approach, but I am slowly developing it further (and I will include links to the three I referenced in the footnote here, because they are important and deal with some of the points you make).

      But first, I want to point out I tried to point out a way of saying what you said here by discussing how the grace will be based upon the potential of the creature:

      Now, perhaps, you would respond by advancing an analysis of “mouse” participation, maintaining that although the way a mouse would participate in the Eucharistic efficacy is not like a human, there is nevertheless a participatory role for the mouse.

      In this way, I think we both agree.

      Now, as for whether or not animals are already rational, or will be rational through grace — while I think the second way is the normal way to approach it, I still think the first is the one which makes more sense to me, the more I study animals and reflect upon them. I can and will look at them in both ways, depending upon the discussion. For example, when looking at them via Lewis, it follows more your own direction: here. But I would say my own normative approach are better seen in these two other pieces: here and here .

      Now you bring about a post on the mouse and history. Before we get to the mouse, we must remember, even in human history, many animals do play a powerful role, as shown in Scripture — from Balaam’s ass, to Daniel in the lion’s den, to Christ’s ride into Jerusalem, we see history includes the animal world; indeed, prophetic, salvation history does as seen by the third example. Nonetheless, I would also say that we must not confuse human understanding of history as being the full understanding of history and roles within history. I feel there is too much a human-sided approach which is prideful and not humble, which says “if I don’t know it, I discount it.” I would say — mice have their own history, some which we might see, some which we might not — but even if it is not for us save in an interdependent way, we should not nonetheless dismiss mice in God’s overall plan and for them. Moreover, their lives are known to be more creative their your description by those who study and work with them.

      Finally, I am not really quantifying or objectifying the grace, though I can understand why you would think so. Indeed, I think the Western approach does it and mine is more open because it is working to counter-act such objectification I see that ignores the Eastern mystery — instead of trying to detail everything, having a vague sense of things is enough, which is not objectification because it is not approaching beyond a recognition of “something there, too.” I especially find Thomas is quite objective in this very issue.

  • Mike L

    It has always been my impression that Thomas was an “Apologist”, that is he attempted to show that what we believed was not against reason. In doing so, he developed a philosophy, much like a mathematical model on which to build his arguments. But while he built a system that is elegant and consistent, I think it was only later that we began to believe that this system was “real”, that it was in fact an accurate model or description of the real world, both physical and spiritual.

    I think that today we know more of the world, and many can no longer accept the “reasonable” assumptions that Thomas made. It is my believe that today we need a new Thomas to propose a new model that is closer to the world as we know it today and perhaps to remind us of what aplogetics is – not showing that a belief is true, but that it is not unreasonable.

    Peace and Happy Easter to all.

    Mike L

  • David Nickol

    Suppose you had an experimental group made up of a large number of mice, and you fed them consecrated communion wafers. The control group would be fed the exact same kind of wafers, but they would not be consecrated. After a significant amount of time, would there be any distinguishable differences between the two groups of mice?

    Suppose you had two very similar Catholic parishes. In one parish, communion would be distributed as usual. In the other parish, unconsecrated hosts would be secretly substituted for consecrated hosts at communion time. No one, even the priests at the parishes, would know which parish was receiving the consecrated hosts and which was receiving the unconsecrated hosts. At the end of a significant period, would there be any physical, psychological, or discernible spiritual differences between the two groups of parishioners?

    • David

      I would suggest you look to some of Brett’s posts on communion, he does a good discussion on this.

  • brettsalkeld

    Ach, Henry. Don’t stick me with those questions. They’re tough!

    My instinct is that there would be no difference in the mice and no difference in the people, but for different reasons. (I would not be surprised however, if there was a difference in the people, but quantifying grace is tricky business.)

    For the mice I think there would be no difference because they don’t receive communion with Christ.

    For the people I think there would be no difference because “the Church supplies.”

    An example. On his death bed, a bishop confided that, since he had always hated Jesuits, he did not, in fact, intend to do what the Church does when he was asked to ordain them. All of the Jesuits “ordained” by him were not, in fact, ordained. They were fakes. Now, the question became, shall we ordain them properly? And what should we do about all the weddings, baptisms, confessions, eucharists etc. that they have performed? And are any of them now bishops ordaining others?

    The response was that they should not be ordained because “the Church supplies.”

