Catholics lack a clear ethic of hunting. Do we need one?

The practice of hunting intersects with moral issues like animal rights, ecology, Indigenous rights, and toxic masculinity—and, of course, gun violence.
Our Faith

Sam Rocha remembers the strong recoil of the gun. His father had told him he could have an early inheritance—his great-grandfather Crecencio Rocha’s hundred-year-old Winchester .30-30—if he could harvest a deer with it. So one fall evening after school, Rocha drove his pickup to a spot near Brady Lake in Texas Hill Country and walked into a meadow known to have game trails. On this solitary hunting excursion, he wore a ghillie suit—camouflage clothing with loosely hanging fabric strands meant to look like local foliage. He took a shot at a white-tailed doe from around 20 yards away.

The gun connects Rocha to his culture and heritage. He is two generations removed from vaqueros on a horse ranch in the Rio Grande Valley on his father’s side and borregueros (or sheepherders) from New Mexico on his mother’s side. For generations, hunting was a way of life for his family. They also used guns to defend their animals against predators. His paternal grandparents were the first to move off the ranch a couple hours south of San Antonio after their lease, which they had held for multiple generations, expired. They moved to Brady, Texas, and they kept hunting.

“My earliest memories of hunting are hunting cottontail rabbits,” Rocha says. His family often substituted rabbit for chicken in a dish common to the Rio Grande Valley—arroz con pollo. Like in the original dish, his family kept the bones in.

For his grandmother, if he could, he would shoot jackrabbits—a large hare that can look like a small deer when running. “My grandmother grew up eating jackrabbit on the ranch. It was her favorite dish,” he says. The dish is prepared by stewing the rabbit in blood along with vegetables and spices. After moving, she had trouble accessing jackrabbit. “When I did kill a rabbit, I had to be careful how I cleaned it and keep a side bag of the drained blood,” he says. Later, in his teens, Rocha started to hunt for larger game like white-tailed deer.


As a Catholic and an assistant professor of philosophy of education at the University of British Columbia, Rocha contemplates many issues that intersect with the practices of harvesting animals. But the church has not articulated a thorough ethic of hunting. While conversations about guns in America are generally about mass shootings, a thoughtful hunter might also consider such issues as Indigenous rights, colonialism, the health of ecosystems, toxic masculinity, animal rights, and even food security. All of these impact rural areas across the United States, including low-income white communities, Indigenous communities, and others, such as those with vaquero heritage.

Anchoring values for a Catholic ethic of hunting might include teachings on private property, killing and dying, living as good neighbors, and caring for creation. Yet the doctrine of discovery, a series of papal bulls in 1452 that gave European rulers the right to take lands and subjugate Indigenous people, highlights our past and present identities in the United States. Its legacy provokes questions about who we want to be in relation to this planet and our neighbors, including game animals, as we walk into the future.

The view of our ancestors

JoDe Goudy imagines himself standing at the mouth of what we now call the Columbia River as Robert Gray navigated his ship into the channel in 1792, stopped on the north shore, raised an American flag, and buried coins under a pine tree to symbolically claim the lands of the Columbia River Basin—including the land of what is now the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. Gray was only one of the European explorers who seized lands under the approval of the doctrine of discovery.

For Goudy, a former Yakama chairman and consultant on the doctrine of discovery, understanding how land is conceptualized within centuries-old and now-repudiated church teaching is critical to answering ethical questions about how we live on the land today. The doctrine allowed explorers and settlers a “holy right of the exertion of dominion over the land, waters, and natural animals of the world and also over the infidels and heathens, which they deemed us to be,” he says.


By 1823, 20 years after Lewis and Clark took the land route to explore the claimed land, the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh ruled that Native Americans’ land was part of the conquest of the United States, establishing the basis of property law and setting a precedent for Indigenous property rights (or lack thereof) in one swoop. In memorializing the doctrine, the Supreme Court began a case trail that connects many present-day disputes back to the doctrine of discovery—including hunting disputes involving land use.

