Interview with Met. Kallistos of Diokleia, part 2

Presbytera Christina: Several of my questions relate to the suggestions that because an animal does not have a soul, it doesn’t feel pain or that they are irrelevant or that we should not concern ourselves with them.  Would you like to take each point in turn or would you like to cover them in a more general statement?

Met. Kallistos: I shall cover these points as I make my statements.   The idea that animals do not suffer pain – I find that quite extraordinary.  The evidence is so clear. Indeed we cannot see inside the animal’s minds but all the symptoms that humans display when pain is inflicted on them are displayed also by animals. So we have every reason to believe that animals experience pain as we do and to suggest therefore, that to inflict pain on animals is something morally neutral, I find abhorrent – it is a sin.

Presbytera Christina: How do we deal with this sin in the Church?

Met. Kallistos: Quiet, persistent teaching; but the difficulty is that all too many of the clergy in country districts, in Mediterranean countries particularly, don’t see that. Here as Orthodox Christians we have a marvellous theology for the Creation but the priests may be afraid to preach about this because such a message would perhaps be unwelcome to the farmers who are their parishioners. They may be afraid to incur in this way hostility but, and there is an important point to make here, the Church has always been called to take an unpopular line.

On the subject of souls, I will refer to a book in which I have previously written on the subject of souls and I did have a specific section on the souls of animals.  This is entitled From Soul to Self edited by James Crabbe, published by Routledge in 1999. On this question of course it is true, that in much of Christianity eastern and western, there has been a tendency to make a very sharp distinction between human and animals.  It is said that animals do not possess reason, more specifically, that they do not have immortal souls. The result of this approach has been that we are in danger of treating animals as objects and not subjects.

Now part of the question here, do animals have souls, depends on what you mean by the word soul. The Greek word psyche has a broader understanding perhaps than our modern understanding of the word soul. Aristotle said there are three types of soul – the vegetable soul, the animal soul and the rational soul i.e. the human soul. Now to speak of vegetable’s having souls would strike some people as facetious and they will make jokes about talking to your tomatoes. Well in fact there may well be subtle connections between humans and plants. After all, we do describe some people as having green fingers – these people seem to have a natural empathy with growing things and seem to be skilful in making them grow; however, the soul used in this way by Aristotle means ‘life force’. So from that point of view animals certainly do have a soul because they undoubtedly have a ‘life force’.  But do they have the same soul as humans?

Now many of the characteristics we think of as distinctively human are also found in the animals. In fact any attempt to make a very sharp delineation in light of modern research into animal behaviour and intelligence, doesn’t entirely work.

Do animals have the power of speech, well not exactly as we humans do but animals do make cries and sounds which communicate messages to the other animals, so they do communicate. There has been much research in this area, I can think specifically of dolphins and they have quite subtle ways of communicating to each other. Indeed, there is so much research now that we cannot say animals are inarticulate for they have all kinds of ways of communicating and this has implications for our view on thought.

To say animals don’t have reason is also questionable.  Again there is much research in this field.  For example if you put a banana behind a door with a rather complex handle to open the door, if the monkey is interested in it, he will test  and experiment with the handle and surely he is doing something very similar to what we do when we try to think and solve a problem. So it seems to me that you cannot make a sharp distinction here either.

Again, animals show deep attachment to one another.  Many animals are in fact monogamous and form unions throughout the whole of their life and we could say that they are better at this than some humans.

When an animal loses its partner it will show signs of bereavement and grief as humans do.  Here we can use as an example the research into elephant family groups. So it is much harder to make a sharp distinction between animals and humans than it once was.  Just to say animals have no souls is inadequate, in fact so many of the characteristics that are human are now found to some extent among the animals.

If we look at the Greek Euchologian, the Greek book of prayers, used officially in the contemporary Greek Orthodox Church we have prayers for animals. Here is one of them:

Lord Jesus Christ, moved by your own tender mercy, pity the suffering animals….            For if a righteous man shows pity to the souls of his animals (Pr 12:10), how should you oh God not take pity on them, for you created them and you provide for them? In your compassion you did not forget the animals in the ark….Through the good health and the plentiful numbers of oxen and other four -footed creatures, the earth is cultivated and its fruits increase; And your servants who call upon your name enjoy full abundance of the products of their farming.[1]

Well that prayer definitely shows compassion for animals and for their suffering and there are prayers specifically for sick animals.

Well you may say if you are a farmer it is very important that your animals shouldn’t die.  The death of your horse would have been a severe blow to peasant farmers in earlier ages. So, if we pray for animals and we say they have souls, we cannot say simply that they have no human characteristics at all – the line of demarcation is not so clear.

Now the normal view is that the animal soul is formed from the earth and therefore it is dissolved at death and doesn’t survive, yet the accounts in the Bible of the age to come make it quite clear that there will be animals there. The ox and the ass – the lion and the lamb will go together. The usual view is to say that they won’t be the same animals, but how do we know?

