Agrarian Insights on Ecological Conversion

Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ posed a tremendous challenge for the Church and the entire world. Although the encyclical letter was seen widely as an intervention on climate change negotiations, it in fact offered much more – including a radical critique of our entire societal status quo. In particular, Francis challenges the “dominant technocratic paradigm,” outlining its various damaging cultural and spiritual effects while also offering suggestions toward cultivating an alternative lifestyle: “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal ” (Laudato Si’, §202).  The encyclical’s reception has been varied. Recent research indicates that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to greater public engagement with the issue.[1] Still some, including American Catholics, continue to deny the full extent of our ecological problem. Others find themselves frustrated with institutional inaction or paralyzed by the immensity of the issue.

The climate-change crisis, and our apparent inability to face it, is deeply distressing to the Church, since the roots of the problem are ethical and spiritual in nature. The Pope joins his voice to Patriarch Bartholomew, who reminds us that “for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life— these are sins” (LS §8). What is more, these actions ultimately express a great failure “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion” and to see “that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS §9). Any effective response to the current climate crisis must address these issues that fundamentally threaten not only our life on earth but also eternal life with God the creator.

Although the threat is indeed grave, what the Church needs now is less despairing division and more means of moving forward with unifying hope. Therefore, our end goal will be an outline of practical actions for individuals, families, parishes, and other institutions to take up in implementing this ecological encyclical. Of the many ideas and alternatives now being considered, a contemporary revival of the Catholic agrarian tradition would creatively address the moral concerns of ecology while also enriching and renewing liturgical spirituality, communitarian life, and the evangelical appeal of a Church living under the veil of the culture of death. All this will be expanded upon after an overview of scriptural foundations, ethical issues, and a brief history of Catholic life on the land.

Biblical Background

The morality of Christian practice is deeply grounded in the biblical worldview. Israel’s scriptures have been deeply shaped by the pervasive concerns of the biblical writers for the proper care of the land as a gift of the covenant with God. Although their social situation differs in many ways from our own, the ethical issues remain essentially the same.

Any effective response to the current climate crisis must address these issues that fundamentally threaten not only our life on earth but also eternal life with God the creator.

Biblical anthropology assumes a close kinship between humans and the earth. In the beginning, Genesis 2:7 describes how “YHWH God formed the human being [‘adam], dust from the fertile soil ['adamah].” The two Hebrew terms are related to ‘adom, or “ruddy”—in the Levant, the color of both soil and skin.[2] The relationship between this people and their place becomes stronger in 2:15, the Yahwistic statement of the human vocation. The common translation seems to imply an agricultural connotation: “God took the human and set him in the garden of Eden to till it and tend it.” However, although the former verb, “to work,” can certainly mean “to work the soil,” its wider usage suggests that it is legitimate also to view the human task as working for the garden soil, serving its needs. The latter verb only adds to the ambiguity since nowhere else does it refer to land care. Often it translates “to keep” or “to observe,” most frequently referring to the keeping of God’s commandments. This connection seems appropriate since scripture sees covenant faithfulness as necessary for continued living on the land (Dt 4:40). If Israel does not keep the commandments, neither can they “keep” the soil.

Although Laudato Si’ uses the traditional translation of 2:15, it does so with the intention of addressing the idea that “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), “has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature”(LS §67). Instead, a more appropriate hermeneutic would understand that “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving,” and that all this “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature” (LS §67). Absolute ownership is ultimately God’s alone (Ps 24:1; cf. Dt 10:14). Even the chosen people remain but “strangers and sojourners” on the land of the Lord (Lev 25:23). Pope Francis’ corrective stands in a long line of prophetic writings that remind us of our obligations to God the all-powerful creator.

In particular Ellen Davis has highlighted Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah as four “agrarian prophets” part of “an outburst of rural prophecy, unprecedented in depth and replete with images that evoke the experience of farmers.”[3] Preaching during a time of extraordinary economic change, these prophets together “reflect the confusion and conflict among the Israelite people as their traditional village-based and lineage-based society regrouped and entrenched itself as a centralized state.”[4] For example, Amos is often seen as the social-justice prophet par excellence but his persistent reference to the soil (mentioning the ‘adamah more frequently than any other biblical book) “gives precision to his condemnation of Israel’s politics,” since “it is not ‘the rich,’ categorically, whom he damns, nor is it established religion per se.”[5] His target is the complex social process that was alienating ordinary Israelites from the God-given land-inheritance.

