The Catholic Church teaches that out of earthly beings, only humans, and not animals, are persons and therefore many rights, like the absolute right to live, are enjoyed only by humans.

As the CCC says,

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.

2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

And notably, the above canons are placed in a chapter whose title is:

II. Respect for Persons and Their Goods

If I’m not mistaken, this position stems from the definition of “person” proposed by Boethius, which is most commonly accepted among theologians:

A person is an individual substance with a rational nature.

The problem is that some modern scientists claim that according to the new research we must consider some animals, in particular the great apes, as self-aware and intelligent, and therefore persons. They assert that these animals are also capable of self-control, planning, abstract thinking, mental time travel, comprehending past, present and future, empathy, establishing relationships, etc. They assert these animals are sentient.

Therefore these scientists claim these animals should be granted the right of bodily liberty, bodily integrity, and must not be considered properties of other people.

For sources, please see e.g. the following Wikipedia articles: Great ape personhood, Nonhuman Rights Project and Personhood § Non-human animals.

By such mentality denying animals human rights is an example of an unmadated supremacism, chauvinism and discrimination, similar in nature to the historical discrimination of people born as slaves and later of people of other races.

Yet under the Church’s teaching it would seem impossible to classify these animals as persons. Given these scientific claims, seemingly fulfilling Boethius’ definition of a person, how does the Catholic Church defend its teaching with regard to animals not being persons?

  • Just to make things clear, I am personally not a supported of animal personhood.
    – gaazkam
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 17:39
  • 1
    They cannot be classified as persons because persons are made in the image of God. They were not made to enter into a relationship with God, nor can they knowingly worship Him.
    – Steve
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 13:15
  • That's interesting. Wolves howl at the moon; it's only conjecture why. What if they are seeking the Divine?
    – Stu W
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 2:09
  • Why is this question downvoted? Taking into account that these claims I quote are made, among others, by ppl like "the pope of atheism" Richard Dawkins and a UN messager of peace Jane Goodall, I'd suppose it does make sense to ask how does the Church defend its teaching from these peoples’ objections??
    – gaazkam
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 2:53
  • For one, is Boethius really the "definitive" point; that is without his definition, the Church would recognize other species as persons? When the Church's intellectual tradition discusses rationality, intellectual substances, etc does it mean the same thing as when modern biologists recognize "intelligence" in animals?
    – eques
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 19:50

3 Answers 3


Humans have the gift of free will given directly by God [CCC 1730], as well as a soul [CCC 1703]. Only humans have an immortal soul.

Many higher mammals have the traits you speak of: wolves, most domesticated dogs and cats, dolphins and porpoises, and most primates. Sentience is not a function of humanity.

Scripture specifically makes humans special from the time of creation:

Genesis 1:26 And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heaven, and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep along the earth. 27: And God created man in his image; in his image he created him; man and woman he created them. 28: And God blessed them, and God said, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.

CCC 1704 goes on to say By free will, [man] is capable of directing himself towards his true good.

In these regards, both scripture and Catholic theology recognize the supremacy of humans over all other species on the planet.

I'm not sure if this is a defense, per se, as you have asked, but God was very specific about the supremacy of humans. Of interest, cultures which are not monotheistic have by and large less empathy towards nonhumans than the Church. If anything, Catholic theology supports animal rights and the relief of suffering as long as it is not to the detriment of humans [CCC 2415-2418].

To sum up, sentience, if present, is not a substitute for humanity. (Of note, the CCC specifically prohibits slavery of persons [CCC 2414].) Your argument that "some modern scientists" believe sentience makes a nonhuman a "person" is not a replacement for scripture or dogma.

  • Do you have a CCC reference for saying that animals don't have souls?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 0:16
  • 1) I'm pretty sure, though can't yet find a proper reference, that according to St. Thomas animals do have souls, though different from the humans' ones. 2) Again: Definition of a person by Boethius: A person is an individual substance with a rational nature. If the scientists' claims are to be believed in, then certain animals seem to fulfill this definition. And AFAIK this is the definition that is most commonly accepted among theologians.
    – gaazkam
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 0:54
  • Animals have animal souls, trees have tree souls, rocks have rock souls, humans have human souls. Humans souls are immortal the others aren't.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 2:47
  • Yes, I edited to update
    – Stu W
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:10
  • The question becomes whether modern scientists mean the same thing when they talk about being rational that Catholic theologians do when they say something similar. Commented May 30, 2017 at 16:46

Personalism, a concept promoted by St. John Paul the Great was (and memorize this one because it will be on the test)

A person is an entity toward which the only reasonable attitude is love

Now, to me that seems like a description of another human being, not a one of the lower animals. You cannot substitute love with lunch.

The "Gloomy Dean", Dean Inge of St. Paul's in London in the early 20th century would have had the same propositions, that because animals can X, we should grant them Y. And he did this mixing Christianity and science and coming up with astonishing platitudes that sound more like pessimistic Hinduism.

The same writer makes one or two other very curious remarks; one of the most astonishing being the following: "The lower animals were not made for our sake. So much science can affirm without hesitation." We can affirm without hesitation that science cannot affirm anything of the sort. Science (when used to mean the study of hard fact and not a mere modernist mystery and hocus-pocus) refuses absolutely to affirm anything whatever about what animals were made for; or even, within its own logical operation, whether they were made at all

THE RELATION OF MAN TO THE ANIMALS, G.K. Chesterton - May 26, 1928

G.K. Chesterton didn't like torturing animals, he preferred vivisecting politicians and multi-millionaires to rabbits and apes, but he couldn't see animals being merciful to one another. And it would take mercy to have the rights held by humans - because apes wouldn't even be expected to hold those rights within their community.

Now, maybe reading Tarzan leaves me in relation to the great apes the same as as a Protestant who has never read Belloc, but I do not think apes or dolphins or army ants are model citizens and I cannot (because I was not) be made to love them the way I love my wife, my neighbor, my kids or even my enemies.


Under what basis does the Catholic Church consider animals, in particular great apes, not to be persons?

Humans being have the gift of free will given directly by God (CCC 1730), as well as an immortal soul (CCC 1703). Only people have the gift of reason, where animals do not have including great apes.

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. "God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.

1703 Endowed with "a spiritual and immortal" soul,5 the human person is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake." From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude.

Language is the proof of intelligence, which even great apes do not possess. They simply have a system of communication, as do most animals, but it is no way based on reason. That distinguishes the human race and animals including great apes, possessing a simple animal soul and not an immortal human soul!

Animals, including great ape, are incapable of adoring God as man can with all his heart, mind and soul!

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