Father Theodore Vitali: The Ethics of a Priest in Camo


If you should happen to meet Theodore Vitali walking along the banks of the Chena River just outside of Fairbanks, you would not have a clue that he is a Catholic priest, as he would most likely be wearing camo and carrying a pistol on his hip. The Boone and Crockett Club (B&C), for which Vitali is a professional ethicist, was founded by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and about 20 others in 1887 to conserve wildlife in the Yellowstone area. From that base, the club expanded. Its 1923 mission statement asserts that

It is the mission of the Boone and Crockett Club to promote the conservation and management of wildlife, especially big game, and its habitat, to preserve and encourage hunting and to maintain the highest ethical standards of fair chase and sportsmanship in North America.

To carry on the tradition of promoting the highest ethics in hunting, B&C today has Vitali, who is Chairman of the Philosophy Department of St. Louis University, to help guide them. A primary reason why Father Vitali was chosen by Boone and Crockett is that he also is an avid hunter.

Theodore Vitali grew up in the woods and waters of Connecticut. His father was an immigrant and when he received his naturalization status, the first thing he did was go out and buy a shotgun: a 1926 Ithaca 12-gauge double-barrel with a 32” barrel. He used it to hunt birds and squirrels. Ted tagged along on the hunts. His first gun was a BB gun, he says, but then his father taught him to shoot with the same double-barrel shotgun, which he says today with a chuckle, left a “lasting impression” on his shoulder.

Academic beginnings

Ted hunted and fished with his father until 1959, when he went away to the seminary to study to become a priest. For the next ten years in the seminary, he did not hunt. He was ordained in 1969 and moved west to St. Louis University for doctoral studies in religion and metaphysics. The seminary there has 600 acres with turkeys and deer, and for Ted it became his special grounds to rekindle his love for hunting. In 1976, on the same day that he finished his doctoral dissertation, Ted bagged his first whitetail buck, a ten-point, after five years of trying.

He then spent 13 years in Kentucky as a professor at Bellarmine College, where he also managed to slip off into the woods and perfect his skills as a big game hunter. Those skills and his passion for hunting led him to hunt bears in Canada, sometimes serving as a guide for almost a decade (he has taken four black bears himself).

In 1989 he returned to St. Louis University, as Chairman of the Philosophy Department.

If you look at Vitali’s resume, there are numerous publications, including some that are a bit unusual for academics, especially philosophers in a Jesuit college, such as: “The Ethics of Fair Chase”, “The Ethics of Hunting: Killing as Life-Sustaining”, and “Sport Hunting: Moral or Immoral?”.

Ethical foundations

I asked Father Vitali what a hunter could say if they encountered an animal rights type who challenges hunting as a violation of animal rights. Vitali’s response was that there are two kinds of “rights,” “natural”, or stemming from nature, and “agreed upon”, such as laws. “Animals do not have rights because they do not have a conscience like humans,” he said. “In confronting animal rights advocates, we should deny that animals have natural rights as humans do, though they have intrinsic value and thus must be accorded moral respect […] thus requiring appropriate reasons and proportionate reasons for taking the life of the animal. Food, for example, or expertise in rare circumstances: predator to predator hunting, for instance.

“No other human act, at least within the bounds of morality, can achieve such definitiveness as an act of predation, the killing act of the hunter. No other act renders choice so consequential–so complete. As a result, the virtues exercised in hunting are not those exercised in nature photography, nature walks, mountain climbing, or ersatz hunting. They are the virtues of a human predator stalking and taking game. The excellence of their exercise justifies them and thus morally justifies the joy that flows from them.”

For a hunter to be ethical, then, he needs to have a reason to kill—the two most prominent reasons being the right to obtain healthy food, and secondly, the conservation value for wildlife management. “Even in Alaska, wildlife populations need management, for man is a predator, and he needs to keep other predators populations in balance,” he says, noting that when he is helping a parish in North Pole outside of Fairbanks,* he has had licenses and permits to take a bear, a wolf and caribou.

Vitali added, “given the absence of sufficient predators to control animal populations, it has become a virtual necessity that hunting must occur if the balance between game animal populations and other species, as well as habitat, is to be sustained. Realistically, the human predator, the sport hunter, has become utterly essential to the balance of the ecosystem.”

Wanton killing, Father Vitali believes, is not moral. However, you cannot just leap to the conclusion that shooting gophers or prairie dogs is not moral, he adds quickly, because by doing so you could be limiting the spread of zoonotic diseases like bubonic plague, helping prevent crop damage, or preventing livestock from being harmed by stepping in burrows. He notes that many cities in the US are now overrun with whitetail deer, and helping manage their numbers not only provides healthy food, but it helps reduce the spread of disease, reduces crop damage, and reduces auto collisions with deer, which are now valued at over $1 billion a year in the US.

I asked for his advice about how hunters can honor the animals they harvest. He pointed me to definition of “Fair Chase” for Boone and Crockett, which has become an international standard:

Fair Chase is the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the animal.

“Hunting this way,” Vitali said, “puts you on equal terms with the animal.”

Looking forward

I asked Father Vitali about the greatest challenge to hunting in the future. He said that it was not the animal rights people, but rather the challenge of getting kids into the woods, so they may experience first-hand the wonders of nature using all senses, and not just be looking at images of nature on a screen. “Children who grow up without contact with nature, including the realities of harvesting the food they eat, are deprived of some of the best part of being human,” he replied.

To make his point about the importance of emotional experiences in bonding to nature, he recounted two memorable incidents where encounters with animals brought him in closer contact with the spiritual. Both occurred while hunting bears in Ontario.

Vitali was sitting in a blind and knew that a bear was nearby, and that the bear also knew he was there. “I was camouflaged up to my nose, but he probably got a whiff of me, smelled me and he came out and looked at me, way across a huge field, actually a cut-down field, and he looked at me, and went back into the bush.

“I kept my distance into the evening, it was almost dark, and he came out four or five times…a little further each time, watching me, cautiously.

“I had him in my sights now, and he never gave me the shot. Then at about a quarter to 10 at night–just about dark–he walked right in front of me. I shot him and killed him instantly. I remember the bond that I felt with him, that he gave me his life.”

Vitali’s second, profound hunting experience involves a “majestic wolf that got away.”

In his own words: “In the spring of 1987, while hunting black bears in northern Ontario, I experienced an encounter that transformed my thinking and to a large extent my own Christian spirituality. I encountered a wolf. I had been hunting in northern Ontario with Bill Ritchie and his sons, especially Lark and Brian Ritchie, since 1980. Bill died in November, 1986, and his sons, Lark, Darryl, Allan and Brian were conducting a memorial hunt in his honor. It was an extraordinary event from my perspective because I loved Bill and admired him greatly. He was a true guide in every sense of the word. He had introduced me to Native American spirituality by and through his stories and in and through the values he so obviously embraced. He was a member of the wilderness community and shared this with all his hunters, but, I believe, especially with me.

“About midway through the hunt I was in a blind along a deserted logging road deep in a typical northern Ontario forest. It was dark and foggy, bordering on mist and at times raining. It was about 8 pm. The bait I was hunting over was about 30 yards away from me. I sat in my blind, hunkered down under my rain gear and poncho, resting my rifle under the poncho.

“It had been quiet for some time. Suddenly, I sensed something behind me. I knew from experience that a bear might circle a hunter and come to the bait from behind him. Therefore, though not really hearing anything, I slipped the safety off of my rifle and very slowly turned around to see what was there. About seven or eight paces from me sauntered a large male wolf. He was looking at me as he walked past. My eyes caught his as I watched him pass by me, climb a small embankment, eye the bait, pause for what seemed a very long time, then turned and drifted off into the darkness of the forest. I felt no fear at all. I felt entranced by his presence. I didn’t want him to go away. I wanted to watch him and share with him this extraordinarily intimate moment. But, he was gone.

“After he left, I thought a lot about what I had just experienced. Perhaps the clearest experience I had was that of intimacy between the wolf and me. I felt continuity between us. I can still remember with great vividness that there were no ‘fences’ here, nothing breaking up the continuity between him and me. I felt as though this was some kind of communion, some kind of sharing of life without barriers and without the imposition of human contraptions or artifices. I felt a direct connection to something much more than the ordinary in that moment. This was hunting in its purest form because both the wolf and I were engaged in the same thing: predation; he for the immediacy of his physical survival, I for my spiritual survival. We were both in the wilderness, both predators, both part of the continuum of life and death that constitutes the world we live in and the life we ultimately live.

“I also felt the intimacy of God incarnate in this wilderness experience. I felt God’s presence as both creator and redeemer, the fullness of the Incarnation, God become Man, God become creature in the ecology of creatures, the world. Somehow and for whatever reason, I felt the full power of Christ’s Incarnation in the presence of the wolf. Perhaps what I ultimately felt was the humility of my humanity as an animal in the ecology of creation, an intimate participant in the life God gave me and the world. I don’t know.

“What I do know is that I was changed forever by and through this experience. I found myself in a way I had never found or experience myself before. I believe I discovered who and what I was: a creature among creatures blessed by God with life in the continuum of life and death.

“That year I did not get a bear. I hunted as hard as I ever hunted but saw no bears, just a wolf. But in the visitation of the wolf, I received as a hunter the greatest prize of all, the discovery of myself as a fellow creature in the world. I received the gift of knowing who and what I was and am and thus who and what I am before God. In my view, this is the ultimate value of hunting: the securing of that most intimate experience, the experience of belonging to the world as a fellow creature, that is, as God created it.”

If you would like to delve more deeply into Father Vitali’s writings on hunting ethics, download “Sport Hunting: Moral or Immoral,” here (.doc file).

*Father Vitali says that he is “helping the parish” in North Pole, AK, by coming up there in August and preaching. I have no doubt that he is, but I also suspect that the allure of being in wild places like that adds a little more incentive. He says he is already planning to return next summer.

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