Hunting nun with a trophy deer misses the mark on Catholic teachings (COMMENTARY)

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(RNS) I feel like I know Sister 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 Sister 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.

Video courtesy of CBS Philly

Sister 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.

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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.”

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.”

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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.”

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Sister 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.

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

We must also ask why Sister 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.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and author of “For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.” Twitter: @nohiddenmagenta)

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  • Mary B

    After the flood, God declared animals to be human food. (Gen. 9). Animals were deemed clean and unclean when Moses received the Law. Deer are among the clean animals. (Lev. 11). Peter was told to kill and eat both classes (Acts 10 &11.) Paul’s advice? See Col. 2:16, Rom. 14, I Cor. 8 & 10. Surely Jesus ate meat at Passover.
    Game officers here in WV monitor the number and health of our herd and set the days, areas, and type of deer that NEED to be harvested each year (yes, HARVESTED) to maintain heard health. Around 70,000 were taken in 2015. Pay “professionals” to hunt that many? When hunters gladly buy licenses?
    Our hunters do eat venison, and tons of it was also donated to feed the hungry & homeless. Many churches here even help pay to have it processed!
    Bear barbecue has been on local church dinner menu, too!

  • Larry

    Oh c’mon people! Are you saying that convents never had livestock, ever? That nuns have never had the need to kill an animal which was used for food.

    How much different is hunting from say slaughtering chickens raised in a pen or fishing from a theological standpoint (aside from the old testament kosher ban on hunting, except for survival)?

    Its not like nuns have an aversion to unnecessary cruelty to living things. Millions of Catholic School students have attested to that!

  • Chauffeur

    The author said; “Humans are commanded to eat a vegetarian diet.”

    Jesus ate meat – The Passover meal involved eating a roasted unblemished lamb – either from the goats or the sheep. Jesus also ate fish.

    So, as a “Catholic theologian” (who is neither on the left nor the right) are you saying that the Son of God disobeyed His own law?

    I request that you look up the word “Pantheist”. It has to do with worshiping creation rather than the One who was the Creator. It might be eye opening.

  • Robert Wade

    Genesis 9:2-3 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the field and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

  • “Animals belong to God…”

    Okay –
    But The food chain was supposedly LOVINGLY designed by God, too!
    Animals eat other living things. Let’s all grow up for goodness sake.

  • Karen

    Professor Camosy is spot-on with his commentary. Hunting an animal for food is one thing, posing and grinning with the fallen beast is another. There is no honor in taking an animal’s life and boasting about it. All animals are God’s creatures, and even the ones we use for food, we should respect in their death.

  • Faith of Our Fathers

    Posting articles like this reveals a lot about this website. “Religion” is distorted at RNS. This author’s argument is not even biblically based. He focuses too much on the nun’s “conservation” of the deer population though she also mentions necessity of food. And now Mary is somehow a great overseer of animal rights on earth? God has given us the authority over the animals and we’re allowed to eat them. If you want to argue inhumane treatment of animals in cases of animal cruelty (Ex: Killing dogs just kill them), than I will stand with you. This sounds more like someone who is jealous of hunters because he can’t aim straight.

  • FDT

    Sounds like the west coast has made it to the east coast.

  • Garson Abuita

    The author’s contempt for hunters is both obnoxious and ignorant. He basically tars them all as drunks, then goes on to say that bear hunting has nothing to do with conservation. Bear overpopulation can be just as much an issue as with deer, and its meat is edible. Further, the claim that all hunters should essentially be military snipers in order to avoid unnecessary suffering is more than a bit overwrought.
    But my bigger question is with Catholic teaching. The author seems to posit that hunting violates Catholic teaching unless it is needed for survival. Can someone state whether that’s really the case? Because it doesn’t sound like it from what I’ve read elsewhere.

  • Joe

    This is a poorly constructed argument based on emotion rather than facts. Your assertion that hunting for conservation purposes should be left to “professional marksmen” is pure city-dweller drivel and shows you have little or no first-hand experience around hunting or guns. It is not remotely difficult for a practiced shooter using reasonable judgement to kill deer humanely.

    Further, one can extend your argument quite easily to a number of activities beyond hunting. Driving our cars at high speed puts deer and other animals in grave danger. One could argue based on you logic that we, as caretakers of wildlife, should drive 15 miles per hour at all times so as to not put animal lives at risk.

    Lastly, your comment that “most are hungover weekend warriors” is an unnecessary and biased judgement condemning many for the poor behavior of very few. It would be analogous to stating that most Catholic priests are child molesters.

  • Joseph Silver

    “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.'”
    Theologically speaking, you are wrong. God gave dominion over all the Earth and its creatures to man (Gen 1:26-28). Man is made in the image of God; the only creature to have a will and has a conscience choice to follow it or not. This is evident because Adam knew that he was different than all of the other animals that God created (Gen 2:20). Animals were created for Adam, how does that not have reference to us?
    Examples of just purposes for hunting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out are food, clothing, medical and scientific experimentation, and the work and leisure of man (CCC 2417–8). Animals have no rights, but we as humans are to treat the with responsible…

  • Peyton

    I wonder why it is so hard for hunters to admit that they really enjoy the killing.

  • Seems to me a lot of the world’s troubles got started when God rejected Cain’s sacrifice of vegetables and approves of Abel’s sacrifice of meat. I’m gonna go with God on this one.

  • Rick R.

    “Hunters are almost never professional marksmen or women. Most are hungover weekend warriors for whom hunting is a kind of vacation with their buddies.”

    Apparently, the author has never had to rely on hunting to put food on his table.

    I doubt Jesus would degrade others who are feeding their families by calling them drunks.

    The amount of elitism in this article is astounding.

  • Sabelotodo2

    What a bunch of wimps! Bravo for the nun! Yes, animals are good, and–when cooked right, are delicious! Our forefathers would have starved, had they been possessed with such advanced, superior intellect and theological reasoning. Thank God they were more down-to-earth, and had their priorities straight.

    I’ve known folks who’ve made pets of deer, also calves, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens. They were usually lonely rural animal husbandmen whose isolation didn’t permit them to take full advantage of our human need to be companions with other humans!

  • ANN

    Elk County, PA is known for its hunting,season.
    Thousands of city folks go there to hunt. The nun in the article is a Benedictine nun, one of many that have taught our sons and daughters.
    Indeed, I am sure Sister will share the venison with some needy families. It’s a shame that so much has been made of the common, popular sport of hunting.

  • STM

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in sections 2415-2418, but the main part is here in sections 2417 ” God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.” Notice the part about use animals for food. Shooting an animal and leaving its carcass is wrong. Shooting an animal just to see it suffer is wrong. Shooting it for sport, hunting and using the animal afterward is just fine. describes all this much better