PETA cracks monks' resolve

The bullies won. Bluto beat up Popeye. Lex Luthor KO'd Superman. Sylvester finally caught Tweety Bird.

And PETA forced a small Catholic monastery to cease its egg business.

Some months back I wrote a column about a scurrilous assault on a Trappist monastery outside of Charleston, S.C., by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Whatever their commitment to ethics and animals, they apparently care little for the ethical treatment of human beings, in this case monks.

Mepkin is located on the Cooper River, and has been in existence since 1949. I freely admit to my bias in this issue. My uncle is the last surviving founding monk of Mepkin, and my family has visited the abbey many times over the years.

In the great monastic tradition of St. Benedict, Mepkin is dedicated to prayer and work, ora et labora. They chant the psalms throughout the day, and they have many guests and retreatants who come to share in the spiritual life of the monastery. Under the sheltering canopy of majestic oaks draped in Spanish moss, visitors can immerse themselves in the silent beauty of the grounds.

Like other monasteries, work is manual, and it is intended to provide at least partially for the support of the monastic community. For decades, Mepkin has been known for its eggs. It has about 20,000 hens that produce 9 million eggs a year, generating 80 percent of the monastery's earned income. The eggs are sold to local stores and individuals, and some are given to food pantries and poor families.

To put Mepkin's egg farm in perspective, 6.45 billion eggs are produced each year in this country by a combined flock of about 280 million hens. There are 60 companies that have more than 1 million hens in their farms.

But PETA saw a public-relations opportunity in attacking a small community of monks rather than a major egg producer, and so it decided to unleash its phenomenally well-funded propaganda machine on this tiny monastery last year.

It violated the abbey's hospitality by infiltrating the grounds with a "retreatant" armed with a hidden camera to film surreptitiously the monks and their egg operation. The resulting inflammatory video was posted on the PETA website and prompted hate messages, harassment and threats directed at the monks from around the world. The word "abuse" was tossed around freely, a clever association of the recent clergy scandals with the allegations against Mepkin.

The monks' response has been simple and calm, but without the resources or the media savvy of PETA. They have abided by the guidelines of the United Egg Producers, a trade group they supported, and they defend their treatment of the hens. Ironically, PETA -- itself aligned with radical vegetarianism -- attacked a religious community that is also vegetarian.

After the video and the hate storm it unleashed on Mepkin, the monks attempted to continue their work, but the controversy was particularly disruptive for a contemplative community. Last month, Mepkin turned the other cheek, announcing it would be phasing out the egg business.

"While the monks are sad to give up the work that has sustained them for many years, a hard and honorable work of which they are proud, the pressure from PETA has made it difficult for them to live their quiet life of prayer, work and sacred reading," explained Abbot Stan Gumulka in a written statement.

At the time Mepkin threw in the towel, PETA had initiated a boycott of the abbey and was picketing a Piggly Wiggly supermarket that carried the eggs.

So now Mepkin will be forced to find another way to support itself. Local food pantries and the poor will search for other sources of affordable protein. Tiny Mepkin lost its livelihood, and PETA got its P.R. victory.

The bullies won.

Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.