    As I said, this is my first instinct, not a definitive answer.

    • Brett

      There are a few reasons why I stick them to you. First I think much of what David was asking was, in some way, dealt with your posts (or at least a foundation for an answer could be found in them). Second, today I am recovering for a horrible night. Third, this is, in part, your area of expertise, and so defer to you 🙂

  • David Nickol


    Based on my many degrees in canon law and theology from Google University, my understanding is that “the Church supplies” (“Ecclesia supplet”) does not come into play here, since what the Church supplies is jurisdiction, not the grace or other benefits of a sacrament in the absence of the valid performance of that sacrament.

  • brettsalkeld

    You may be right. However, once that is taken away, I really gots nuthin’. I’ll try remember your question next time I can indulge one of my profs.

  • David Nickol

    When I was a senior in high school, I was an editor on the school newspaper. Our faculty adviser was a Christian Brother who was, at the time, among a group who was writing new religion textbooks. We would occasionally have debates about religious questions, and one I particularly remember was our question to him as to whether lead transubstantiated to gold (if such a thing were possible) should sell for the price of lead or the price of gold. It seems obvious to me now that the answer should have been that what makes gold valuable is its “accidents,” not its “substance,” and therefore something with the “accidents” of lead but the “substance” of gold would be as valuable as lead, not gold. But as I recall, he was stumped.

  • brettsalkeld

    One of the problems with the way transubstantiation has been understood and presented historically is that it sounds as if it is a change between two of the same kinds of things. In fact, properly understood, transubstantiation cannot mean such a change. It is, as many critics of transubstantiation (see Michael Craig-Martin’s, An Oak Tree) have noted, literally nonsense to talk about the substance of gold under the accidents of lead.
    In fact, transubstantiation is best understood in the context of John 1. Christ is the ground and goal of all existence. He is slowly transforming all of creation into his glorified body. Christ is the only possible “substance” that can “replace” another substance because he is closer to each thing than the things are to themselves. Aquinas says something like, “transubstantiation takes away that which kept a thing from being Christ.” That is a fascinating idea. Transubstantiation is a paring down of reality to its most basic constituent. We can’t really take away from lead that which was preventing it from being gold. (I should probably do a post on this eventually.)
    In any case, my guess about the price of the gold is that it depends quite entirely upon the faith of the buyer. 😉 Now that’s the price you can get. Catholic social teaching doesn’t accept the idea that the price you can get is always the price you should get.;)

  • Before getting into serious discussion, the question of the intelligence of mice reminds me of the BBC television series, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” which postulated that the Earth was a gigantic computer that was commissioned by this race of pan-dimensional beings (who when they appeared on Earth looked like mice) in order to answer the ultimate question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” With regard to the Cosmic Impact of the Eucharist, it seems that the original post was focusing more on the physical aspects of Christ’s Body rather than the Eucharistic Elements of His Body. The Blood which poured forth from His side on the Cross mixed with the earth much in the same way that the Eucharistic Host mixes with (is absorbed by) our human digestive system. I have a hard time seeing what happened nearly two thousand years ago on a little piece of ground having an effect on the whole physical world 2000 years later. To carry on the idea that Christ died so that as St. Paul says, “all creation is groaning” and, therefore, we will have a “new heaven and a new earth,” please listen to the lectures of Dr. Brant Pitre (www.brantpitre.com) on the “Seven Last Things”. However, regarding the Eastern Christian view of the cosmological change, there is an interesting idea that the Eucharist is the first in-breaking of this new cosmology, “a new heaven and a new earth.” When the bread and wine are transubstantiated (a Western word, rather than an Eastern concept) into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, this is the first episode of that cosmic transformation when there will be a new heavens and a new earth and “all things will be in Christ.” From this eschatological perspective of the resurrection of the body, we might say that mice will have some role to play in this new creation, however, it is beyond my ken to know what that might look like. Therefore, maintaining the Objective Reality of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, I think we must say that the mouse does receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord. What benefit it receives from that reception, may only be known in the new creation. I still think that the use of “ex opere operto” and “ex opere operantis” helps us in this discussion. For by “ex opere operato” the mouse receives the objective Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord, but “ex opere operantis” is does not benefit spiritually from the reception because it does not have a rational soul. The argument of comparing a baby and a mouse receiving Eucharist is easily settled by this distinction. Both receive the Real Presence, however, and both receive little benefit “ex opere operantis” because neither is intelligent enough to understand what has happened. The difference is that the baby has the capability and the potential for understanding the great gift that it received because of its rational soul. The mouse will never be able to understand what it has received because it lacks the rational, intelligent soul to communicate in that way, no matter what effect it may have for the mouse in the new creation. Will the mouse who received the Real Presence have any greater place in the New Creation, than a mouse who did not receive? Babies have a rational soul that can grow and develop. Animals do not. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in “The Everlasting Man,” if human being were evolved from monkies then we would see, in some rudimentary form, the ability of spontaneous artistic expression in monkies. (I am not talking about human scientific experiments). To quote Robin Williams from the “Dead Poet’s Society,” ‘We don’t read an write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race; and the human race is filled with PASSION.”

