The Difference Between Humans and Animals

by Carmelite Sisters | August 25, 2015 12:04 am

"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo[1]

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

“What made you establish man in so great a dignity?”

A couple of weeks ago I was at a farmer’s market on a lovely spot right by the ocean. One of the booths that featured woodwork had a carved sign display saying: “Animals are People Too!” Certainly, I don’t think the author of that statement meant for us to take that claim literally, but it does offer us the opportunity to thoughtfully ponder the distinction between animals and human beings.

First, I must say that animals are truly amazing creatures of God and special gifts to us in many ways. Nearly everyone can remember a pet that has a special place in their heart. Who hasn’t marveled at the song of the mockingbird and enjoyed the velvety feel of a rabbit’s fur? I remember the first time I realized how relaxing it was just to watch fish swim back and forth in an aquarium, or to have a cat purr in my lap.

We feel a great connection with animals, yet I’m reminded in Genesis that Adam could not find a suitable partner who was his equal in any of the animals. Only humans are a unique combination of both the physical world and the spiritual world, made up of a mysterious union of a body and a spiritual soul. No wonder we are so complex, so noble, yet so earth-bound and limited at the same time.

On the other hand, animals are without spiritual capacities of intellect and free will. Chimpanzees or dolphins will never gather together to have a discussion on the concept of truth, or debate the existence of God, or share their thoughts on eternity. Coming down a notch from that, you won’t find them working on calculus problems or naming the constellations either.   Animals can be smart but they cannot think abstractly or freely choose to act against their instincts. They show no sign of spirituality or concern with ultimate issues. They can communicate but they do not have language, in the formal sense, as human beings do. Animals live on a purely horizontal plane whereas human beings live in both a horizontal and vertical plane.

Essentially, only human beings are made in the “Imago Dei,” in the image and likeness of God. All other beings, including animals, participate in God insofar as they exist and are what God has called them to be, that is they glorify God insofar as they are what they are. A dog glorifies God by being a dog, just as a lion glorifies God by being a lion and a rock (an inanimate object) glorifies God by being a rock. Given that only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, only human beings are rational (that is, open to the transcendent, with unique intellectual, cultural, and communicative abilities, conscious of time, reality and truth.) Given this, only human beings have an inherent spiritual and religious nature.

Essentially, human life is more valuable than animal life because of our unique relationship with God, as explained in paragraph # 356 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Of all visible creatures only man is able to know and love his Creator. He is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.”

And I will conclude with the quote from St. Catherine of Siena:

“What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good.” (St. Catherine of Siena)

by Sister Immaculata O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

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