Against the self-absorption issuing from this new economy, “Hosea announced that God would return the people to a bygone landed society where traditional, covenantal lifestyles could flourish.”  Where Amos speaks directly to the ensuing societal injustices, Hosea homes in on “the way in which the religious establishment lends respectability to the market economy, which set the state’s interest over the people.”[6]  Micah and Isaiah “most consistently critique the royal apparatus in Jerusalem, which is to be understood . . . as an embodiment of land surplus if not monopoly.”[7]  They are particularly concerned about ownership, Micah with the ways people are cheated out of their land; and Isaiah as well, prophesying woe on “you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is 5:8).

Davis strikingly compares the social situation of the agrarian prophets to our own today. “Like us,” she writes, “they lived in a vigorous society that for some decades enjoyed considerable success in pursuing . . . policies that were enriching for the elite but difficult or disastrous for small farmers.”  This concern is among the problems brought up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their numerous statements on agriculture. They warn that the nation’s “food system may be in jeopardy as increasing numbers of farm bankruptcies and foreclosures result in increased concentration of land ownership.”[8] In light of all our ecological issues (including over-consumption of water, the depletion of topsoil, and the pollution of land), the agrarian prophets are more relevant than ever. The very definition of land as a gift is a critical warning against hubris. If we assume godly authority over the earth we can also expect terrible retributions. Only now we can perhaps see that this divine punishment is not arbitrary. It may arrive as an ecological devastation of our own making.

Salvation in Christ, on the other hand, would seem to imply a restored practice of right-relationship to the land. Robert Jewett finds an exegetical source for this Romans 8:18–23, which happens to be the first scriptural passage cited in Laudato Si’—where Francis laments that “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail (Rom 8:22)’” (LS §2). Jewett explains how Paul applies a strikingly personified creation to subtly critique Rome’s own ecological ideology of “mother earth.” Imperial rhetoric proclaimed that the once-glorious bounty of creation would be restored to fertility through the violent inauguration of a new, golden age.

Paul however, who may well have witnessed the ecological devastation wrought by Roman ambitions, had a biblical account of the fall: nature is only enslaved to corruption because human nature has first been corrupted, and thus the redemption of human nature should liberate nature from corruption. “Creation was subjected to futility” (Rom 8:20), but now “waits with bated breath for the emergence and empowerment of those who will take responsibility for its restoration.”[9] As the children of God are redeemed and begin to regain a rightful dominion over the created world “their altered lifestyle and revised ethics begin to restore the ecological system that had been thrown out of balance by wrongdoing (Rom 1:18–32) and sin (Rom 5–7).”[10] These chosen children of God, Jewett concludes, demonstrate their adoption “by exercising the kind of dominion that heals rather than destroys.”[11] This exegesis of a key Pauline text could serve well in the kind of ecological catechesis and conversion expected of the Christian Church.

The Technocratic Paradigm

Following the pattern of Laudato Si’, we now move from Chapter Two’s account of “The Gospel of Creation” to a closer diagnosis of “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis” in Chapter Three. Here the Pope identifies a critical mismatch in the modern world that is also a serious ethical error. “A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us,” he laments, and then identifies the problem as “the dominant technocratic paradigm” (LS §101). This phrase encapsulates a worldview that tends, even unconsciously, “to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” (LS §107). Critical to note here is how Francis views environmental damage as “just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life,” and that especially “tends to dominate economic and political life . . . without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (LS §109). That this destructive “alliance between the economy and technology” (LS §54). is inherently unjust becomes clear from the briefest review of basic environmental ethics.

