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'Cloistered' chickens: would the monks visit cruelty on human beings the way they do the chickens? Would the monks like to live packed into cages?

It's not pleasant seeing valued friends squabbling, even less so when the moment comes to take sides, which is now.

The dustup involves the fathers and brothers at the Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., and officials at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, in Norfolk, Va. As reported by NCR in the March 2 issue, The New York Times and The Associated Press, PETA exposed the cloistered Trappists as abusers of their chickens on the monastery egg farm. Some 38,000 birds are confined three or four to a cramped cage, which gives new meaning to the word cloister. The imprisoned hens never walk, never nest, never experience sunlight nor fresh air. In addition, the birds have been painfully debeaked.

I side with PETA. It has a sterling record of exposing animal abuse and educating the public to humane alternatives to violence to animals

The Trappists are in the egg business for money. Their chickens aren't barnyard pets. Once their laying days are over, the spent birds are killed. The Times quoted the monastery abbot: "They're happy chickens. They've been treated nicely." He added that occasionally the monks sing to the birds.

As uplifting as that may be--the heavenly sounds of Gregorian chant drowning out hen house clucking--the question remains: Would the monks visit cruelty on human beings the way they do to the chickens? Would the monks like to live packed into cages?

In a nation where much of the public sees nothing morally wrong with exploiting or killing animals for food, clothing, entertainment or other forms of profiteering, such a question borders on the surreal, as if to ask, you are actually equating chicken life with human life, you are actually thinking empathy is owed chickens?

I am, yes. When the comparison is between the capacity to feel pain, humans and chickens are equals. The Golden Rule--do unto others--comes into play. The problem is that doltish theologians like Aquinas and Francis de Sales deemed "others" as humans only. Animals are here to serve humans, do unto them as you damn well please.

I come to this issue with unclean hands and plenty of guilt. After college in 1960, I spent five years as a Trappist lay brother at the Holy Spirit Monastery in rural Georgia. Four of the five years, I joined three other brothers to milk our herd of 100 Jersey cows at 2:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., every day, every season. At the other end of the farm were hen houses and hog pens.

I was oblivious to the cruelty endured by the animals. When a cow's milk production dropped, and she was no longer profitable, I routinely herded her onto a truck bound for slaughterhouses. When cows, sensing their fate, refused to scale the ramp into the truck, I used the electric prod. When calves were born in the fields, I separated them from their mothers. The mothers lowing would last for days as they searched futilely for their newborns.

Looking back, these were the most heinously sinful years of my life. The cows were prisoners. They were units of production. They were bred to make money and then be killed. All the while, I thought I was leading a holy life of prayer and penance at a seemingly sacred place, on the moral, high ground, not the immoral low ground that it really was when the violence done to animals is weighed.

The priests and brothers at Holy Spirit were among the kindest and most devout people I have ever known. It never occurred to them, as it didn't to me, that we were torturers and exploiters of animals.

As upholders of the Rule of St. Benedict and its call for monks to welcome visitors, perhaps the South Carolina Trappists could invite PETA officials into the monastery scriptorium to conduct workshops on the theology of animal rights. Other ways, nonviolent ways, are available to earn money. Trappists in Virginia sell fruitcakes. In Iowa, they construct and market coffins.

While siding with PETA in this standoff, I make no judgments about the Trappists and their complicity in the horrors done to their chickens. I have burden enough asking myself why was I so unknowing about my own complicity those many years ago.

[Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies at four colleges and three high schools in the Washington area.]
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Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 6, 2007
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