Photo: Father Rainer Hagencord with Fridolin the donkey (Stefano Laura/Bild)

A priest has denounced the “structural sin” of the meat industry, alerting that “if you treat animals like objects, you will become a savage. Something inside you dies”.

– Father Rainer Hagencord, recipient of a special UN award

With today’s meat industry, “everybody loses: Our earth, the air, animals, water sources, biodiversity, the Global South, the workers”, Father Rainer Hagencord denounced to DW in an interview November 1.

Hagencord runs a pioneering initiative in Germany, if not the world – the Institute for Theological Zoology, on the outskirts of Münster.

The Institute was given a special United Nations award November 5 as part of the 2011-2020 Decade of Biological Diversity, for its project “Islands of the Living” and for its message of “respect for life in solidarity with all that lives”, as a UN jury member put it.

– Slaughterhouse workers suffering “like slaves”

Talking to DW, Hagencord decried that many people “simply still don’t know that the rainforests in South America are being cut down to satisfy their hunger for cheap meat”.

The complicity of all of us in the mass destruction of animals for our nourishment, he said, is only intensified in Münsterland, Germany’s largest meat-producing district.

“But it’s not only the animals that are suffering. It’s the misery of the human beings working here like slaves that I’ve been addressing in my sermons. I know of many people who are suffering mental health problems because of their work in the slaughterhouses”, Hagencord deploring, echoing the concerns of another Münster priest, Peter Kossen, who has been on a crusade to better the working conditions of slaughterhouse employees.

– “When we are in the presence of animals, we are in the presence of God”

Hagencord developed with DW an inspirational theology around the proper Catholic relationship with animals.

Explaining that in contrast to human beings animals never left the Garden of Eden, the priest stated that animals “are still innocent and have not lost the presence of God. When we are in the presence of animals, we are in the presence of God. Their actions come straight from God”.

What is a Catholic to do, then, to honour that presence of God in all animals?

Hagencord recognised that “we will never escape the cycle of consuming other life forms in order to exist”, and in that sense “guilt is thus perhaps something we will never live without”.

But he pointed out that Catholics, and others, “have the choice to stop eating meat – and we know that this decision will result in a less violent existence”.

By choosing to become vegetarian or vegan, the priest continued, Catholics would moreover be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who although the New Testament records that he ate fish, at least, also suggests that Christ refused to eat the customary Passover lamb at the Last Supper.

“By refusing to eat lamb at Passover, Jesus takes his place in the line of the great prophets and says: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice'”, Hagencord explained.

– Not the Church’s role to bully people into becoming vegetarian

And what does Hagencord see as the role of the Church in the animal rights issue? The priest said, first of all, that he doesn’t see it as his role to bully people into becoming vegetarian.

“For far too many centuries the Church has assumed the role of moral authority, telling people what to do. All I am doing is collecting facts and laying them on the table”, Hagencord explained.

However, he went on to ask rhetorically: “How can a religion that trumpets the love of one’s neighbor, mercy, solidarity, and empathy turn a blind eye to the slaughter of innocent animals?”

– Threats from farmers and lobbyists become “a thorn in bishop’s side”

Hagencord said that he has received all kinds of reactions to his ministry, from those who accuse him of having departed from Catholic theology to those who see him as a “prophetic voice” that the Church desperately needs.

The priest said that despite those reactions he has the full support of his bishop, even if the bishop has come to see him as “a thorn in his side”.

“Apparently, farmers and lobbyists for the agriculture and meat industries have made formal requests for my suspension. The bishop also tells me that many people are leaving the Church because of me. And that has him worried”, Hagencord reflected.

– “Yes, I’m guilty, and I live among animals who aren’t guilty. This enhances my respect for them”

Not that the naysayers are bringing Hagencord down, however, or dampening his respect for animals. The priest said he struggles with his inability to go vegan, given that “it is very hard for me to go without milk and cheese”.

“I am guilty, too”, Hagencord said in a rare show of public guilt from a priest. “It’s a conflict because I know what I’m doing is wrong, I’m aware of the consequences, and now you see why I would never as a priest point my finger at anyone or give them a guilty conscience”.

“It brings me back to the Bible and Paul’s letter to the Romans. All of us, all of creation, is waiting for redemption. Yes, I’m guilty, and I live among animals who aren’t guilty. This enhances my respect for them.

“I know they have emotions, I know they are aware… And I understand they are like my brothers and sisters. And ultimately, I will say: I don’t want to eat my brothers and sisters”, the priest promised.

To read and listen to the full interview with Father Hagencord, follow this link to the DW website

More on Novena on the Church and animal rights:

Catholic theologian urges Church to denounce “sin” of “animal slavery”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.