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Zoology meets theology in animal kingdom.

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Transplants of animal organs into humans looms as the next animal-rights issue that will pit activists against experimenters, Holy Cross Father Jeffrey Sobosan told NCR recently.

A theologian specializing in animal rights and author of Bless the Beasts (Crossroad), Sobosan walks an unfrequented path.

"Christianity has almost no tradition of protecting animals," he said, "almost no tradition that recognizes that animals are on the earth for any purpose other than to be used by human beings.

"It goes back to Origen, it goes back to Tertullian. It was the position of Thomas Aquinas and of Luther and of Calvin and, of course, of Karl Barth."

Sobosan, an associate professor of theology at Oregon's University of Portland, is trying "to get beneath that tradition to the biblical witness as being more authoritative" and prescribing respect for animals.

Sobosan said the technology used in transplants of animal organs had become more sophisticated since the renowned case of Baby Fay, who received a baboon heart in the mid-1980s.

The first such transplant occurred in the early 1960s, he said, but never has an animal-to-human transplant "achieved anything remotely like a permanent success."

Nevertheless, as technology has developed, the possibility of successful transplants has reemerged. Especially likely, he said, are liver and heart transplants from baboons - because they are so similar to humans - and from pigs, whose organic structure also is very similar to humans', especially the heart and the liver, he said.

Sobosan predicted that experimentation would proceed despite protests. "There's a very strong argument that as long as the animal is not subjected to pain, the experimentation is justified" because, in the process, experimenters learn about animal care, too.

"The real question is how much pain are you willing to inflict on an animal for the sake of human beings," he said. Some people, he said, think it's wrong "no matter what the pain level."

Those who protest generally do so at hospitals and other medical centers, the sites of such experiments, Sobosan said, and before state legislatures that control the funding for such experiments.

Animal-rights activism normally does not reach the federal level, be said, and no proposals have ever come before Congress pertaining directly to animal rights.

"The closest you would get at the federal level would be laws prohibiting intentional cruelty to animals, vivisection laws" and guidelines regarding animal experimentation in institutions that receive federal aid, he said.

Many organizations lobby at the state level, among them the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, otherwise known as "the Humane Society," he said, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Issues vary from state to state, he said. A few:

* In Nevada, activists object to nuclear testing because it kills many animals. Aboveground testing is worse than below ground, he said, but underground testing destroys natural habitats, as do practice bombings on desolate areas.

* In Oregon and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, animal-rights activists oppose clear-cutting of forests, which also destroys natural habitats.

* In Florida, manatees - "very large, very docile, very friendly, water-going mammals that are very trusting of human beings and so seek human habitation," Sobosan said - are killed by boat propellers. Animal-rights proponents want to ban motorized boats from manatee habitats, he said.

From a theological perspective, Sobosan said, "there is a sense in which life is sacred, not its particular format," be it a human, a butterfly or chimpanzee.

"The human format that life takes is not where sacredness resides. It's in the life itself," he said.

To those who contend that protecting animals is less important and thus less worthy of funding than, for example, feeding starving people in Somalia, Sobosan says caring for life "really has to extend without boundaries, without limits. And as it becomes necessary, as it always does, to utilize the life of other living things" - such as for human food or medical purposes - "the only proper response is one of gratitude, not presumption."

The appropriate gratitude is "to the life that's been given that you might live," he said, along with realization that taking that life, be it plant or animal life, "is one of those wrongs that is always wrong, but we have no other choice."

Accompanying such all attitude, he said, should be "the attempt never to cause pain in taking that life."

Sobosan said Jesus taught nothing directly about animal-rights issues. But there are indirect arguments, based on Jesus' use of animals in parables, "that he would have been repulsed by the way we treat animals," be said.

Jesus "absolutely prohibited his disciples from engaging in temple sacrifice" of animals, be said, and when Jesus drove moneychangers out of the temple, he was freeing animals.

"That's stated directly in the narrative," he said. "People have to look at that more closely."

Moreover, Jesus would have found repugnant the idea that sacrifice of a life would please God, he said. Christian tradition has ignored this, even interpreting "Jesus' own bloodletting as pleasing to God," he said. But this "requires you to say something about God you don't want to say. You don't want a God who cherishes blood sacrifice."

Sobosan's personal focus is the therapeutic use of animals, especially with the elderly and autistic children.

"Allowing animals and animal care into the lives of those people is always successful. It is always positive," he said. "Everywhere you read reports about the positive therapeutic effect" when a kitten or puppy is introduced into lives of elderly or chronically, severely depressed people.

"And I always emphasize the beauty of the animal, the beauty of disposition and the [physical] beauty," be said. Even to sit in the dark watching fish in an aquarium is beautiful and "enormously sedative and consoling and relieving of a lot of cares and worries," he said.

"It would be a very good thing if a lot more priests took in the care of animals," he said. "They'd be better people, dispositionally."
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Title Annotation:theologian Jeffrey Sobosan
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 12, 1993
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