Centesimus Annus taught that “the first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’  is the family,” (Centesimus Annus, §39) not technology. This principle should almost be self-evident as the very term eco-logy is etymologically derived from the Greek οἶκος (family, household, house) and the suffix of λογία (-logia, typically denoting the science or discourse of an area of study).[12] Thus in an expanded sense the term could refer to the study of our oikos the earth itself (our “common home” the Pope is concerned about). The suffix of νόμος (-nomos, denoting “law”) attached to oikos gives us the traditional meaning of eco-nomy as simply “household-management.” In theory then the management of our home can be shaped by our true knowledge of its nature, but this, Pope Francis points out, is sadly not the case today. Instead of ecological knowledge mutually informing economic practice there is now a mismatch, a kind of category error where economy-technology is paired rather than economy-ecology.[13]

Under this above-mentioned “alliance between the economy and technology” our household rules are written with the logic (-logia) of a technological process, method, or technique (techne).[14] Such a set-up is unethical and unsustainable. “Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes”(LS §114). The paradigmatic shape of our age, the Pope warns, is becoming that of a techno-cracy, where scientific skill assumes ultimate rule (kratos), new “forms of power derived from technology” oppress the poor, and “the human meaning of ecology” (LS §16) is consigned to oblivion. This is a serious problem for Church, whose house is the home of the Incarnate WordChrist the true Logos of our oikos—and whose law, whose economy, is that of the Kingdom of God.

Benedict and Francis: Saints of Ecology

Following his analysis of the technocratic roots of the current crisis Francis turns to a positive outline of “Integral Ecology” (LS §137ff.). This section looks back on elements from our agrarian tradition in arguing for their application as part of such ecology. Although “agrarian” sometimes refers to activism for agricultural reforms, its Latin root agrarius simply indicates something “of or relating to land.”[15] In this sense we can speak more fundamentally of the cultura of the ager (“field”) as our “way of understanding and enacting our relationship to the land and the production of food.”[16] Every society, I take it, embodies an attitude towards the land, even if unconsciously. But as the theologian Norman Wirzba reminds us: when it comes to the earth and agriculture, “there is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy . . . Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”[17] Taking into account the kind of biblically-based ecological ethics outlined above, Catholics have understood and enacted their obligations of land stewardship long before our current ecological crisis. Turning to their traditions is then important for recovering our own sense of responsibility.

Pope Francis himself looks back to this early history in reflecting on “the great tradition of monasticism” which was from the first an agrarian movement: “a kind of flight from the world, an escape from the decadence of the cities” to the countryside where one could best encounter the presence of God (LS §126). The organized community life brought by Benedict proved revolutionary in the way it combined prayer and spiritual reading with manual labor (ora et labora). “This way of experiencing work,” Francis remarks, “makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety” (LS §126). The monastic emphasis on the dignity of labor was directed against our original sin of spiritual pride. Work in the dirt reminded the monks that they are not gods and they must not act like it. Instead they are humble creatures, who must work for their food.[18]

Of course the Pope also looks to the example of St. Francis of Assisi and his friars, opening the encyclical with his words: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (LS §1) Knowing there is more to the spirituality of this garden-statue saint, he says that Franciscan-style ecological conviction “cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior” (LS §11). In approaching the environment without openness to awe and wonder “our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs,” but if, on the other hand, “we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously” (LS §11). St. Francis’ poverty is important today, for his “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (LS §11) stands as a radical counter-example to the current technocratic drive to dominate.

In practice both the monastic and mendicant traditions strive to embody the inseparable bond “between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS §10). St. Francis knew well the aesthetic importance of nature in a well-grounded spiritual life. Since God speaks to us also in the beautiful book of nature, “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (LS §12). The Benedictines have an almost unprecedented history in the development of agrarian culture, pioneering the use of herbal medicines and spreading agricultural innovations across Europe.

Liturgy on the Land

This concern for the interconnectedness of all life continued and took on a contemporary form in the person of Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B.—“founder” of the liturgical movement in America but perhaps less known as also an agrarian-minded activist. Michel’s social vision reached far beyond the mere reform of rituals, as he saw the liturgy as the indispensable basis of social regeneration. He worked closely with many contemporary Catholic reform movements, and his home-base of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville quickly became a center for the study of social concerns. Although Vatican II enacted far-reaching ritual renewal, the role of worship in social regeneration remains one of the great ongoing tasks of the liturgical movement. How does liturgical participation affect and inspire our political and economic participation in society?

