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Can you be a good Christian and eat meat?

Neil King | Gabriel Borrud
November 1, 2020

Rainer Hagencord is a Catholic priest based in the heart of Germany's meat industry. His sermons are dividing his flock — and plunging some into existential crisis. Why? Because he's a vegetarian.

Rainer Hagencord | vom Theologischen Institut für Zoologie
Image: Privat

Can you be a good Christian and eat meat?

On the outskirts of Münster lies the Institute for Theological Zoology. It is run by the Catholic priest Rainer Hagencord and is home to several animals, including two donkeys called Frederik and Fridolin. People who come here get to hear the Gospel and connect with the animals at the same time. According to Rainer Hagencord, this experience is crucial to his work because it allows his flock to reconnect with nature and God — a presence that he says has been all but lost amid the countless factory farms and meat processing plants that dominate this region.

DW spoke with Rainer Hagencord about meat, guilt and morality. Parts of this interview are included in DW's environment podcast "On the Green Fence".

DW: We slaughter over 750 million animals in Germany every year. How do you feel about that?

As a theologian, I say that our system of industrial meat production is based on structural sin. We must move away from blaming each individual and focus our attention on the system that generates the guilt. In this system, everybody loses: Our earth, the air, animals, water sources, biodiversity, the Global South, the workers. The only ones who win are the meat and pharmaceutical industries.

Of vegans and men

The ecological dimension is intrinsic to your sermons. How do you deal with people who eat meat that come to your sermons?

What I've found from speaking to people  even here in the Münsterland, the heart of the German meat industry  is that they aren't aware of the dimensions or ramifications of industrial meat production. Many simply still don't know that the rainforests in South America are being cut down to satisfy their hunger for cheap meat. People are horrified to hear this, and of course I talk with them about guilt. But when it comes to the system, I am just as guilty as they are.

Which system do you mean?

This entire area is a major producer of industrial meat. 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. If you treat animals like objects, you will become a savage. Something inside you dies. And for many attending my sermons, this has been the first time they have ever been confronted with the question: What does eating meat have to do with my Christianity?

And how do you address that question?

This is where the donkeys are essential for my work: Through the experience with Freddy and Fridolin, people are able to remember their first experiences with animals as they ponder the question of meat consumption, and suddenly they have a theological understanding of their kinship with animals. This is often very moving for them, and they tell me, "Father, you haven't said a word about vegetarianism ... But you didn't have to! I'm not going to eat meat anymore."

A piglet is examined at a factory farm
Germans on average eat 60kg of meat per year and over 1,000 animals in their lifetime, according to the study 'Fleischatlas'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Jaspersen
A customer standing infront of packaged meat in a supermarket
Germany's meat industry generated a turnover of more than €42 billion in 2019Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Read more: Vegan meat: The future of planet-saving plant-based eating

We love animals and yet we kill them for food? How do we resolve this paradox?

The Bible has a really nice story that might help us answer this fundamental question: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This story tells us that we cannot live as humans without the experience of guilt. We have left the Garden. But animals have not. In other words, they 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. Humans are the only beings forced to decide: Are my actions from God, or are they the product of my own egoism?

So where does this leave meat eaters?

We will never escape the cycle of consuming other life forms in order to exist. Guilt is thus perhaps something we will never live without. But we are different than animals because we are able to choose which forms of life to consume. We have the choice to stop eating meat  and we know that this decision will result in a less violent existence. This knowledge is of great consequence because it means there is no longer a morally relevant argument for the consumption of meat.

But does this mean you can't be a good Christian if you eat meat?

I am not saying what you should or should not do. 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. But as a theologian, there is an important thing to ask here: 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?

Jesus Christ stands for this religion. Do we know whether he ate meat or not?

We know he took part in the marriage feast at Cana. Also, according to scripture, after the Resurrection, he and his disciples caught and ate fish. So there is no evidence from the Bible that Jesus was vegetarian. However, what did Jesus eat at the last supper before he was crucified? Keep in mind that it was during Passover, where all households were bound by law to slaughter a lamb — not for food, but as a religious act. He ate bread. Not meat.

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." But the significance of this is more than just symbolic  it's also historical. Back then, the Temple in Jerusalem during religious festivities was a like a modern-day slaughterhouse. And business was booming. All of Jerusalem lived from the wealth provided by ceremonial slaughter. So it's no big surprise that when a man from Nazareth showed up and said, "What you're doing here is blasphemy. I don't believe in a god who is pleased with such sacrifices," he had to go.

Leonardo Da Vincis famous painting of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper
Jesus Christ ate bread instead of lamb at the Last Supper – and that's no coincidence, says Rainer HagencordImage: imago stock&people

Read more: 'The conditions are catastrophic' — Inside Germany's factory farms

What kind of feedback do you get from your colleagues regarding your work and message?

I've heard everything! There are some colleagues of mine who say what I am doing is unbearable, that I have turned my back on the foundation of Roman Catholic theology. And there are others who say, "Finally, such a prophetic voice, we need this."

And what does your bishop say?

The bishop has given me the green light to do this work. And he has thanked me for my efforts to reach people in the way that I do. But in the same breath he has told me I am 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.

People really want to leave the Church because of you?

There's more livestock here in the Münsterland than anywhere else in Germany. And on top of that, this is a very Catholic area. So there is essentially no church group or board that doesn't have a representative from the meat industry on it. How do you think these people react when they hear of a priest asking about the intrinsic value of chickens and pigs? Perhaps even worse is the idea of what people working in the slaughterhouses think when they hear my message. A woman once came to me after one of my sermons, and this was very moving ... She said, "If I even utter the sentence, 'Pigs are God's creatures  they have dignity,'" then I can't go back and do my work.

Laborer with protective clothing inspecting headless chickens on a conveyer belt system
Contract workers are often forced to work over 60 hours a week without extra pay, according to the animal rights organization Soko TierschutzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

You are not vegan and as a vegetarian you are condoning the slaughter of calves which are a byproduct of the dairy industry. Does this trouble you?

Yes, it does. But it is very hard for me to go without milk and cheese. But yes, I am guilty, too. 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.