World Animal Day: Saint Francis of Assisi and a Controversial ‘Science’ Paper

Today is ‘World Animal Day‘ and given I’m a zoo(archaeo)logist I thought I would celebrate the lives of animals past – the ones I study – and present by writing a post about this great initiative and several of the stories behind it.

This special day was established in 1931 during an ecology conference in Florence (Italy) to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by many of the world’s endangered animal species. This specific date was chosen because today, 4th of October, is the Catholic Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.

Saint Francis of Assis
by Cimbaue
Image source: WikiPaintings

Who was Saint Francis of Assisi?

Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1181–1226) was born in Assisi, Umbria (Italy), son to a rich cloth merchant.

Francesco, as he was known in his hometown, was a bit of a ‘bad boy’ during his youth until one day, aged 25, God appeared to him in a dream and thus began his search for conversion; he went on to devote the rest of his life to helping those most in need.

St Francis is the animal lover Catholic saint par excellence and two tales in particular, in which the protagonists are Francesco, a flock of birds and a fierce wolf, are generally recounted to illustrate this man’s love of the animal kingdom and his profound respect for the environment. Both stories are from the Little Flowers of Saint Francis* and below you will find two excerpts from it.

  • Birds

“Ye shall await me here on the road, and I will go and preach to the birds my sisters” [said St Francis]; and he went into the field and began to preach to the birds which were upon the ground; and anon those which were in the trees came to him, and all of them stood still together until St Francis finished preaching; and even then they departed not until he gave them his blessing“. To read the rest of the bird chapter click here.

  •  Wolf

“During the time that St Francis dwelt in the city of Agobio, there appeared in the territory of Agobio a very great wolf, terrible and fierce, the which not only devoured animals, but also men and women (…) Thereupon St Francis spake unto him again saying … desire, friar wolf, that thou shouldst promise me that never from henceforward wilt thou injure any human being or any animal. Dost thou promise me this?” And the wolf, by bowing his head, gave evident token that he promised it“. To read the rest of the wolf chapter click here.

Saint Francis
St Francis Preaching to the Birds by Giotto and statue with wolf in Monterosso al Mare (Italy)
Image sources: WikiPaintings and Radio For the Eyes

The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis

Francis’ love of all things environmental was most recently acknowledged by the late Pope John Paul II whom, on the 29th of November 1979, officially declared him the patron saint of ecology. This recognition was likely influenced by a paper published a few years earlier by Lynn Townsend White in Science entitled ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis‘ (1967), which triggered much public debate – including articles, for example, in Time Magazine and the New York Times – on the role of religion in environmental conservation.

This Science paper was derived from a talk delivered by White at the 1966 AAAS Meeting in which he argued that “what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny  – that is, by religion” (White 1967: 1205). And for those of us living in Christian-based societies, he said, this conditioning is bad news for ecology because of Christianity’s anthropocentrism.

Lynn Townsend White Jr. 
Image source:
University of Portland

The Christian story of Creation is one where God creates everything: day and light, earth, animals, plants… and finally Man, Adam, and from him, Eve, a Woman, for company. All created by God to satisfy the needs of Man. This reasoning, noted White, has been used by Christianity “to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (p. 1205), which its Pagan predecessors didn’t do.

This ‘mood of indifference’ needs to change if the environment is to be saved, concluded White, and thus he proposed an alternative Christian view, one which would have Man not above nature, but rather as a part of it. And this is where Saint Francis of Assisi enters the picture because he always “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures” (p. 1206).

For Saint Francis, as described in the tales above, birds were sisters, wolves his brothers, all natural creatures equal. In St Francis’ world there was no special high place for Man; eco, not ego. Perhaps, White reasoned, this is the solution to our modern ecologic crisis and as such he “propose[d] Francis as a patron saint for ecologists” (p. 1207). I’m pretty sure White was very pleased with John Paul’s decision, but have things changed since then? Has the ecologic crisis been resolved?


Sources and Further Reading

Little Flowers of Saint Francis is a florilegium (excerpts of his body of work), divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi which was composed at the end of the 14th century. The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 (from Wikipedia).

2 thoughts on “World Animal Day: Saint Francis of Assisi and a Controversial ‘Science’ Paper

  1. Mike Howe says:

    That was a really fascinating post and I am particularly grateful for the info on Lynne Townsend White whom I’d never heard of. His quote about human belief and their response to ecology (anthropocentrism) is exactly what I have learned during my career but never seen it articulated in print, so I shall now seek out and read more, thanks for the heads up 🙂

    1. piaspry-marques says:

      Thanks, Mike! When researching for the post I was surprised to find out about Lynne Townsend White’s work and I’m happy to see that through my post I am, in a way, continuing to spread the words and teachings of this great, but largely forgotten scholar 🙂

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