Pope Francis offers one answer Laudato Si’, making the claim that the Eucharist can help form our ecological consciousness. Along lines strikingly similar to what Michel called the “sacramental principle” of God’s action in creation, Francis describes how grace “tends to manifest itself tangibly” and how “the Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter” (LS §263). In the act of Eucharist the fullness of creation “is already achieved,” as the whole cosmos is “joined to the incarnate Son” (LS §263). In the awesome way it “joins heaven and earth” and projects creation “towards divinization” the Eucharist is also “a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (LS §263). If the liturgy is indeed more fully embraced and lived as an astounding revelation of our Creator and the goodness of God’s universe, it cannot but inspire us towards greater environmental advocacy. The Church’s social teaching on ecology already, it seems, has deep roots in sacramental theology, though these riches will need greater exposure in preaching and teaching to burst forth in the great ecological conversion to which Francis invites us all.

If the liturgy is indeed more fully embraced and lived as an astounding revelation of our Creator and the goodness of God’s universe, it cannot but inspire us towards greater environmental advocacy.

One group that Dom Michel worked with was especially close to liturgical movement, The National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), which was founded in 1923 out of concern for communities in the countryside. Their expression of agrarian Catholicism is quite striking (especially in the 1939 Manifesto on Rural Life), yet seems as relevant now to our own ecological concerns. The Conference literature reflects on a number of agrarian principles that provide potential insight on Francis’ theme of ecological conversion.

Numerous leaders in the liturgical movement, many of them (like Dom Michel) agrarian advocates themselves, understood the rural parish as an ideal context for the social revival they hoped the liturgical renewal would affect. First of all, rural families worked, recreated, and prayed together, disposing them better for liturgical participation and social cooperation. The blessings of seed and produce connect the redemptive act of the Mass to each farming family’s “daily bread”—enriching their appreciation of Eucharist as it activates the sacramental imagination through soil, grain, and grape. Furthermore, agriculture’s close proximity to the mysteries of nature, they thought, gave spontaneous rise to worship of its creator.

The land itself naturally disposes one to the nature of liturgy, since a farm constantly deals with birth, maturity, and death. Since seasons immediately affect the farmer, they have a greater opportunity than most to sense the logic of the liturgical year. As each season approaches, farm life demands specific daily tasks. The grower of plants knows better than anyone that “for everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1). Asceticism has long been associated with agrarianism, often by necessity. Such awareness too often seems completely lacking in modern American life where we learn instead to expect the immediate availability of everything, like tropical fruit in February. Ecological conversion, Laudato Si’ makes clear, will require great asceticism, and agrarians have a head start in adopting this attitude.

Another critical element is the NCRLC’s communitarian spirit to solving problems. Since our environmental problems are deeply implicated in structures of social sin, ecological conversion will require individuals to closely work together in solving them. Although some saw the NCRLC as attempting to restore an idyllic (or even medievalist) rural way of life, the Conference leaders themselves saw their movement at the forefront of a Catholic counterculture—agrarianism against the extremes of individualism and collectivism (common enemies, interestingly enough, of the liturgical movement as well). More than a quaint country holdout to a dying way of life, the rural Catholic community was seen as critical in the fight against secular and communistic forces that would treat the soil not as “God’s greatest material gift to humanity” but as one economic commodity among others. Sacramentals and the blessings of everyday objects helped counteract the consumerist move to treat the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” as mere commodities subject to the control of either the capitalist or communist technocrats.

Today the work of the NCRLC continues as Catholic Rural Life (CRL)—an updated organization now devoting significant resources to partnering with sustainable agriculture organizations and advocating for a new kind of Farm Bill beyond subsidies and commodity production.[19] The Conference also directly focuses on issues of environmental justice, attempting to publicize more widely climate-change’s impact on an already-impoverished farming class. Although the landscape of American agriculture has shifted dramatically, the problems that the Conference was founded to fight remain largely the same.