Do we have any right to say that animals do not possess immortality?  I think this is a subject where we can simply say, we do not have a clear revelation on this point in Scripture. I cannot recall anywhere where it says animals cannot survive into a future life, so why shouldn’t we leave that to God’s mercy and say that we don’t understand about this?

So perhaps the animals do survive. So in all of this, simply to say that animals have no souls is – inadequate. It is a matter of opinion as opposed to any dogmatic statement from the Orthodox Church. It is a subject in which we have not been given clear revelation or guidance in revelation.

Now it is true, that in the Orthodox Church, meat eating is allowed. It is considered that this only happened after the fall. In an unfallen world in paradise humans did not kill the animals. The eating of meat is seen to some extent as a falling away from original perfection. But we have never then been vegetarian as a matter of principle but it is interesting that monks and nuns usually abstain from meat. They do eat fish so it isn’t a vegetarian issue in itself.

But coming back to the question from which we started, to me it is unsatisfactory to say animals have no souls and we should avoid making such an assertion.

Presbytera Christina: Can I press for a specific answer to a point from my research. For example in my research it is suggested that because an animal doesn’t have a soul it doesn’t matter if they are treated cruelly or again, that because animals do not have a soul they cannot feel pain or suffer.  Should it matter if an animal has a soul or not – should that be our rationale to the way we treat it?

Met. Kallistos: I reject those kinds of statements. I think the whole discussion on whether animals have souls or not is in the end probably a ‘red-herring’.

The point is that animals are living creatures, all life is from God, and therefore we should treat the animals with respect and reverence.  They have their own characteristic dignity and we should respect that.

Now we can use animals for our service, use horses for ploughing though we do not do that so much now, but we should nonetheless with our domestic animals, give them enough to eat, we should not over-work them, we should keep them warm and clean. So in other words, in treating animals we should let them be themselves.

They should be as far as possible healthy without pain or discomfort and if we do kill animals for our food we should kill them in a humane way.  I know in some religious traditions you ask forgiveness from the animal before you kill it well, there is no such teaching in the Orthodox Church that you have to do this but surely it expresses something that we should respect and reverence the animals for what they are – as God has made them – for they are God’s Creation and we should not show contempt for God’s Creation.  They have feelings and we should not hurt those feelings.

Presbytera Christina: If I can stay with this subject for a moment, it seems that we have what I call a disconnect between the theory and the practice. If there is a perceived connection between what is thought to be Church teaching that animals do not have souls; that they are irrelevant and therefore it doesn’t matter if they are cruelly treated – how can we disseminate the true opinion of the Church as you have expressed it today in this interview? How do we make people aware of these teachings/ proclamations of the Orthodox Church’s view?

Met. Kallistos: We have to patient but persistent.  It often takes a long time for a message to percolate through to people in general but people’s attitudes can be changed and we have to work on that.

Clearly there are vested interests that will want to go on treating animals in the inhumane way that happens now, through battery hens or whatever, but we should quietly but persistently, combat those views. Opinions can be changed. There is in any rate, in our western society in countries like Britain and America, a greater sensitivity to the harm we are doing to the Creation and the need to change our ways of attitude.

We have a very long way to go and we are faced by certain very strong financial interests but if we hold fast to our message and go on preaching it, in season and out of season, about the value of the animal creation, this may result in a change gradually.

To quote a quite different situation, I can recall in my youth and I am thinking back to the 1950s, being told by a doctor friend of my family that there was a definite connection between smoking and lung cancer; But, she said, the tobacco companies are so powerful and they have such financial resources behind them, they will fight to suppress the evidence. Yes this did happen but nonetheless, in the last few decades there has been a fundamental change of attitude towards smoking and people’s opinions have been changed.  The anti-smoking lobby did not have big resources behind it and yet it has won.  There are increasing restrictions on where one can smoke and the cigarette packets have on them the message that smoking kills.  If you can change our attitude over smoking, can we not change our attitude over animals?

Presbytera Christina: Would you give us your opinion on why there is an apparent lack of debate from Orthodox academics, on the theme of animal suffering and related issues? 

Met. Kallistos: There ought to be, for it should be seen as a direct consequence that respect for the Creation, for the environment, carries with it more particularly respect for the animals; so we have a basis to work on there because a lot has been written by Orthodox.

It may not have permeated through to all the faithful but plenty has been said about the responsibility of humans for the environment, about the ecological crisis about the tragedy of what we are doing to the material creation.  The present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has said many things and several volumes have been issued of his addresses and sermons on this matter. So we have a good basis there to work from.

This theology of creation that the Orthodox Church is deeply committed to – the deepness and beauty of Creation – has as a direct consequence, reverence for the animals.  Why we haven’t so far made the connection, I am not really sure but it is high time we did so.


  1.  Prayer of St Modestos in Mikron Euchologion i Hagiasmatarion Apostoliki Diakonia: Athens, (1984:297).  The prayer is attributed to Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain.