St. Patrick’s Parish of Stephensville, WI: an Uncharitable Parish

As someone who was raised Catholic, one of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism I recall being taught is that all Christians should be charitable. The fact that Charity is one of the three “Theological Virtues” enjoins Catholics to take seriously this virtue, and to furthermore, challenge and speak out against uncharitable acts, including those acts that exploit and instrumentalize innocent and vulnerable nonhuman animals. One such act that I would like to call attention to is the annual “Pig Rassle” fundraiser, hosted by St. Patrick’s Parish in Stephensville, Wisconsin (this year it took place on August 10th).

Pig Rassle

Yet, before I explain how this event directly contradicts and stands in opposition to the Catholic Ethic, I would like to first turn to a short discussion of why the virtue of Charity is central to the Catholic Church’s teachings.

The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) are said to be the foundation of Christian and moral activity; they inform and give life to all other human virtues (including the” cardinal virtues” and the “fruit of the spirit” virtues). The goal of cultivating these virtues is to adapt one’s faculties for participation in the divine nature (for a discussion on the Theological Virtues, see the Catholic Catechism 1812&1813). In particular, the virtue of Charity enjoins Christians to “love our neighbor as ourselves as love of God.” According to the Catholic Catechism (1829), the virtue of charity literally transforms one into something Christ-like.

In order for Catholics to be transformed into something Christ-like, we must, at the very least, imitate the actions and embody the teachings of Jesus- the Prince of Peace. What we know about the Prince of Peace is that He reminded His followers of the following lessons:

(1) The strong protect the weak
(2) The higher serve the lower
(3) We should give primacy of mercy to the weak, powerless, and oppressed

What we can conclude from this is that, if we are to cultivate the virtue of charity, we must act with beneficence and kindness not only to our superiors and equals, but also to those beings who we perceive to be our “unequals”: the weak, powerless, and oppressed. Just as the son of God showed mercy and compassion to those beings “beneath” Him, such as human beings (healthy, poor, sick, and oppressed), so should we, humans, show mercy to those who we might perceive to be “beneath” us, such as weak and/or vulnerable human beings and nonhuman animals.

Charity is not only about acting beneficiently toward our family, friends, and fellow human beings- it, more importantly, is about extending our sentiments and moral concern to those beings who are in most need of our help and mercy. Charity is often about assisting, loving, and showing mercy to those who are unrelated to us and who are the farthest away, perhaps in distance or physical-likeness. What is unique about the Theological Virtues is that there is no vice of “excess,” which means that one can never be “too charitable.” Thus, one cannot be accused of being “overly charitable” when one shows concern for nonhuman animals; charity has no limits and the further we can extend our acts of charity, the more Christ-like we become.

Keeping this brief discussion of Charity in mind, let us return to the “Pig Rassle” event. According to various reports of the event, the following observations were made:

1. Blatant forms of physical abuse took place: SHARK, an animal protection agency, recorded a video of the event which showed “multiple pigs being jumped on and sometimes dropped from several feet in the air as the animals run away squealing and panting. It also shows pigs urinating and defecating in the mud, which covers the bodies and sometimes faces of participants, including children.”

2. The event was responsible for needless death: the 37 pigs who were victimized in this display were sent to slaughter the following day, even after protestors arranged for an animal sanctuary to take in these pigs.

But even setting aside the unforgiveable fact that these pigs experienced physical pain and were subsequently killed afterward without good reason, this event, even if it were free of blatant forms of “cruelty” and death, stands in direct opposition to the Catholic doctrine which demands that, if human beings are to act in the image of God, they must treat God’s creations with respect. Many biblical passages explicitly illustrate that nonhuman animals are not just “objects” put on earth for human beings to exploit and instrumentalize, but rather, they are precious beings who are to be cared for and respected in their own right. Consider the following passages (these are just a few passages of many that indicate that a Divine attitude calls for a respect for nonhuman animals):

Luke 12: 6 – Even the sparrows are not forgotten by God
Luke 9:58 – God so cared for his creation that “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests”
Proverbs 12:10 – A righteous [man] regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked [are] cruel.
Corinthians 9:9 – For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?

