“The Church is at your side.” Embracing the agricultural vocation

The following article was written by Bill Patenaude for Catholic Ecology. It is re-posted here with his permission.

You know a conversation is going somewhere good when people are saying the same things from the start. And you know a conference on faith, food, and the environment is going great places when from the beginning farmers, theologians, businessmen, and a Vatican official are all stressing the same points.

From the opening by Catholic Rural Life director Jim Ennis to the keynote comments by Father Michael Czerny, S.J, the Chief of Staff to the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the opening speakers at “Faith, Food, and the Environment” have made it clear: we must all “honor and respect the vocation of food growers.” And for Catholics, this “must” is elevated by the divinely ordained dictate to respect human dignity—and the dignity of all creation.

Thus the Church does not merely seek to accompany those in the agricultural sector; she is doing just that. She “walks at your side,” as Pope Francis has said.

And there are many reasons to do this.

Fr. Czerny underscored the reasons by exploring “For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food, Catholic Reflections on Food, Farming, and Farmworkers,” a 2003 document by the United States bishops

“Ours is the responsibility as Christians to consider the important underlying ethical questions: How can hunger in the human family be overcome? How can we ensure a safe, affordable, and sustainable food supply? How can we ensure that farmworkers and owners of small farms, in the Unites States and around the world, live and work with dignity? How can land, water, and other elements of God’s creation be preserved, protected, and used well in the service of the common good? How do we respond to the effects of Climate Change? How can rural communities in this country and around the world survive and thrive?”

Helping answer these questions are the lives of the faithful who labor in the fields (literally or figuratively) of the agricultural sector.

Fr. Czerny added, “confident in the one who is the Truth, and strengthened by the spirit who works in the secret of every human being’s heart, we can together take up the task of entering into a fruitful and faithful dialog at the service of humanity and a quest for a more just and peaceful order among men and women.”

It wasn’t just a Catholic priest making this observation. Catholic Rural Life Executive Director Ennis saw that “taking up the task of entering into a faithful and fruitful dialogue” about agriculture would be the nature of what would be happening among the 70 or so people in the room.

“You are here because you care about faith, food, and the environment,” he said. “And it is a time to animate our faith.”

He pointed to racks of winter coats lines up near the doors of the South Woulfe Hall at the University of St. Thomas. “Too often we leave faith at the door like those coats.” Ennis said that it’s time to close the division about what we profess and how we engage our individual professions. His hope is that by going about our agricultural activities with faith, we can answer the questions above in ways that address the human dignity of every person and the natural world.

To begin making all this happen—that is, making practical ways for the Church to walk with the world of agricultural leaders—Dr. Michael Naughton, the director for the University of St. Thomas’s Center for Catholic Studies, laid a foundation on what it means to be a person of faith while working in a worldly vocation—like those in the agricultural sector.

He spoke about the booklet “Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection.” The document, put together by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is a remarkable one that seeks to connect the high language of Catholic Moral Theology with the everyday world.

Speaking as an academic and often sounding as passionate as a preacher, Dr. Naughton piqued the interest of those in attendance by mirroring the reflections in that pontifical document, which focuses on business leadership in general. (Stay tuned for future posts on this rather important document.)

After group discussions and feedback, and questions and answers from those in attendance, the dialog continued with Dr. Christopher Thompson, Dean, Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, and professor of moral theology was up next. Dr. Thompson has written on Catholic moral teachings and the care of the environment and in his talk gave high praise to the people who provide food to the world.

In his overarching theological reflections on creation, the environment, and Thomistic understandings thereof, Dr. Thompson also got to some very important basics that the room appreciated hearing.

“For too long farmers have been treated as second class citizens.”

Thompson urged academia and the magisterium to hold up the vocation of farming. He pointed our that Catholic educational institutions in America are devoid of agricultural studies programs. He also suggested a pontifical institute on agriculture.

“Christian faith is not an idea,” he said. It’s a relationship and we can see that in the way faith impacts so many of the people who farm for a living.

“You’re keepers of the soil … keepers of the land. You’re in it for the long haul. We should raise this up because what you do is a great commitment to the common good.”

And so the conversation continued and continues as the symposium moves forward by bringing together people and ideas to tend well and make fruitful the garden of God.

More to come. But for now dinner and then the evening public talk by Fr. Czerny.