Category: Animal Studies

A Theology for the Homeless (from a Philosophy for Dogs)

In graduate school, I wrote a master’s philosophy thesis on the concept of animal souls, ethics, psychology, and other related things. One of the most outstanding things I discovered throughout the writing process is that quite a few philosophical and theological authorities attested to psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. (Yes, even Aquinas! [i]). Basically, what this psychological continuity means is that humans and non-human animals can share a common psychological life. While all humans and non-human animals are “subjects of a life”, what’s most striking is the knowledge that some humans and some non-human animals share psychical experiences in common with each other [ii]. It’s an exceptional discovery, but for some reason I found it almost impossible to apply in a specific and concrete way.

Until a few days ago.

Along with my interest in dogs, I also have an interest in the poor. In fact, my patron saint, St. Roch, is not only the patron saint of dogs, he’s also a Franciscan mendicant whom most would normally label “poor.” The poor, dog-loving saint: sounds good to me! I could say a lot about my love and devotion for the poor and dogs here, but suffice it to say, in the words of Bl. Frédéric Ozanam, that “Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes.” [iii]

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the poor. There’s an image I return to often as I recall my time spent with them. It’s the image of a homeless man sitting near a bridge close to my home. Whenever I see him, he appears tired and worn out. His skin is strikingly tan and leathery, as if he himself were some old buffalo hide used to keep villagers warm. It’s as if the wounds of Christ, though not seen from afar, would become manifest if one were to only approach close enough to the man’s venerable appearance. What’s also striking is the lovely Border collie that always accompanies him. Anyone with eyes could see that the two of them are an inseparable pair. When I look at them, I think: Why do they appear so inseparable?

“Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by poring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes.”

~ Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

People sometimes become sensitive about issues concerning psychological continuity between human and non-human animals. Rightfully so. I imagine that they become sensitive about it for a number of reasons: for one, they don’t like the idea of psychological ‘sameness’ or ‘parity’ between humans and non-human animals; or, they’re scornful about ecological and ethical ramifications involved with there being psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals. Whatever their issue might be, it seems like there are good reasons to get sensitive about it. I mean, think about it: Aren’t dogs treated better than the homeless sometimes?

I think what really bothers people is not that a homeless man and his Border collie together represent psychological continuity between humans and non-human animals; rather, what bothers people is that they can’t disregard it. In one sense, the homeless man and his Border collie represent what’s good about the meaning of psychological continuity; in another sense, they represent everything wrong with it. On one hand, they represent what it means to regard the idea of psychological continuity positively. (The homeless man and dog “stick-it-out” together because only that will do when humanity chooses to not care!) It’s a beautiful image. But, on the other hand, they illustrate what it means to disregard the idea of psychological continuity as something positive. (The homeless man has to keep a representation of his injustice and plight with him just to get his fellow humans to notice!) The central question in either case is whether the life of the vulnerable is being adequately regarded.

We are quick to dismiss the suffering and plight of the homeless. We judge, but we don’t do so sufficiently because we do it without charity. Then we try to excuse ourselves, but in doing that, we miss the rationale of simple love and action. Capturing the eternal law for the poor is what really matters, because so many actions, even if they’re noble or honorable, pale in comparison to the higher lawfulness of merciful acts of justice and charity in feeding, caring and sheltering the poor, oppressed, hungry, thirsty and vulnerable.

“It is the notion that, in truly witnessing dog and man in a ‘bond of love’ — in a bond of psychological unity — the fire of compassion toward humanity is lit.”

Don’t worry though. I have a way to help inspire these actions of eternal significance. The notion of the “Dog of God” can be our guide. With this notion, we’re inclined to regard the life of the poor, especially if, alongside the poor, the common plight of our canine friends is evident therewith. It is the notion that, in truly witnessing dog and man in a “bond of love” — in a bond of psychological unity — the fire of compassion toward humanity is lit (Col. iii, 14). Although witnessing this inspires us, given the temporal nature of the bond of love between man and animal, one must act soon or else lose their inspiration and, with it, the inspiration to act in mercy, justice and charity. The spiritual gift or reward for acting promptly? – the exuberant and waggish joy a dog feels when he has pleased his master. It’s a little gift for a “little dog” [iv]. And yet, won’t the Eternal Master, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father, shower his flock with a higher gift, albeit it still a little gift? Yes, and the feeling of this is just like “entering into the joy of your Master”! (Matt. xxv, 21).

After being afflicted with a serious disease, St. Roch laid in a forest, dying, awaiting his death. Low and behold, it was the heroic action of a local man’s little dog who saved St. Roch’s life by bringing him “bread of life.” There, together, the poor mendicant and the little dog represented not merely psychological continuity and unity, but themselves as a holy image signifying both the loss of psychological disease and the obtainment of Heaven. (See the above picture). Let’s use this holy image to cure our own psychological disease of indifference toward the poor and indifference toward the common plight of all creatures, those who are “subjects of a life.” In doing so, we follow the example of the holy life of charity. Those who subject to such a life and follow it willfully know that in visiting the poor, “we gain much more than they do.” [v]

And let it be so.


[i] cf. Judith Barad’s treatment of this in Aquinas on the Nature and Treatment of Animals (US: International Scholars Publication, 1995), print.

[ii] cf. Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights”

[iii] cf. http://vincentians.com/en/quotes-collection/frederic-ozanam-quotes/

[iv] cf. Greek kuón in Matt. xvi, 26

[v] ibid; http://vincentians.com/en/quotes-collection/frederic-ozanam-quotes/