Morality in the Age of Reality TV: Bribing the Pope to Adopt a Vegan Diet for Lent

Pope Francis chose his name to reflect St. Francis of Assisi, author of the Canticle of the Sun, a prayer in which St. Francis praises God for creation, talking of “Brother Sun and “Sister Water,” and referring to the earth as our “Sister” and “Mother.” In 2015, Pope Francis published his second papal encyclical, Laudato si’An encyclical is a sort of papal letter. Laudato si’, unlike most papal letters that are addressed to leaders of the Catholic Church or to Catholics only, is addressed to everyone. Although not without problems, such as the Pope’s failure to recognize the environmental impact of population growth, Laudato si’ is, without doubt, a radical statement given the extremely conservative nature of the Catholic Church.

In Laudato si,’ Pope Francis raises the alarm about the devastating effects of anthropogenic climate change, and talks about how climate change and “modern anthropocentrism” are having negative effects for all, and particularly for the poor. He criticizes our obsession with consumerism and mindless development, and rejects our “tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”

The implications of Laudato si’ are obvious. As an environmental matter, it is clear that a plant-based diet is the single biggest way to reduce our carbon footprint. And, unlike other measures to reduce global warming, adopting a plant-based diet is something we can all do right now. It is the only thing that we can do that is effective and requires no technological innovation, legislation, or governmental regulation. As a matter of morality, we simply cannot justify using nonhuman animals as human resources, particularly in light of the fact that most of our animal use cannot plausibly be described as “necessary.”

It is imperative that those who see the Pope as a spiritual authority take seriously the very clear implications of Laudato si’ irrespective of whether the Pope has spelled out those implications. It would, of course, be wonderful if the Pope came out and announced that he had decided, for reasons of our moral obligations to nonhuman animals and concerning the environment, to become a vegan. Maybe that will come.

One way of not maximizing the chances that will happen is by offering the Pope money and attempting to turn him into a reality TV star.

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Source: Million Dollar Vegan

On February 6, 2019 a massive PR campaign was launched by a group called Million Dollar Vegan. The campaign has a 12-year old child named Genesis Butler making a “challenge” to Pope Francis to adopt a vegan diet for Lent. If the Pope goes along with this request, Million Dollar Vegan will donate $1 million to a charity of the Pope’s choice.

This “challenge” is accompanied by a Petition, which people are being asked to sign and that asks the Pope to adopt a vegan diet for Lent in light of environmental and health concerns, and because of objections to factory farming.

It is not clear what the goal of Million Dollar Vegan is. Although the group uses “vegan” (including in its name), it is not promoting veganism, which involves not using animals for any purpose. The group purports to be promoting a “plant-based diet” as a “sustainable and benevolent” choice. Their recommended reading list has some non-vegan sources that promote a reducetarian/flexitarian approach and support campaigns for the supposedly more “humane” exploitation of animals. Virtually all of the news reports about Million Dollar Vegan and this campaign state the goal is to “get people to eat less meat and dairy in order to fight climate change.”

Some of the supporters of Million Dollar Vegan are very clear in not calling for the end of animal exploitation. For example, one supporter listed is Animals Australia. When asked by ABC, “Does Animals Australia have a policy of opposing the rearing of livestock for human consumption?,” Lyn White of Animals Australia answered: “No, we certainly don’t. Look, our vision, our work is towards ensuring that all animals, that — especially in human care, have protection from cruel treatment and are treated with compassion and respect. That is what we work towards on a daily basis.”

Million Dollar Vegan is supported by a number of celebrities. The first one listed is Sir Paul McCartney, who is described as “vegetarian.” After 41 years as a vegetarian, McCartney is still not a vegan. That gives “baby steps” a whole new meaning! In this 2018 interview (at 12:55), McCartney says he is not a vegan. And, according to the website, 22% of Linda McCartney Foods are not vegan. So the Pope should adopt a vegan diet but it’s okay for a non-vegan who is also involved in promoting the consumption of animal products to “challenge” the Pope to adopt a vegan diet? Really? A number of other supporters are not vegans or are downright hostile to the idea of veganism as a moral imperative. So it seems that Million Dollar Vegan is yet another group that promotes a reducetarian approach and that rejects the idea that veganism is a moral imperative for reasons either of animal ethics or the environment.

Putting aside whatever else could be said about this group and this campaign, I would like to offer several observations.

First, it seems a very bad idea to offer people — anyone — money (whether as a direct payment or as contribution to their favorite charity) with the goal of changing their behavior on a moral issue or with the goal of getting others to change because the person given the money has changed. That is a very cynical way of looking at morality. And I do not know why anyone thinks it is an effective thing to do if one wants any sort of sustained change.

Moreover, I recognize that, because I view veganism as a moral imperative and as a matter of justice for nonhuman animals quite apart from the importance of a vegan diet for the environment — although I think we have a moral obligation to go vegan for environmental reasons as well — this “challenge” has a distasteful aspect. Morality is not something you dabble in or do for a month or for some period. You don’t make a resolution to stop harming others physically for Lent.

Second, it is particularly problematic to do this sort of thing with the Pope. If he wants to make a $1 million contribution to a charity, he can sell the least valuable piece of art that hangs in the Vatican and probably have more than $1 million to contribute to whatever cause he likes. Moreover, my guess is that the Pope will probably find this “challenge” and the crass attempt to “buy him off” to be less than appealing. And he is also unlikely to want to have Lent — a time of serious reflection for Catholics — to be turned into a reality TV show for the supporters of Million Dollar Vegan where he will be the star. The FAQ section of the Million Dollar Vegan says, in response to the question as to whether it is “bribing a religious leader,” that “bold action” is necessary and that “[t]he offer is made out of respect” for Pope Francis.