    • Fr. Larry
      How do you know the mouse is not intelligent enough to know what happened, that it lacks the intelligent, rational soul? Every indication I have seen from mice is that they are so smart, they know how to beat our mouse traps.

  • David Raber

    David N.,

    When the consecrated host is analyzed scientifically, it looks like a mere wheat wafer, so perhaps the results of your experiment involving those two different parishes would be similar.

    And I assume that since you can have a “baptism of desire,” i.e., a true baptism without an actual baptism, you can have a consecrated host without a consecrated host.

    Can the workings of the spirit be measured and quantified, figured out? In only one sense that I can think of: “You will know them by their fruits.”

  • David Nickol

    David R.,

    If you can have the same effects with invalid sacraments as with valid sacraments, then what do we need real sacraments for? Remember a little over two years ago the CDF declared that people baptized in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) were simply not baptized. If they had been invalidly baptized and then married, they were not married. So presumably some who thought they were both baptized and married were not, and they had to get baptized and married. Now, it seems to me on the one hand that a God who would withhold graces from people who through no fault of their own thought they were validly baptized and married would not be just or benevolent. But on the other hand, If you get the same benefit from good intentions (say, baptism of desire) than for actually receiving a sacrament, then what is the point of the sacrament?

    I much prefer the Catholic approach to the necessity of baptism to some Protestant interpretations which claim that without baptism (of water), a person cannot be saved. So people who lived after the time of Jesus in areas where Christianity had not spread were damned because they could not be baptized, even though they had no possible way of knowing that there was such a person as Jesus or such a thing of baptism. But it seems to me that once you start saying that it is “baptism of desire” if a person who has never heard of baptism can be saved by baptism of desire, you have abandoned the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation. Jesus specifically talks of baptism by water and the Spirit. Baptism of blood and baptism of desire are inventions — reasonable and compassionate inventions, but still inventions.

  • That mice are more intelligent than humans was the premise behind “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” When we were putting the mice in those little mazes the mice were really doing experiments on us. But to answer your question, I know that we, while perhaps not more intelligent than mice, are made in the image and likeness of God. This I know not only from the Book of Genesis but also from the fact that unlike mice, going back to G.K. Chesterton’s argument on evolution, do not produce art, literature, science, or history.

    The argument about the efficacy of the sacraments is covered very well in Dr. Scott Hahn’s book, “Swear to God.” Hahn argues that the sacraments are sacred covenant oaths that join us to God’s family. In other words, when we celebrate the sacraments with form, matter, and intent according to His promises His grace appears, “ex opere operato.” Can God’s grace work outside the confines of the sacraments. Yes, God is not limited in His ability to save. Why then celebrate the sacraments at all? Because God promised when we do “this” He will be present. We cane be certain of the grace of Baptism, when someone follows form, matter, and intent; when we count on a Baptism by desire we just have to trust in God’s mercy rather than His promises. One of my favorite lines from Scripture is from Ezekiel, “I have promised, and I will do it says the Lord.”

    • Fr. Larry

      How do we know mice do not produce art, literature, science or history? And more importantly, is this the way we judge someone is made in the image of God? This is dangerous, and is beginning to read to ways societies found ways to declare other humans as not humans, while ignoring what the others did which they might not have done.

      I recommend the same posts I suggested earlier to you.

  • Henry and Fr. Larry,

    There is one response to the skepticism regarding the superiority of human intelligence, and it runs as follows:

    It is the most irrational, and hence unintelligent, act to refuse to manifest the capacity and efficacy for reason. This is the first principle. Rationality is self-diffusive.