It can get complicated for Indigenous communities. Some Indigenous nations, such as the Yakama, have treaties that include the right to hunt in traditional areas, including outside their reservations, but not all nations have that right enshrined in treaties and not all Indigenous nations have treaties with the U.S. government. Even those who do have that right may face challenges by state or local laws that contradict the treaty.

In such cases, Goudy says, he questions the hierarchy of the law. According to the U.S. Constitution, treaties are the “supreme law of the land.” Yet that has not been honored. Many times, Goudy says, “the United States has changed the rules to sometimes overcome or eliminate” what it decides are “problems” in the treaties.

The doctrine of discovery continues to influence the United States’ treatment of land and Indigenous rights. This is a legacy with which Catholics must reckon. While Pope Paul III issued a bull revoking earlier doctrine of discovery writings in 1537, the Catholic Church didn’t officially repudiate the doctrine altogether until 2023. And, as described earlier, Supreme Court decisions encoded the doctrine of discovery into U.S. laws. Celia Deane-Drummond, a theologian, animal ethicist, and director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute, says that the doctrine doesn’t even really deserve the name doctrine.


Catholic social teaching, including Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), talks about the need to preserve cultural identity, which can be connected to land. In the Hebrew scriptures, Jewish identity is bound up with land and the people’s relationship with God. Deane-Drummond, who is from the United Kingdom, gives another example: “In traditional land ownership in Scotland, land is part of an identity of a family. So, it couldn’t be bought and sold,” she says.

When we treat land as a resource, it sometimes “runs roughshod over populations who have lived on the land,” Deane-Drummond says. “We have to respect a different approach to the land.”

To Goudy, the outcome of the “discovery” and settling of the United States devastated not only Indigenous nations, but also the natural world. After settlers claimed and dominated the lands, they decimated animal populations. Western approaches began creeping into the culture of hunting: a grab-and-conquer, rule-and-impose mentality. Deane-Drummond feels this was connected directly to the doctrine of discovery.

Environmental concerns

Rocha says some of the most ardent conservationists over the last several hundred years have been influenced by dominion theology—a reference to Genesis 1:28 in which God grants humans “dominion” over the Earth. Those who believe humans are exceptional creatures that stand apart from and above nature may exercise their supposed superiority over the rest of creation in myriad ways.


Wildlife flourished in the United States before Europeans arrived. The culture clash after white settlers came to North America led to a whole series of disastrous ecological outcomes. Estimating historical populations of animals before modern-day recordkeeping is difficult, so scholars do not always agree on the reasons for their severe declines, but hunting played a large role.

Demand for animal hides back in Europe and on the East Coast increased hunting for trading. Meanwhile, settlers began slaughtering buffalo in an attempt to starve the many Native Americans reliant on the animal. Bison once roamed from Alberta, Canada to Rocha’s home state of Texas and further. According to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, during the 1800s, the population dropped from 60 million to a few hundred.


In the early 1900s, the conservation movement, including hunters and scientists, lobbied for wildlife protections, which resulted in the creation of state game and wildlife commissions and national and state lands and parks. Their romanticization of nature stopped some of the drastic decline in wildlife populations, but this approach lacked a theological ethic for wildlife management that wasn’t tainted with colonialism.

For example, the singular focus of hunter conservationists on the white-tailed deer, whose populations fell during the same period as the drastic drop in buffalo, led to imbalance in some local ecosystems. By the early 1900s, many larger predators—coyotes, bears, wolves, bobcats, and even jaguars and ocelots—were hunted to near extinction, leaving the white-tailed deer to increase in population. Today, without any predators and due to rancher suppression of a parasite that lives in cattle, the ecosystem is at risk of overpopulation by deer, which also has its detriments. Thus, hunting white-tailed deer is seen as one way to restore balance.


For Rocha, hunting—and fishing—changes the way one sees the environment. The conversation becomes less principled and more practical. People begin to see ecosystem connections—between rivers, animals, fish, forests, and people—and consider solutions to complex problems at a granular level.