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From Million Dollar Vegan

Respect? I missed that. It appears rather clearly intended to embarrass the Pope. After all, no one really thought that the Pope could respond favorably to this sort of “challenge.” I would have thought it transparently clear that this was a rather cheap shot intended to use a religious leader and a holy time of year for that religion as an opportunity to embarrass that religious leader — and get publicity and a visible position in the hierarchy of groups who are in a constant struggle to see who can engage in the most outrageous and often offensive antics in order to favorably compete for donations. In a sense, Million Dollar Vegan is simply the latest iteration of a “movement” (actually more a collection of businesses) that will use anything — racism, sexism, misogyny and joking about physical violence to women — to get attention and donations. You start with “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” and you get to “challenges” to the Pope accompanied by offers of money. The result, of course, is that the extremely important issues raised by animal exploitation have been trivialized and turned into cheap entertainment.

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A PETA ad. This really helps animals, right?

I confess I may be wrong about how the Pope will react. I was raised a Catholic but to say that I am a lapsed Catholic would be a hyperbolic understatement. I would have thought that anyone who took the Pope and the Catholic Church seriously would be mortified by all of this. But maybe I have called this wrong. I see that Catholic Concern for Animals is listed as one of the organizations supporting Million Dollar Vegan. They are undoubtedly closer to the Church and the Pope than I. Maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe this “challenge” is the first of many. After all, the Church has a number of issues plaguing it. Maybe they can all be solved with a series of million dollar “challenges.” Perhaps next we could have a campaign devoted to “challenging” the Pope to allow women to be ordained priests for a month to get people used to the idea. It could be called Nunanuary. (UPDATE 2/12/2019: Catholic Concern for Animals is no longer listed on the list of supporters of Million Dollar Vegan and claims that it never supported Million Dollar Vegan or the “challenge” to the Pope.)

Third, many of us spend a great deal of time trying to convince people that veganism is not a “sacrifice.” So why couple a vegan diet with Lent — a season of sacrifice and deprivation? Enough of the population already thinks that a vegan diet is the culinary equivalent of a hair shirt.

I quite agree that we ought to be encouraging people to stop consuming animal products for environmental reasons in addition to the animal rights reasons on which I generally focus. Indeed, as I said above, I believe that we also have a moral obligation to adopt a vegan diet for environmental reasons. It is clear that animal agriculture is destroying the planet and the science is crystal clear that a vegan diet is the single best thing we can do for the planet. It is bewildering to me that environmental groups are not all vigorously promoting a vegan diet.

I maintain that adopting a vegan diet is, in effect, necessary for environmental reasons in that, given the short time we have to address the problem of climate change, it is the only thing that we can do without technological change, and without legislation or regulation. Yes, we might couple reduction of consumption with other technologies but, again, we simply don’t have the time to work out what combinations of strategies will work, and what numbers of people are required to participate in what combinations of strategies to achieve what could be achieved if there was a massive shift to a vegan diet. Telling people to reduce their intake of animal products is vague — and too little too late. Telling people that we must stop is not only a clear message; it is, as a practical matter, the only sensible message to promote if we want to survive. From an environmental point of view, consuming animal products ought to be considered as something that one does, if at all, as “cheating,” rather than patting oneself on the back because one has consumed just dairy, eggs, and fish on Meatless Monday.

The science that points in the direction of a vegan diet is getting a great deal of traction without yet another group with a “donate” button promoting a hopelessly confused and inconsistent message. I understand that advocacy groups often avoid taking an absolutist position for what are, in effect, business reasons — they want to keep their donor pools as broad as possible. But we are killing approximately 70 billion land animals and one trillion sea animals annually for food alone.

The moral and environmental crises are just that — crises. We need an absolutist message for both moral and environmental reasons.

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I hope that the Pope, leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, will decide not only to adopt a vegan diet but to go vegan in terms of recognizing that we ought not to eat, wear, or use animals as resources because it is immoral and unjust with respect to nonhuman animals, as well as inconsistent with planetary survival and food justice as far as humans are concerned.

It should be noted that in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, we are told that God created the world and gave “dominion” over it to humans but — and here’s the surprise — no one was eating anyone in the beginning. God told humans “I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”(1:29) And then God told all the animals and birds, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.” (1:30)

So in the beginning, before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and were driven from the Garden of Eden, everyone — humans and animals alike — ate only plant foods. It was only after God destroyed the world with a flood that he told Noah that humans are allowed to eat “[e]very moving thing that liveth.” (9:3)

We started off in harmony with God as beings who consumed plants. When we fell out with God and were driven from Eden, God permitted us to kill animals as an accommodation to our imperfect state. The Old Testament at least suggests that we should be moving in the direction of getting back to the ideal state.

When the prophet Isaiah talks about the coming of the Messiah and the re-establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, how does he describe it? First of all, there will be peace between humans, who will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) But peace will also extend to and amongst nonhumans: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.” (65:25)

I think that the Pope is heading in the direction of promoting a plant-based diet for environmental reasons if not primarily for reasons of animal ethics. I hope that this sort of cheap gimmickry does not delay his move in that direction.

Originally published on Medium, 10 February 2019.