Dennis Anderson: Priest hunts free of moral conflict

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2009 - 1:12 PM

Christopher Wenthe is a Twin Cities priest who finds peace, and morality, in the diversion.

Rev. Christopher Wenthe

When Christopher Wenthe was an electrical engineer and single, living in the Twin Cities, he had lots of time to hunt and fish. The deer opener, like the duck and pheasant openers, wasn't something he squeezed in between meetings. Or homilies.

Now that he is a Catholic priest with 850 families to tend to, time is more precious, and, come whitetail season, his blaze orange coat and cap often gather dust in a closet for days on end, unused.

"This life doesn't allow me as much time to hunt," Wenthe said. "I'll get out hunting Saturday morning, maybe, and perhaps Monday morning, my day off."

Wenthe, 44, is pastor at St. Peter's and St. Joseph's Catholic churches in Delano, where many of his congregants in the community of about 4,000 share his passion for the field sports.

"I grew up in south Minneapolis and my dad and brothers hunted," he said. "My dad was more of a deer hunter. But I had a friend who was a bird hunter, and I hunted ducks and geese with him."

When Wenthe graduated from the University of Wisconsin and returned to the Twin Cities, he had no intention of becoming a priest. He had been trained as an engineer, and an engineer, he assumed, he would be.

Then, he said, he felt "compelled by a call" and joined the St. Paul Seminary in 1997 at age 32.

When he did, he didn't sell his scattergun, his bow or his fishing rods. Nor, in his ever-more-detailed studies of the Bible and the church, did he find conflict between his evolving life as a man of God, and his past -- and current -- life as a hunter. And killer.

"It comes down to, 'Is it moral or not' to hunt? If it weren't, I wouldn't do it," he said. "To be honest, I haven't given it much thought. But I believe hunting is moral. We have a long tradition as Catholics and an extensive and very clear moral theological tradition, and none of it speaks to the immorality of hunting."

Wenthe hunts, he said, primarily because he enjoys being outdoors. "That's first and foremost," he said. He enjoys also the challenge of finding game he enjoys eating, saying it's part of his, and man's, primitive nature.

"Not primitive as opposed to our intellectual nature," he said. "But primitive as part of our nature as mankind. Intellectually, obviously, we don't need to hunt. But what does that mean, exactly? We need to eat. Not necessarily animals that we hunt; we obviously don't need to eat those exclusively. But if it's wrong to eat any kind of animal, it would be wrong to hunt. And except for a minority of people who believe it wrong to eat animals, there seems through history not to be an objection."

Among biblical passages often cited in defense of hunting, Genesis 1:26 is retrieved most often. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle ..."

The anti-hunting group PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- doesn't buy the reference, and has argued, counter-intuitively, on billboards that Jesus was a vegetarian. "Follow Him," PETA advised.

Lost in the conflict over hunting -- which boils up far more on the East and West coasts, and in Britain, than in Minnesota and the Midwest -- is what many believe is its uniquely important role as a gateway to the outdoors in an increasingly urbanized world. In his book, "Last Child in the Woods," author Richard Louv, in fact, argues that modern kids' "nature deficit" contributes to childhood afflictions such as obesity, attention disorders and depression.

Of course, hunting isn't the only way kids can learn about the outdoors. Hiking, biking, camping, paddling and wilderness travel each offer special attractions.

But hunting and fishing -- and perhaps hunting uniquely -- place participants squarely in the firestorm of the life and death cycle that frames the human condition, and underpins its timeless philosophical conundrum.

Few of Minnesota's approximately 500,000 deer hunters will be burdened by such heavy thoughts come Saturday. Most will simply soak up the crisp fall air, see a squirrel, hear a raven and, at day's end, feel sated in ways they usually don't.

Said Wenthe: "I enjoy being out in God's creation in this particular way. It's very peaceful and rejuvenating, whether or not I actually get something."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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