That being said, even if these pigs were not “punched” or “kicked,” the very fact that they were treated as mere objects for human entertainment disregards all of the Biblical teachings which enjoin us to treat God’s creations with respect, and many times respecting a being entails more than just refraining from abusing or killing that being. It might entail, among other things: not confining her for entertainment, not reducing her worth to instrumental value, not making a mockery of her, and not impeding upon her capacities and interests. Quite clearly, the 37 pigs who were forced to participate in Pig Rassle: (1) were used as mere instruments for human entertainment, (2) were mocked in every sense of the word, (3) were confined against their will for human entertainement, (4) had their interests and capacities impeded upon in the sense that pigs do not have an interest in being chased, pushed, jumped on, grabbed, dragged, and shoved by groups of belligerent human beings.

In response to the overwhelming amount of criticism that St. Patrick’s Parish received regarding the “Pig Rassle” event, supporters of the event have attempted to justify the Pig Rassle event by offering the following (poorly reasoned) arguments:

1.It’s tradition! According to Deacon Ken Bilgrien, the pastoral coordinator of St. Patrick’s parish and event organizer, “It’s been going on for over 40 years — and it’s our annual festival and fundraiser combined.”

Response: tradition is not a justification for immoral behavior. A community of cannibals might have a tradition of torturing and consuming a human toddler every summer, yet surely this doesn’t make it morally acceptable! Some traditions clearly are harmful and need to be replaced.

2. It’s a fundraiser! The church raises $3,000 from this event!

Response: there are plenty of other ways to raise money that does not involve the unethical treatment of nonhuman animals!

3. The pigs enjoyed it! Deacon Bilgrien again enlightens us: “These young girls that end up face down in the mud — I swear the pigs stopped and turned around and laughed at them, so it’s a fun event and really, we think the pigs enjoy it.”

Response: Common sense informs us that when a pig is running away from mobs of screaming humans who are attempting to tackle her, this indicates that she is in a state of confusion and fear: not enjoyment! See the video below which clearly illustrates that the pigs did not enjoy being terrorized by groups of children and adults.

4. It’s not illegal! Diocese spokeswoman Justine Lodl reassures us that “After consultation with local law authorities, it was determined that there was nothing illegal associated with this event.”

Response: even if pig wrestling is not illegal, it does not make it morally acceptable. In fact, the law has a very lenient standard that permits a considerable amount of harmful treatment of nonhuman animals. But more importantly, even if something is legal, it doesn’t make it acceptable according to the teachings of Catholicism. There are a number of Catholic beliefs (abortion is wrong, it’s wrong to use birth control, premarital sex is wrong) that are not endorsed by the legal system. Yet, interestingly enough, this does not stop Catholics from holding on to these beliefs. That being said, it is quite hypocritical for Catholics to then appeal to the legal system in order to justify animal exploitation if they do not appeal to the “legal authority” when it comes to abortion, premarital sex, and so forth.

As animal theologian Andrew Linzey writes: “The image in whose God we are made is a holy, loving, and just God who cares for all creation.” If the Christian God does exist, He certainly would not reward us for deriving pleasure from activities that make a mockery of the sentient beings He created with loving kindness. He would not overlook the viciousness that one cultivates when he derives amusement by watching a helpless, innocent animal, run away from mobs of human beings in a mud pit. If we are ever to realize the image of God and act as truly charitable beings, we must take seriously the theme of provision and gentleness that God Himself showed to nonhuman animals in the Bible. But more importantly, we should refrain from the disrespectful, exploitative behavior found in practices such as the St. Patrick’s “Pig Rassle” fundraiser.

I close by asking Deacon Ken Bilgrien, Justine Lodl, and any other self-proclaimed Christian who support events like “Pig Rassle” to carefully consider the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

What is a charitable heart? It is a heart burning with charity for the whole of creation, for humans, for the birds,for the beasts, for the demons — for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his heart, a heart that is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain,being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a man never ceases to pray for the animals, for the enemies of Truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified.He will pray even for the reptiles, moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God.

Clearly, neither the organizers nor the participants of “Pig Rassle” have cultivated a charitable heart. We can only hope, for the sake of all nonhuman animals (and for the sake of human beings who suffer indirectly from the viciousness that one cultivates from harming nonhuman animals), that they will learn from and come to regret their truly vicious, disrespectful, exploitative, and uncharitable attitudes and behavior.

Please help these confused Catholics come to understand that the “Pig Rassle” event stands in direct opposition to the tenets of their own faith:

Deacon Ken Bilgrien: 920-779-5960
St. Patrick Parish: 920-757-5090 or email benwolf@new.rr.com
Event Coordinator, Rose Rynish: 920-757-6824 or email stpatdenis@new.rr.com

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