Anarchist Agrarian Catholics

Dorothy Day was another active collaborator with both the rural life and liturgical movements. The historian Eugene McCarraher includes her with people like Michel as “sacramental radicals”—reformers with a social vision distinct from and likely “eclipsed by a Catholic social action more accommodating to the managerial interests of corporate capital and the New Deal.”[20] Though the Catholic Worker community is known for its houses of hospitality and conspicuous pacifism, the movement’s anarchist activism was originally rooted in a profound agrarian philosophy articulated by their co-founder Peter Maurin. At the center of this vision was his back-to-the-land idea of establishing “agronomic universities.” Although these communal farms were never as widespread as their urban houses, they have always existed in the movement as a kind of peaceful center where members could retreat from the chaos of inner-city poverty. Catholic Worker agriculture has even seen something of a revival recently with the rising interest in organic and urban farming at the urban establishments in attempts to embody an alternative economy in resistance to the institutionalized violence of the technocratic paradigm.

This is the “anarchist” element in Catholic Worker agrarianism. Although a pure anarchism (if there is such a thing) would by definition oppose any and all hierarchy (in state, corporation, church, or family), the philosophy of Maurin and Day “rejects not hierarchy per se, but the idolatrous and self-serving hierarchies that refuse any transcendent point of reference.”[21] Since the hierarchy itself etymologically implies a kind of ordering to God (or the sacred), such self-serving structures are idolatries by definition. Thus, the Catholic Worker has long denounced the worship of Mammon by our entire politico-corporate complex. Opposing this idolatry, opting-out into an agrarian alterative, could indeed appear “anarchistic” to a wrongly-ordered society (and indeed seem unhelpful to a society awaiting salvation in the form of a technocratic solution to climate change). By rejecting this paradigm long before Laudato Si’ the Catholic Worker had a low-carbon footprint before anyone knew what that was or why it is important. Rediscovering their motives for doing so may be our best approach in advocating integral ecology to the otherwise-uninterested.

Ecological Education and Spirituality

In the final chapter of Laudato Si’ Pope Francis outlines an educational process to help guide human development along the lines of integral ecology. He asks the entire Church to take up the “great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge” (LS §202) that stands before us in the current environmental crisis: “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education” (LS §214).[22] Special mention is made of some ecclesial institutions, including schools and seminaries,[23] but every local situation will require its own approach to ecological conversion.

In implementing practices based in sounder ecological principles, a healthy respect for subsidiarity suggests that any approach would begin with the domestic church. Pope Francis stresses the great importance of the family, citing St. John Paul II, who said that “in the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.” (CA §39). Through the life of a responsible household economy “we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures” (LS §213). In the family one can best learn the practices of a truly embodied integral ecology.[24] Since “good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life,” nowhere is it more important to instill ecological values than in the “seedbed” of our schools. Parish grade-schools and Catholic high-schools could consider a community gardening program that would provide the perfect opportunity for integrating an ecological education into the curriculum while also witnessing to the practical implementation required of Catholic social teaching. If our Catholic schoolchildren are raised with an environmental conscience, this would increase the opportunities to further cultivate it in higher education and throughout their adult life.

The Congregation of Holy Cross has a great example of this in The Farm at Stonehill College, a program established in response to food access issues in the neighboring city of Brockton. Since 2011 the on-campus agricultural outreach has donated over 40,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to community organizations.[25] As an initiative of the college’s Mission Division, The Farm also enriches student experience, affording an important opportunity to better integrate the principles of Catholic social teaching with service work emphasizing the dignity of manual labor. “On The Farm,” we might say (adding to a phrase of Bl. Basil Moreau) “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart or the body.” This model of integral ecology and holistic education could be applied at our other schools as well.

The University of Notre Dame from its founding had a farm worked by the Holy Cross brothers and hired hands, including students. In 1917 the farm director, Br. Leo Donovan, C.S.C., helped establish the first school of agriculture at a Catholic university. Although the program was discontinued in 1932 (as was the farming operation of the brothers), the agrarian legacy remains an underutilized resource in the face of our country’s ongoing agricultural crisis (as articulated above by the U.S. bishops). Today there is a small community garden on-campus, and with greater institutional support such efforts could not only encourage more sustainable behavior on campus but also inspire students to pursue careers in social justice and sustainable agriculture, as work at The Farm has done for a number of Stonehill students.

