Why Catholic Agrarianism? What is it all about? Why the big deal? This is the 21st Century after all.
Let’s define some terms here, and lay out the basic case for Catholic Agrarianism. The term is broad and conducive to multiple interpretations. For the purposes of this site, here is how I have come to understand Catholic Agrarianism. This understanding is an intellectual journey for me, and will surely mature with time.
Definition of “Agrarian” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: 2, a: of, relating to, or characteristic of farmers or their way of life
Definition of Catholic Agrarianism: a distinct charism and mode of Christian life rooted in the agrarian lifestyle, centered on the family, productive work, and stewardship of Creation.
In this context, the word charism means a particular way of living out the Gospel. A charism is a gift and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church for the benefit of both those who live the charism and those who are served by it. There are different charisms within the Body of Christ (the Church), and God calls different people to different charisms.
Understood in this way, “Agrarianism” is deeper than simply the “farmer’s way of life” of Merriam-Webster. Specifically, Catholic Agrarianism is a calling of the Holy Spirit to pursue the farmer’s way of life for spiritual reasons. Furthermore, there are multiple degrees and manners in which one can live out the charism of Catholic Agrarianism in their lives. You don’t necessarily have to sell the city house and live off the land to live the Catholic Agrarian charism.
One might object: "Are you making this up because you are Catholic, and happen to enjoy the agrarian lifestyle?"
Not at all. Although the Church of the last century has largely focused on other social issues, Catholic Agrarianism as defined above is found explicitly in Catholic Social Teaching, albeit scattered through various documents and addresses. Perhaps the Church’s failure to defend and maintain this essential part of her own teaching is part of the reason for declining vocations and sweeping parish closures (especially in rural areas). And perhaps the unexpected grassroots renewal of young Catholics called to agrarianism is what will save the Church in the 21st Century!
A foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching is that the family is the “vital cell of society.” As the family goes, so goes society. “The family is presented, in the Creator's plan, as ‘the primary place of “humanization” of the person and society’ and the ‘cradle of life and love.’” (Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, 209)
So, to put it most simply: why is Agrarianism important for the Church? Because it is good for the family. It’s that simple.
As the Catholic writers of the 1939 “Manifesto on Rural Life” state at the beginning of their document:
"The special adaptability of the farm home for nurturing strong and wholesome Christian family life is the primary reason why the Catholic Church is so deeply concerned with rural problems. Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has instinctively felt a special kinship with the cultivators of the soil, and her enemies find cause for reproach in the fact that her sociological and economic teaching, even when expressed by Leo XIII, breathes, as it were, a rural atmosphere. The explanation is to be found in the unique relationship which exists between the family and the occupation of agriculture. The farm is the native habitat of the family."
In fact, Pope Pius the XII stated in June 1941 in a radio address that:
"Of all the goods that can be the object of private property none is more conformable to nature, according to the teaching of the Rerum Novarum, than the land, the holding in which the family lives, and from the products of which it draws all or part of its subsistence.
And it is in the spirit of the Rerum Novarum to state that as a rule only that stability which is rooted in one's own holding makes of the family the most vital and most perfect and fecund cell of society, joining up in a brilliant manner in its progressive cohesion the present and future generations." [emphasis added]
Shortly after this address, United States Bishops commented on this paragraph and noted the inherent connection between the homestead and society’s vital cell:
"The Holy Father lays stress on the social significance of widespread ownership of land in the form of the family homestead. To him, the function of the family as the root of a nation's greatness and power is bound up with family ownership of "The holding on which it lives, and from which it draws all or part of its subsistence." Without that "stability which is rooted in its own holding," the family cannot be the "cell of society" which nature destined it to be."
The US Bishops’ interpretation seems to go a bit far by implying that without a “holding” from which to draw subsistence, the family ceases to be the “cell of society.” The Pope qualified his statement by saying that it prevented the family from being the “most perfect and fecund” cell. What he seems to be saying is that from the perspective of social cohesion, the family reaches a level of perfection and fecundity on the family homestead that is difficult or even impossible to achieve without it. And THAT is the primary thesis of this site.