    Now, if one is to argue that animals like mice (though dolphins are usually the pro-animalite favorite) are in fact intelligent in a way that might even be considered rational, or that they might even be “smarter” than humans, one is arguing this position on one of two premises:

    1) intelligence is being measured by the proportion between the size of the brain to the capacity it is used. On these grounds, the argument may be defensible. But this is an entirely internal ground that reduces intelligence to solipsism, neglecting the way that intelligence is given and lived in community. And because it really focuses on brain use, it is not an accurate measure of intelligence since brain sizes and brain powers vary among the species. It would be like arguing that the ant is the strongest animal, to which the most appropriate retort would be to step on the next ant that came along.

    2) that the lack of empirical evidence is enough to justify a positive belief – although I never see animals exhibiting reasonable behaviors, I can still say they are rational creatures.
    In other words, just because we don’t see animals exercising intelligence does not allow us to deny that they are intelligent.

    It is against this second argument that I would propose my principle above: intelligence, as a mode of goodness, is self-diffusive. Hence, the lack of its effect allows us to deny its presence.
    I can justifiably say that this statue before me is not alive because it doesn’t nor has it ever manifest symptoms of life. Life is also self-diffusive.
    I would add art to this list of self-diffusive qualities. All these are modes through which the Good diffuses itself to the world and so they share in this self-diffusive quality.

    The reason these realities (good, life, reason, art) are self-diffusive is because they are not simply inert properties of a thing. They are transcendental powers given from an origin that is other to the natural order, even if they are given in and through the natural order.

    So to suggest that a mouse, or dolphin, could in fact be an artist despite ever having produced one single shred of self-conscious evidence that they are in fact an artist is to fundamentally misunderstand what art is. The same goes for reason.

    So how can we know that animals are not rational? Because they don’t act in rational ways. Any example of animals acting in rational ways would be due to the ‘passing on’ let’s say of reason’s power by humans. Human beings, in other words, would have introduced reason into a particular environment in one way or another and human beings are the ones recognizing themselves in the reflection now manifest in animal behavior.

    But in these cases, reason is an accidental rather than an essential reality for animals.

    (Rehashing a lot of what we discussed a few years ago on our blog, I know, but it’s still fun to discuss.)

    • Brendan,

      Your answer troubles me to some degree, because it basically says they do not reason, and we know they don’t reason, because we don’t see evidence of their reasoning, and if we see evidence of their reasoning, it’s not really evidence of their reasoning but evidence we are making them act like they have reason. Observations of animals, often when they do not know they are being observed by humanity, nonetheless shows all kinds of reason going on — at least within the higher forms of animals (dogs, cats, foxes, elephants, primates, et. al). Sometimes it is true, it is because they learn something from us, but so do babies — the fact that they learn something should indicate reasoning ability, not the lack of it. When one actually explores the evidence provided by scientists doing the observations of animals, and their social structures, their creation of tools, indications of possible funeral rites in some species, we really do get evidence of reason going on. Of course, one can say “it’s all instinct.” But one can really argue that for all of humanity, if we wanted to go into this materialistic way of thinking and utter skepticism of the other. When they act in ways which indicate reason, the best evidence is that it is their reasoning we see, just as with the case with humanity.

      And so this brings us to your point #2. In reality, there is all kinds of evidence of reason in various species. Dolphins are, for example, brought up as one example in the writings of MacIntyre.The fact that you might not know the evidence is not the same thing as lack of evidence, and I know you know that; but the thing is you are arguing there is a lack of empirical evidence, when scientists themselves are, working within the domain of empirical science, coming to the opposite conclusion. Marc Beckoff in The Emotional Lives of Animals provides several examples (in, admittedly a popular book, but one which he also suggests where one can discover more of the data).