Finally, in the parish itself there are numerous opportunities to easily integrate the ecological spirituality articulated in Laudato Si’. As seen above the liturgical celebration is the privileged place for this, although efforts must be careful to avoid putting parishioners off with excessively “eco-friendly” elements. Since the integral ecology which Francis speaks of is in fact deeply imbedded in the very sacramental nature of our worship, even the well-intentioned additions may appear as distracting activism. For example, directly tackling environmental issues in the Sunday homily could be necessary, but in the face of political partisanship and widespread indifference it may not be the most effective means of ecological evangelization.

Instead, theologians like Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., have proposed that preachers follow Jesus’ own example in turning to creation itself, the “Book of Nature,” as a source of revelation and a guide for awakening the imagination: “Nature’s own proclamation of God’s glory sends Christians back to the Scriptures and liturgical celebrations with a new appreciation of the cosmic dimensions of sacramentality.”[26] Such a homiletic would not only sharpen contemplative spirituality but also widen “the scope of our ethical awareness and moral challenges to include ecological justice and to require new forms of asceticism”[27] appropriate to the ecological conversion called for by Pope Francis and modelled by St. Francis.

The liturgical calendar of the Church provides to preachers a number of convenient times to present such a message. The reforms following Vatican II tasked the conferences of bishops with adapting the rogation and ember days to the various regions and needs of the people, so to continue the Church’s practice of offering “prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks.”[28] The NCRLC was well aware of how the practice of Rogation Days had become somewhat perfunctory and devoid of the social significance inherent in its agrarian origin.[29] Among other attempts to make their celebration as participative as possible, they recommended Ember Days especially as an opportunity for urban pastors “to instruct the faithful about Catholic rural life and to highlight the city’s dependence on agriculture.”[30] It seems today there is even more of a need for such celebrations to connect us more closely to the cycles of nature and the liturgical year, as well as helping us reconsider the ethics of eating.

In 2013 Bishop Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., reinstituted the celebration of Rogation Days in his diocese of Peoria, IL, following the General Norms directive on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year.[31] Their stated purposes include: to “pray for the growing season and good weather . . . the fruitfulness of the harvest . . . and the family.”[32] Although these celebrations are based in ancient Roman agricultural feasts, there is a still-relevant wisdom in their liturgical enculturation if only it can be better practiced today. Such celebration would provide the spiritual foundation to other practical forms of ecological education.

Church Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an umbrella term for much that could be done linking local parishes with local sources of food production through church-sponsored farmer’s markets (with the parish serving as a drop off point for produce), consumer-producer collectives, farmer-shareholder cooperatives (where parishioners share in the risk of farming by “buying-in” at the start of season), or even urban-rural “sister” parish relationships. William Cavanaugh points out the critical need for concrete action required of all Christians (urban, suburban, and rural) for authentic culture of encounter: “If detachment from particular places and communities has contributed to the depersonalization of the global economy, then a proper aesthetic of that particular would place the human person back in the center of economic relations.”[33] The Church, especially in her widespread and diverse parish settings, has enormous potential to help facilitate “alternative kinds of economic spaces” in which to “resist the abstraction of globalization by face-to-face encounters between producers and consumers” through direct links between family farmers and congregations.[34]

Finally, there are ways the parish could reconsider its own land-use patterns on its own property as a means of promoting sustainable stewardship throughout the larger community. The Goodland Project is a Laudato Si’-inspired movement to help transform the Catholic Church’s approach to land-holding by working with parishes and religious communities to promote land-management that promotes a clean and beautiful environment, public health, and social justice in local communities. Their promoted strategies include targeted tree-planting, sustainable storm water management, and community gardens. The potential impact of such development is enormous.[35] It should direct us to the great possibilities available to a Church facing the global hunger crisis. As the U.S. bishops have exhorted: “From the Lord's command to feed the hungry, to the Eucharist we celebrate as the Bread of Life, the fabric of our faith demands that we be creatively engaged in sharing the food that sustains life.”[36] The American Church need look no further than her own backyard, her documents, for the food-system development so needed by our neighbors in hunger.

