I feel like I know Sr. Bauer. I grew up in a rural area of Wisconsin much like her town of St. Marys, Pa. Both areas settled by German Catholics. Both areas full of people deeply connected to God’s creation. Both areas treat hunting as a kind of religion.
I still remember my first job washing dishes at the local bar and grill, a place that would simply shut down during hunting season. I was taught how to do geometry and sentence diagrams by salt-of-the-earth Catholic nuns. It would have shocked none of my classmates if we found that one our teachers, like Bauer, spent some time in a tree stand with a rosary and rifle.
But as someone who now works in New York City, I can see why a Facebook photo of her with the carcass of the 10-point buck she shot has gone viral. Our broader culture is now so disconnected -- both from the lives of habited nuns and from the concept of hunting -- that this story was simply bound to take off.
Bauer has received criticism, but it is a mistake to dismiss it as coming from “liberals.” As a Catholic theologian, I’m committed to a set of traditions and teachings that are neither right nor left, and which make it clear that there is something deeply problematic about the proud display of a carcass from a deer one has just killed.
Theologically speaking, what are animals for? Genesis 1 and 2 have some very interesting answers to this question. Animals are created “good,” period, without any reference to us. Humans are commanded to eat a vegetarian diet. Animals are brought to Adam “because it is not good man should be alone.”
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Sacred Scripture is clear: Animals do not belong to us. They have their own intrinsic moral value and are not to be used as if they are like a car or a hammer. They are not mere tools or things. Animals belong to God and he has charged us with being their caretakers.
Our relationship with animals changes because of sin, and God gives limited permission to eat meat in Genesis 9. Christians are called to witness a Kingdom in which lambs will lie down with lions and babies with snakes. The catechism of the Catholic Church insists that we have a moral obligation to treat animals with kindness and that it is morally prohibited to cause animals to suffer or die without need.
The most obvious example of our culture’s violation of these principles is the production, genetic manipulation and torture of animals in factory farms. Designed to drive down meat prices by maximizing “protein units per square foot,” this is the ultimate example of turning animals into mere products or things. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, referred to these practices as “contrary to the spirit of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Many of us are complicit in this structure of sin by purchasing the products of factory farms. I have a certain admiration for hunters and others who raise and kill their own animals for food because they are at least authentically connected to the means by which meat comes to their plate. There is an astonishing level of hypocrisy present in those who criticize Sister Bauer but participate in the torture of animals in factory farms.
Nevertheless, while hunting isn’t as bad as factory farming, most instances are still violations of Catholic teaching on our duties to animals. Hunters are almost never professional marksmen or women. Most are hungover weekend warriors for whom hunting is a kind of vacation with their buddies. It violates the catechism’s insistence that we treat animals with kindness, and in the overwhelming number of cases the killing hardly rises to the level of “need.”
Bauer, perhaps anticipating this kind of criticism, insists that she hunts because deer are too numerous in her area and many will starve to death.
But if hunting is really about conserving the population -- and not mere entertainment -- then we should have professional marksmen and women doing this work. Not someone who could just as easily cause a deer to bleed to death over many hours with an errant shot.
We must also ask why Bauer proudly posed for a picture with the deer carcass as a kind of trophy. It is one thing to recognize the tragic death of one of God’s magnificent creatures in the face of possible starvation. It is quite another to post a photo glamorizing one’s kill. She has also apparently killed a bear during one of her hunts -- more evidence that this is about something other than conservation.
In the context of praying her rosary while in the tree stand, and having a deer come into her sights, Sister Bauer said, “I just think the Blessed Mother did smile upon me.”
But this is a strange interpretation of the will of the Mother of our Lord. Let’s give Catholic teaching the last word by quoting “Laudato Si'”:
Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power.