      As for #1, if you are making intelligence an issue of proportionality, then we can also begin to discuss proportional reason in animals. Nowhere has it been said that they are our equals here, though some might be closer than others. And nowhere do I really say this is how we measure intelligence, though it is a good beginning for empirical observations. But there are other things than the size of the brain which are researched; elements in the brain, which have various functions, are an issue for thought processes, and they are being studied even as we speak — and used for animal experimentation, even (not saying I agree with the experimentation, but the results of it are stunning: drugs used to help deal with depression in part come out of this research). Beyond that, though, sometimes the argument is “they don’t produce books, therefore, they are not rational” (that is just one kind of argument, and it is just an analogy). However, they do things which we cannot do — do not confuse how we use our reason as the only way reason can be used, nor the only way we can see the social dimensions of reason. Again, it is quite clear for many animals, such as elephants, the social dimensions are there. We must remember the kinds of arguments used against “primitives” – often similar kinds of ones being made here — saying “see, they don’t have great literature” and ended up with “so subhuman.” It is a dangerous slope because it is looking for a univocal approach to reason, instead of accepting that different kinds of use of reason is possible, not just within humanity, but within the whole of animal kind. Since the needs are different and the proportional use of reason will be different, of course the results will be different (just like I find in my day, my own use of reason increases and decreases depending upon the effects of my cfs).

  • Henry,

    it basically says they do not reason, and we know they don’t reason, because we don’t see evidence of their reasoning, and if we see evidence of their reasoning, it’s not really evidence of their reasoning but evidence we are making them act like they have reason.

    I would respond by saying that the very name “reason” or “reasoning” when used to signify animal behavior is entirely derived from human minds, and not from animals themselves. This is the real heart of my point. No matter what animals do, they will never be conscious of their behavior to the degree that would merit the name “reason.” Any association with reason comes only through the human mind and not through the animal mind. It is, as I said, accidentally applied to animal behavior, which means it is not essential to their behavior. (Unless, of course, you can direct me to texts written by animals where this issue is discussed or where they contemplate their behavior as rational….)

    I don’t see why this is troubling on any level.

    So when you write:

    Observations of animals, often when they do not know they are being observed by humanity, nonetheless shows all kinds of reason going on — at least within the higher forms of animals (dogs, cats, foxes, elephants, primates, et. al).

    you seem to displace the ground of my point. I am not arguing that human influence elevates animal behavior in only a direct way. I am arguing that the ‘naming’ of animal behavior as “reasonable” is a purely human inference. Animals do not use this word. It is entirely impossible for humans to know what animals are doing beyond human observation – a truism, I know, but it helps the point. Human observance is de facto an activity that already introduces reason into the mix.

    In my view, your position is a form of ‘cultural triumphalism’ akin to when the West would invade an indigenous people and essentially project onto their behavior concepts and categories derived entirely from the invaders culture (only in method – I don’t mean to imply any ill will on your part; on the contrary, yours has an admirable and valuable motivation). This of course prevented any sort of real engagement with the indigenous culture since novelty was always reduced to what was already familiar. In effect, this is what I think your position tends to do with the animal world. In forcing them to fit the mold of “rationality” you don’t allow animals to be what they are – irrational! And I wonder how we can really value something if we are unable to let it be itself.

    In the end, no matter how much scientific research goes into trying to understand animal behavior, no human “observation” will elevate the kind of soul possessed by an animal, just as no effort on the part of an angel will make a human soul into an angelic one.

    This is the beauty of the analogy of being – the many levels of being hold their own integrity, never to be violated in either direction, and only because of this beautiful diversity of being can being as a unity be illuminated.

    Now, if scientific research uncovers behaviors that they believe to exhibit reasonable qualities, rather than concluding that animals are therefore rational, we ought to allow this data to introduce a precision into our understanding of what it means to be rational.
    Clearly, being a rational creature involves more than building shelter, or caring for our young.

    But until animals build churches and hospitals, there is no evidence that manifests the presence of a power of reason where reason is understood most broadly as the power of self-transcendence. Any transcendence on the part of the animal is by virtue of the human intervention.

    Besides, it seems you did not respond to the overall point: reason is self-diffusive. And by reason, I do not mean caring for the young in a unique way, or building a shelter, or doing something intelligent. I mean exhibiting powers of self-transcendence; exhibiting the will to improve not only one’s self, but one’s community, one’s species and one’s world.

    Can you bring forth evidence that demonstrates animals are doing this?
    If not, then yes, the lack of it is evidence that they don’t possess this power essentially (even if they might possess a degree of capacity to receive it). There are contexts in which an argument from lack of evidence is accurate (the statue example I gave earlier). If animals did possess reason as the power of self-transcendence and did not use it, it would be the most irrational thing.

    In the end, though, I’ll restate what I stated above and the point I arrived at in our discussion some years ago: I think your position, while admirable in trying to elevate the value of animal life, in the end commits the same mistake that marked the West’s similar efforts during imperialism – it fails to allow animals to be animals.

    • Brendan,

      Just a quick response this time for now. In my view, your vision is a kind of triumphalism which basically ends up circular in reasoning, and ends up deconstructing the ability to find reason in other humans. “They don’t use the word we use.” So? So what if they do or don’t? You are still trying for a univocal approach, and that is the problem. Your approach has also been used for degeneration of humans; it is quite similar to the approach of scientists denying humanity to embryos…. anyway I could say more if my head wasn’t so fogged up. I do think your position is quite a priori and ignores many of the questions and approaches used by those who engage the question itself — the book I suggested would be a good start.

      Now, if scientific research uncovers behaviors that they believe to exhibit reasonable qualities, rather than concluding that animals are therefore rational, we ought to allow this data to introduce a precision into our understanding of what it means to be rational.
      Clearly, being a rational creature involves more than building shelter, or caring for our young.

      And clearly more than building shelter and caring for young is involved in the explorations of animals; I think a difficulty we are having is a lack of examination of the data, and a refusal to read it with a priori interpretations going on, a hermeneutic which makes it impossible to do anything and is, at times, self-contradictory. Don’t show evidence, but any evidence is no evidence.

      • PS I would like to try to tackle your question about spirituality and hospitals another time. It would take a post of its own. But I will have to collect some evidence for it, and not sure when I will get to it — but there is evidence of spirituality and medical aid between animals…

  • The now Bishop of St. Augustine made an interesting observation. What separates mankind from animals? If you put a dog in a cage and did not feed him for three days, then his master comes and lets him out and sets a bowl of food in front of him, would the dog say to himself, “I want to show my master how much I love him. I am going to fast and not eat this food.” If we argue that animals have reason, then we must accept the principal that they are self-reflexive and can make choices based on a ‘reasonable’ decision. But have you ever known a dog to be willing fast for its master after being hungry for three days? A human being is self-reflexive and need not make choices based on instinct and physical need.

    • Fr. Larry

      Many problems with your question. First, it assumes a univocal response is the only way to deal with any situation. Second, it ignores how most humans would be in such a situation. Third, it assumes the dog would have any reason to love someone who tortured him. Fourth, on the other hand there are many situations which dogs and other animals do act with self-reflection — indeed, what is interesting is how the mirror test is used and can be used for different animals, and some make it very clear their self-consciousness (though the assumption that if the fail the test there is no self-consciousness is, I think, wrong, because it assumes too many things). I do know of animals willing to go hungry for the sake of others, however.

  • Henry,

    I have to contest the point once again. I would argue that it is you who is promoting the kind of univocal thinking that you are accusing both me and Fr. Larry of using.
    I must admit I don’t see how your response offers anything substantive to the many arguments I have outlined.

    Here is what you wrote:

    In my view, your vision is a kind of triumphalism which basically ends up circular in reasoning, and ends up deconstructing the ability to find reason in other humans. “They don’t use the word we use.” So? So what if they do or don’t? You are still trying for a univocal approach, and that is the problem. Your approach has also been used for degeneration of humans; it is quite similar to the approach of scientists denying humanity to embryos….

    I confess that I don’t see the circularity to my reasoning. All I see is a deflection of a claim I made against you, with no real substantive foundation. Simply claiming I am arguing a kind of cultural triumphalism does not make it true.

    The problems in your statement are numerous. First, you seem to forget that I am speaking at the level of species, not individuals. Therefore, I am arguing that the essential nature of human beings is that they are rational. I am therefore saying that what makes animals unique is that they are not.

    Your pointing out the obvious historical evidence that some humans (Nazis, e.g.) have tried to deny humanity to other humans is not an argument. It is a rhetorical device that tries to discredit by association. In this case, you are claiming that since the denial of reason to some humans is wrong, it is therefore wrong in any situation. In effect, your argument seeks to undermine the force of definition based upon a few examples where definitions were misused.

    But if there were and are human beings who try to deny rationality to other human beings based upon a too stringent definition of human, this in no way denies the truth that definitions are still valid.
    Otherwise, you derail the force of your own argument which also implicates definitions.

    Unlike your position, mine recognizes a diversity of kinds within being itself – the very essence of an analogical ontology.

    It is yours that is advancing a univocal sort of metaphysics because you refuse to acknowledge an essential difference between animals and humans.

    As I understand your argument, you state the following:
    There are numerous examples of other human beings who have denied humanity to humans. Therefore it is always wrong to deny humanity to any organism.

    This is odd to say the least.
    In my denial of reason/humanity to animals, I in no way align myself with those who have denied humanity to humans. In fact, my position would be a force against that sort of claim, since I am willing to recognize what makes a human being uniquely human.
    In fact, it is the kind of position you espouse that would blur the line between animal and human, allowing humans to be reduced to animals based on any given idealism.

    To respond to what you wrote here:

    And clearly more than building shelter and caring for young is involved in the explorations of animals; I think a difficulty we are having is a lack of examination of the data, and a refusal to read it with a priori interpretations going on, a hermeneutic which makes it impossible to do anything and is, at times, self-contradictory. Don’t show evidence, but any evidence is no evidence.

    You do seem somewhat clouded, perhaps tired, in your thinking. Maybe you’ve been posting too much, as normally you are a very lucid and clear thinker.
    Be that as it may, I think the difficulty we are having is this:

    You approach the issue already assuming a synonymy between animals and humans, while I approach the issue assuming a difference.
    But the evidence certainly points in my direction.

    Your position leads to pure skepticism. To wit: you claim that my position, which in part advances itself based on the lack of any evidence that animals are rational, is unfounded because lack of evidence is no basis for drawing any conclusions.
    But if this is a true principle, then trust in anything is impossible, and absolute skepticism is the inevitable end.

    I have no evidence that my wife is an alien from another planet sent here to kill me in my sleep, but I can still rest assured that she is not based in part on the lack of evidence to suggest otherwise. I have no evidence that my car won’t blow up when I turn the key, and in part based on this lack of evidence I can safely drive tomorrow.

    I see no evidence in animals that they are artists or that they are self-transcending. Therefore, I can trust that God has gifted the human species with this capacity. We can share it, and introduce it into lower species, but this means that the quality will always be accidental to animals and not essential.

    Once again, my claims is not only based on the negative argument of lack of evidence, but on the positive claim that reason, like goodness, is self-diffusive.
    You have yet to refute this claim.

    • Brendan

      I have suggested, and once again will suggest, you are talking in an idealistic, a priori fashion; your denial of empirical evidence and any means of engaging empirical evidence through your hermeneutic shows this. It is evident by the way you demand the evidence — assuming that reason from different creatures necessarily has to lead to the same ends. But, as you know, even with human logic, if you start with different premises, you will get to different conclusions — and just because the conclusions are different, does not mean the different ends are not all examples of reason. With that very point being evident, the fact that animals and their existences are different means they will use their reason different, for different goals and objectives. That should be obvious. Therefore, demanding human goals (a different premise) for non-humans is not a way to discern whether or not there is reason. What needs to be understood is each animal will have different premises and foundations of being, and will lead to different ends — and it will be different. Difference does not mean lack of reason.

      The question remains “what is reason?” And we can’t just say “well, here is my answer; oh, you find it in animals, therefore this isn’t reason after all.” Whatever has been historically used to define it, like logos, is shown to exist in the animal world. But again, you are coming a priori “only humans are rational animals, therefore if you find evidence of what we thought reason was in animals, we just redefine reason.” That is the kind of debate you have already wanted to engage. Again, you make an a priori tautology and then say “Well, show me evidence to the contrary.” Say what?! Every evidence you either way “it’s just you reading into the animals with human reason” or “ok, so that’s not really reason.” This is why yours is a priori and this demand for evidence is unjust; until you provide a foundation for evidence that you won’t take back — how can any discussion go forward?

      You say you see no evidence of say, self-transcendence or arts in animals — have you been looking for it? Have you read the evidence of people who have said they found it? Now I have said, and I will say again — if you want the evidence, get the books done by scientists on animals which discuss the evidence. For example, elephants have all kinds of qualities which show self-transcendence — all kinds of observations go on to see how they work together, how they will help each other when in need, how they recognize even their own dead and show reverence to their dead, etc. They are shown to even help humans when in need. Some really extraordinary things. If you went to the literature instead of just going a priori idealist on me, you would find all kinds of evidence which is given for different species for different kinds of acts of self-transcendence. It is one thing to say “I have not seen” but it is another to go “therefore, there is no evidence.” There is evidence. Lots and lots and lots of evidence. But when I told you about it, your response is “oh, just humans confusing things.”