Pope Francis talks of the need for the Church to “set before the world the ideal of a ‘civilization of love’” (LS §231). This will require challenging choices of concrete communion if the ideal is not to remain invisible or unrealized. These pages cover only a few of the countless opportunities available to the Church today, but, above all, their implementation depends on the good example of pastoral ministers (both the ordained and the “unofficial” leaders of our communities). From individuals “who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly use less,” to the witness of simple acts like “using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights” (LS §211)—there is much that can be done. Although this action may seem small in comparison to the problems we face, so too did Jesus’ gestures of care for the least among him. Caring for the land, stewardship of soil, may at first appear insignificant to our other concerns. But it is an easily accessible and God-given opportunity to incarnate an attractive alternative: an agrarian economy joining labor with love, farms to families, food and our faith.

 [1] Study reports that “Many Americans (17%) and Catholics (35%) say the Pope’s position on global warming has influenced their views about the issue.” Edward Maibach et al., The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation about Global Warming (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 2015).

[2] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 29.

[3] Davis, 122.

[4] James Luther Mays, Rev. Stephen L. Cook, “Hosea” in, eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1194.

[5] Davis, 127.

[6] Ibid., 131.

[7] Walter Brueggemann, “Land: Fertility and Justice,” in Theology of the Land, ed. Leonard J. Weber et al. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1987), 52.

[8] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, D.C.: Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference, 1986), §217.

[9] Robert Jewett, “The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Reading Rom 8:18-23 within the Imperial Context,” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, ed. Richard Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2004), 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] "ecology, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 11, 2016).

[13] That technology is in English most often used (per metonymy) to describe the subject itself (gadgets, etc.) rather than the study of the subject (the discourse/rhetoric of technique) is perhaps itself the strongest sign of how entirely we take the efficiency-based thinking process of the ‘machine-mind’ for granted. For further analysis see Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.

[14] "technology, n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 9, 2016).

[15] "agrarian, adj. and n.". OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 11, 2016).

[16] Elizabeth Groppe (2015). Seed That Falls on Fertile Ground (Matthew 13:1–9): Catholic Higher Education and the Renewal of Agrarianism. Horizons, 42, pp 49-50.

[17] Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba, The Art of the Commonplace the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), xiii.

[18] In the General Audience for August 19, 2015, Pope Francis cited Paul’s denunciation of idleness – “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) –  to condemn “the false spiritualism of some who indeed live off their brothers and sisters “not doing any work”…Prayer and work can and must be in harmony, as St Benedict teaches. The absence of work damages the spirit, just as the absence of prayer damages practical activity.”

[19] CRL‘s mission through three key impact areas: “Ethical Food and Agriculture, Rural Outreach and Ministry, and Stewardship of Creation.”

[20] Michael J. Woods, Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), xx.

[21] Dan McKanan, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008), 21.

[22] “It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.”

[23] For the work of the NCRLC in promoting the rural apostolate among future priests, see Michael J. Woods, Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 153-160. For example, Moreau Seminary’s 1944 Catholic action plan included a study group discussing the dignity and vocation of the farmer, rural family life and liturgy, and land stewardship, among other concerns.

[24] Along with Catholic Rural Life, there are a number of other grassroots organizations dedicated to promoting social renewal through family life. For example, the New Catholic Land Movement works for “restoring the family as the basis for society” and believes that stewardship of creation is best embodied “by living in ways that counter the modern materialistic mode of life.”


[26] Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P, “Words of Spirit and Life, Chapter Three: The Spirit and Creation: Preaching from the Book of Nature” (unpublished edition provided to Preaching III class by email, February 12, 2016), 25.

[27] Ibid., 23.

[28] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, §45–47.

[29] Michael J. Woods, Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 24.

[30] Ibid., 104.

[31] General Norms, §46.

[32] Most Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., “November 2013 Diocesan Mailing,” last modified December 19, 2013,

[33] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008), 86.

[34] Ibid.

[35] If half of all Catholic properties contained a half acre patch of farmland, “they could, combined, produce 1,028,802,720 lbs of organic vegetables . . . or, using permaculture farming techniques, provide enough nutritious food to feed over 20,000 people each year. See GoodLand Project: An Ecological Approach to the Catholic Landscape, “Impact Potential,” accessed on April 27, 2016,

[36] Economic Justice for All, §282.

Featured Image: Daniel Brock; CC-BY-NC-2.0.


Brian Kennedy, C.S.C.

Brian Kennedy, C.S.C., is professed seminarian of the Congregation of Holy Cross studying in the Master of Divinity Program at the University of Notre Dame.

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