In a newly published interview, Christopher Thompson explores the links between Thomism, respect for the created order, and agriculture.
“For centuries the Church advanced a philosophy of creation in which each creature was considered as a living whole, an ordered whole, which also served a broader purpose beyond itself,” said Thompson, the academic dean of the archdiocesan seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. “In many ways, I think one can consider the rise of ‘environmental awareness’ as simply the retrieval of this outlook on life. Nature is not a machine and creatures are not mere parts. They are, as Thomas would have said (and the Catechism does still say), formally and finally ordered wholes – created by God for the purposes of his glory. They ought to be treated as such.”
“The Church has a long tradition, going back decades, which speaks about the importance of agriculture, especially its dignity,” he continued. “The farmer was seen to cooperate with God’s creative order, as a husband and steward of the earth’s resources. Animals were not mere things, and a farm was anything but a ‘factory.’ Instead, the farm was the ideal place to engage in the original vocation of the human person – to till and to keep the earth. The family farm, the Church argued, was the ideal circumstance in which to raise the next generation, because it united men and women, children and the aged, in the common and noble task of drawing forth the fruits of the earth for the good of man and the glory of God.”
“A unified theological and philosophical vision provided the context for an engagement in rural evangelization,” Thompson added. “Now, needless to say, things are quite different. In fact, perhaps the most important statistic to keep in mind concerning the present state of affairs is simply this: of the 244 Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States, not one offers a program of study in agriculture.”
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When St. Paul Seminary professor Chris Thompson recently went searching for the top agriculture programs at U.S. Catholic universities, what he found — or, rather, what he didn’t find — shocked him: There aren’t any.
He made the discovery after receiving an invitation to present a paper on developments in American agriculture over the past 50 years at a conference in Rome last month.
“There seems to be no presence of [agriculture] as a focused discipline or professional formation in [any of the 244] Catholic universities across the board,” he told The Catholic Spirit during an interview at the seminary, where he is academic dean. “That’s how I became the expert,” he added with a laugh.
In addition to serving on the board of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Thompson has given lectures and participated in conferences on Catholic social thought regarding the environment. He also is slated to teach a seminary course on the topic in the fall.
“There’s this odd lacuna, this odd blind spot in Catholic higher education in agriculture,” Thompson said. “How can it be that the single largest economic force in the country has no presence or standing in the modern Catholic university?”
And, he added, what impact does that have, not only on Catholics interested in farming as a career, but also on society at large?
Family farms disappearing
The May 16-18 Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice conference marked the 50th anniversary of “Mater et Magistra” (“Mother and Teacher”), Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical on Christianity and social progress, which addressed agriculture among a number of other topics.
“For the decades prior to ‘Mater et Magistra,’ the family farm was promoted by the Catholic Church as one of the most ideal conditions in which a family might be raised and a livelihood pursued,” Thompson wrote in his paper.
The U.S. bishops saw farming as conducive to family life because it often involved multiple generations and it relied on nature’s rhythms as designed by God, he explained.
Over the past 50 years, however, the number of family farms in the country has dropped by half, from 4 million to 2 million.
“. . . The family farm has been decimated, and its status has been reduced to a nostalgic memory of an era largely believed to have evaporated,” Thompson wrote.
After World War II, the industrialization of agriculture gradually transformed society’s vision of the farmer as steward into an ideology of production and efficiency, he said. “There’s nothing wrong with those values, but when all of life is reduced to efficiency and production, you tend to lose something of the original vitality because nature is not a machine and creatures are not machines.”
In the book of Genesis, God instructed Adam to “till and keep” the earth, he pointed out. “Tilling,” Thompson explained, is agriculture, and “keeping” refers to caring for the environment. While more and more people in recent years have become aware of our need to care for the environment, we also need to bolster our awareness of the moral dimensions of agriculture, he said.
“We really need a generation of thoughtful men and women, well-informed in Catholic social thought, entering into conversations on food production, food security, human dignity, rural life — all these things that have been on the margins of the typical Catholic university experience,” Thompson said.
“I think we have to draw from our Catholic heritage,” he added, “and in my mind, [St. Thomas] Aquinas has supplied for centuries the philosophical architecture to help us navigate those questions. I think he can still do that, but it’s going to take some work on the part of educators to build that bridge.”
In his paper, Thompson said Catholic universities need to introduce a “green Thomism,” or a philosophy of creation as divinely ordered and a vision of stewardship that guides our participation in God’s creation.
Over the past half-century, Thompson discovered in his research, Catholic universities have moved away from teaching philosophy grounded in nature as a starting point for understanding what it means to be human.
“Over time, what was originally a discussion of the human person distinct from [the plant and animal kingdoms of] lower creation but in relation to lower creation became a discussion of the human person just as a distinct entity,” Thompson said. “There’s no longer a philosophical discussion of what it means to be a human being in relationship to other creatures.”
Agriculture, he added, is the one area of work where people’s relationship to lower creation and their awareness of its rhythms are most essential.
This lack of reflection on nature and rural life in Catholic universities has led in part to the modern disconnect between people and the land, he said.
To illustrate his point, Thompson referred to a group of university students he led on a rural retreat to southwest Minnesota.
Afterward he asked the students to reflect on the experience. One graduating senior told him that before the retreat she hadn’t realized that farm animals were raised in Minnesota.
“[Many people] have no idea where their food comes from,” Thompson said. “I think that tends to sever our relationship to place; it severs our relationship to the land. If you can eat anything on demand at any time, anywhere, it seems to me you only naturally start to pay less attention to what’s happening to the soil in this region.”
“With the incredibly convenient life that we now have, the incredible abundance of food,” he added, “. . . came a certain loss of an awareness and attentiveness to the land and an awareness and attentiveness to the people that produce our food.”
To get people thinking again about agriculture as a moral endeavor, Thompson said he would like to see the creation of a pontifical institute or centers of Catholic learning committed to the study of agriculture and environmental issues, as well as agriculture-related courses at Catholic universities.
“I think many people would say:
‘. . . How can there possibly be Catholic principles in agriculture? Are you telling me that there’s something like Catholic farming? . . .’ And I’m going to say, “Yes, I think there is.”
Ideas for families and parishes
Chris Thompson, academic dean at the St. Paul Seminary and a board member of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, offered these tips to help families and parishes cultivate a deeper appreciation for agriculture and God’s creation.
Individuals and families:
» Start a backyard garden. “Learn with your children the experience of raising food, even if it’s at a modest level. This changes your attitude toward your land.
» Eat dinner together as a family. “The dinner table is one of the most important pieces of real estate in the Catholic home. . . It’s a fantastic place where the human person comes into contact with lower creation in a very intimate way.”
» Bake bread. “Even if it’s no good, you’ll eat it with pride and joy because it’s something you’ve made and it’s something that has expressed the person.”
» Visit a farm or farmers’ market. Meet the people who grow your food.
» Shop mindfully. “If we can illuminate our habits of consumption and really introduce principles of justice and principles of stewardship in our habits of consumption, that would be huge.”
» Purchase local, seasonal food directly from a farmer through a Community Supported Agriculture program. To find a CSA farm near you, go to http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.
» Go for a walk. Encounter God in nature.
» Feature the products of local Catholic organic farmers at parish festivals.
» Develop a partnership between an urban parish and a rural parish.
» Purchase locally produced food for school programs.
» “Ideally, parishes would have little gardens, and the produce would go to the poor, or they would have a Mary garden where they would grow flowers. Get out there and raise something, and you’ll enter into a relationship with the Creator that reaches back to the deepest roots of our faith.”
For more ideas, visit the National Catholic Rural Life Conference website at http://www.ncrlc.com.