      Once again, your hermeneutic is an a priori “they can’t have it, so therefore, I will explain it away.” I am not interested in debates with that tautology. It’s impossible to provide evidence to it. But to show this — take that tautology and apply it to your fellow humans. Seriously. Prove someone else, other than yourself, has reason. Don’t just assume it, prove it. And remember, prove it so that I cannot say “but that is you just using your reason and making something which was irrational rational through your application of reason onto it.” In other words, I say nests are works of art. You say they are not and I am just reading art into it. Fine. Show how any work of art is a work of art and not just you doing what you would claim I am doing to the nest. Until you can do that, how can I show any art in the animal world, if you cannot show it in the human world which is less controversial? Look to the consequences of your method and see how they would engage questions of humanity. Show how they can be overcome for humanity. That would be the beginning of how you would then be able to engage animals. Though of course, there is more than that — as I said, the evidence is there. I highly suggest you look into it and not just ask me to relate hundreds of observations here in a comment’s box.

      But as it is, I do think you are talking past my points, and again, in part because you have a univocal approach to reason. It is assuming certain ends – based upon different foundations. The dharma of a cat will be different from the dharma of a human. That doesn’t mean there is no reason or freedom within that dharma. Which is why your continued insistence that somehow I deny diversity of being and the differences is off. I have consistently here — and in the posts I suggested — pointed out there are differences. The fact that there are is obvious if we get beyond idealism which ignores what is in front of us: what I see in animals are animals. They are different. To say the difference doesn’t mean they lack rational souls is not to deny their difference, but to point out that the wrong category is being used to define that difference. As long as it is used as what defines difference, of course, you will say I am saying they are the same as us. I have said none of that, and will always say they are different. Just look: different. Each entity is its own reflection of the logos, in a different way, with its own boundaries of being. But within those boundaries, within its potential, within its foundations which make them as they are, there is still a will and reason, of various levels based upon their potential, their own dharmas. A cat is not a human. We agree.

  • Moreover, it is actually your position that espouses reason to be a Kantian sort of ‘a priori’ and here’s why:

    In order to ‘apply’ reason as a concept to any being, you would have to view it as a fait accomplie, an already established quality.

    My position argues that reason, whatever it may be, is derived only from the source of human nature. Now, while human nature brings the phenomenon of reason to actuality, there is always a more or excess to it. But this more, this excess, cannot be discovered anywhere other than human nature. Otherwise, how do you know it is reason?

    If you claim that reason is present in animals, how are you making this assertion? What is the ratio proprio or ‘proper account’ by which you measure the presence of reason?

    Your answer can only take two forms:
    1) Reason is an a priori concept that you apply wherever you please.
    2) Reason is measured by its origin in human nature.

    If you respond with 1, you concede my critique.
    If you respond with 2, you admit that reason is accidental to animals and not essential. This is a concession to my position.

    In either case, it appears impossible to validly justify your position that reason is equally present in animals as it is in humans; that it is a quality we both share.

  • Your arguments raise some very interesting questions in my head. What in your opinion separates man from the animals? How if animals have rational souls can Genesis say that man is the pinnacle of creation and that while animals are good, man is very good? If animals do have rational souls, that must mean that since they have a choice they can sin. If we argue that animals do have rational souls, how will their place in heaven be different than human beings, given that God became Incarnate as human not as dog or mouse? Or are you claiming that God became mouse to save them and humanity is just too ignorant of animal behavior to recognize it? Would God have to become Incarnate of every species to save it– remembering what the Eastern Fathers said– “That which is not assumed is not saved.” Or maybe animals never suffered from original sin?

    • Fr. Larry,

      Did you read the posts I suggested? I discuss those points in the other posts, and it would be best if you read them instead of trying to restate everything in a comment. However, I would say – in quick — that patristic theology sees Christ’s work is not just for humanity but for the world, that his work transfigures the whole of creation — and in part because it remembers that he assumed the nature of creature by becoming human.