This is particularly important when people hunt close to home rather than traveling. In our urbanized world, Rocha says, “It’s impossible to give an environmental education for a wider public that has no touch point to nature or forest or trees or water or animals.”

A liminal space

One can’t deny that a gun is a tool that can be used for domination. Rocha, who takes pride in his great-grandfather’s rifle, remains aware of the overlapping military uses of the same model.

After its initial creation, the Winchester hunting rifle sold in small numbers to the U.S. Army and other nations for various uses during World Wars I and II. Later, due to 24-hour media coverage during the War on Terror, sales soared for the AR-15, which became the most controversial gun on the market, according to the Washington Post.


The AR-15, a gun today often associated with mass shootings, slowly became a civilian favorite, even for hunters. Based on the M-16 used during the Vietnam War, the AR-15 is a semiautomatic weapon that shoots one shot for every touch of the finger. The weapon is banned in nine states.

Rocha believes AR-15s should not be used in hunting. “A single action is all one really needs in the field,” he says. Rocha sees hunting as putting one into contact with a form of violence that is potentially redeemable. To him, the moment before the shot is a contemplation of power. The wielder faces a choice upon confronting their own power. It’s a moral moment and a spiritual one, when one sees the thin space between life and death. Some people walk up to that edge and decide they can’t go through with it. “I see that as a very advanced moral person,” he says.

Hunters call it “buck fever” when the adrenaline rushes through your body when you have your sights on a deer and you start shaking or your vision goes fuzzy before you shoot. “Even on the river, people can’t [make the kill],” says Rocha, speaking of fishing. But there’s always the option of catch and release in angling. In hunting, you must commit to the kill.

For some, the engagement with an animal is enough. Rocha’s uncle goes out on the hunt but doesn’t ever take a shot. He’s in it for the social aspect: sitting by a fire and drinking a couple beers with friends.

Gun control

Rocha supports more regulation around gun ownership but thinks that gun violence opponents need to be better educated about firearms. “I’ll agree on principle, but I’ll see people talk about guns in ways that no gun owner would,” says Rocha. For example, the National Shooting Sports Foundation refers to the AR-15 as a modern sporting rifle, while most anti-gun violence organizations and many state laws name it as an “assault rifle­.” A true automatic rifle, like the M-16, can deliver continuous fire.

From 1994 to 2004, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported, included both semiautomatic and automatic weapons. The ban was meant to prohibit weapons that aren’t particularly suitable for hunting or sport shooting but are a likely choice for criminal use. In fact, to make the bill politically attractive, Senator Dianne Feinstein circulated a list of 670 hunting rifles that would not be banned under the law. The ban expired in 2004 and, though proposed at the federal level several times, hasn’t garnered enough support to be reimplemented.

Within the Catholic intellectual tradition, Rocha finds it hard to justify the use of lethal weapons in most civilian cases, including self-defense. Even war is a high bar to clear given the critiques of armed and violent conflict from the previous several popes, he says. But he thinks appropriate use of firearms includes the ability of people to defend themselves in remote areas. He sees no problem with carrying a gun on some of his remote fishing trips in British Columbia. “I’ve been on a shoreline where a large male grizzly bear walks out,” he says.

Even then, however, one can decline from rushing to a kill shot. “I would never point my weapon at an animal unless they were attacking me,” Rocha says. “I would use it more as a loud noise to scare them.”


Toward a Catholic ethic of hunting

For Deane-Drummond, a Catholic ethic of hunting must start with respect for animals. “These are creatures—from the same divine Creator—who have evolved with us. We need to treat them with respect and not as if they are dispensable,” she says.

Can killing them be done in a humane way? Rocha says that some guns might be a more ethical choice for hunting because of their accuracy and lethality. A gun can be a tool to quickly kill an animal so they don’t experience as much pain. He wouldn’t endorse other tools for harvesting animals, however. For example, bow hunting has a higher probability of wounding an animal and thus prolonging suffering. In fact, most states require bow hunting specifications that maximize shot lethality. Meanwhile, some guns are appropriate for small animals like squirrel or rabbit but not large game, because they may not shoot a caliber powerful enough to kill.

Deane-Drummond says that people can respect an animal and recognize the fact they gave their life to provide a family with sustenance. “Even though death is abhorrent at one level, the whole ecological system requires death for it to survive,” she says.

Implicit in this thinking toward hunting is the assumption that any kill will be used for food. But is hunting the most ethical way to meet the nutritional need for meat? Deane-Drummond, who opposes the cruelty of factory farming practices, which impact both animals and marginalized workers, concedes that hunting may seem more ethical. But she says that she would probably steer people toward simply eating less meat, which would also lower one’s carbon footprint, or buying meat produced using alternative forms of agriculture. “What I object to, in particular, is hunting for pleasure and not using it for anything when (hunters) don’t need it,” Deane-Drummond says.

Rocha agrees. He finds trophy hunting to be “ethically disordered. . . . That kind of objectification of animals and of sentient beings is deeply and fundamentality problematic,” he says. The end goal should be to feed yourself, your family, or the community. To mount taxidermied animal heads for bragging rights or decorations is not for the common good. “If you are solely traveling to be an ecotourist, and it doesn’t accompany a local practice and a local investment, that’s very difficult for me to reconcile,” says Rocha.

For most Americans in today’s world, there are easier ways to obtain ethical food than hunting. In fact, according to Pew Research, the number of hunters in the United States has declined over the past 40 years.

Hunters must not only know the regulations and ecology of their area to responsibly hunt, but they also must know how to process food. “I don’t generally recommend that people get into hunting if you’re not already . . . unless you have serious cultural reasons to get into it,” Rocha says.

Today, Rocha maintains connection to his culture through angling in British Columbia. Yet, he’s come to a point where he asks himself, “What justifies what I’m doing?” Even today, some of his extended family raise animals, slaughter them, process and sell the meat, and keep what they don’t sell, he says. But if you live in an urban area, your freezer likely only has so much space. “I can’t say I’m feeding my family [with what I fish],” he says. He could instead spend his money buying ethically sourced fish from the store.


Goudy talks frequently of “right and respectful relations” with nature. “Within our ways of life, there is divine instruction and a way to interact with animals, even with the game that you take for nourishment,” he says.

“Everyone has a right to hunt and provide for their families,” Goudy says. But people can think critically and consider choices that lead to a healthy ecosystem and healthy communities as well as seek to understand how hunting regulations and land management policies came to be in the first place.

To him, these are exercises of identity as we ask what it means to be U.S. citizens today. Do we value justice and equality or power and control? “This is politically important, but even more important spiritually,” he says.

Rocha says Catholics must reject the dominionist view, calling it a “massive ecological mistake.”

Whether hunters or not, Catholics can reframe their relationship to land and wildlife. Instead of seeing land and animals as resources or instruments for our use, we can pattern our thinking after St. Francis of Assisi, who offers praise to God for “our Sister, Mother Earth.” Animals are our brothers and sisters.

Beginning from here, Catholics can articulate a more robust ethic of hunting. Such an ethic must grieve the losses resulting from a supremacy orientation that leads to wrongful relations with the land, animals, and Indigenous peoples and commit to act for the common good of whole connected ecosystems and communities.

Catholics who seek this way of living might find—like Rocha, who called hunting and fishing “as much a touchstone as my religion is”—a thin space between the spiritual and the worldly. That sense of the sacredness of creation might hit like “buck fever”—upon grappling with our own power, we might tremble a little bit with reverence for our Creator and fear at the responsibility and honor it is to be human. 

This article also appears in the June 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 6, pages 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Shutterstock

About the author

Rebecca Randall

Rebecca Randall is an independent journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. She focuses on the intersection of religion and climate change and has written for Sojourners, EarthBeat, Grist, and High Country News.

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