As we do every year at the start of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, Catholic Rural Life hosts a luncheon session to spend time with network partners and members who can be in Washington, DC, for the event. This is an opportunity every February to review our program work and lay out activities for the year ahead. An additional attraction for this year was a presentation by Br. Nick Renner, our 2013 recipient of the Catholic Rural Life O’Hara Award for rural ministry and outreach.
This award is named in honor of Most Rev. Edwin V. O’Hara who founded the Catholic Rural Life conference at a small gathering of priests in November 1923. They recognized that the Church is the biggest single factor in building up rural communities. They strongly felt that rural churches in the U.S. were underserved; their new organization would serve to bring attention to the social, economic and religious challenges of rural-dwelling Catholics.
Jim Ennis, our executive director, explained this in his remarks to the small but attentive audience at the luncheon session. Besides rural ministry, Catholic Rural Life also became a strong advocate for family farms. As Jim pointed out, this was particularly important over the past several months as Congress finally reauthorized a new federal Farm Bill.
But Jim reminded everyone that Catholic Rural Life still retains its original purpose to rural ministry. “Today,” he said, “we continue to work towards renewing faith in rural America and bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teachings of the Church into the heart of rural life.” He acknowledged, however, that we currently operate with a small staff and, like many other non-profits in a struggling economy, continue to be challenged in raising sufficient funds for our standing programs and strategic initiatives.
Of course, rural America itself faces its own daunting challenges. Jim Ennis mentioned some of these in his remarks: rural communities dwindling in population, followed by a consequential loss of schools, social services and local businesses. Whereas some farmers are doing very well, others struggle to hang on. Then there is the problem for young people – new or beginning farmers – who are challenged by the high cost of land, farm equipment and other factors that make farming a big risk for them.
Nevertheless, there is still a yearning for working the land and raising a family, if only federal policies and social attitudes can change. To this end, Jim concluded his remarks by saying that Catholic Rural Life will continue our collaborative efforts with USCCB and diocesan social justice staff. We’ll also keep working with sustainable agriculture groups and national farm organizations to reform the structure of agriculture and create a new system of food production.
Br. Nick Renner, O’Hara Award recipient
Our special guest at the luncheon session was Br. Nick Renner, C.PP.S., from Carthagena, Ohio. In a word, he’s an advocate for rural communities through his work with the Ohio Catholic Rural Life Conference of the St. Mary’s and Sidney Deaneries in the northern part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
We invited him to share his experience in relating Catholic social teaching themes to farming and rural living. In his talk, he expressed a great passion for the land. More than that, he is making every effort to help others in understanding why we need to take better care of the land. “It is God’s earth and we’re stewards of it,” he said, “so I’d like to keep moving forward with promoting healthy soil and Catholic social teaching.”
For many years, Br. Nick was at the forefront of agricultural conservation efforts when he managed the farmland at St. Charles Center in Carthagena, Ohio. You can read more about his work at these sites:
Brother Nick discussed how he is doing paid work with Ohio State University extension as a consultant on agricultural conservation methods. He educates farmers on the importance of conservation efforts such as winter cover crops and no-till farming.
Brother Nick shared with the group that it took him many years to appreciate the use of cover crops, no-till practices and other sustainable practices. The process of coming to a better understanding of Catholic social teaching and stewardship of the environment took time and maturity.
“When I became a brother almost 50 years ago, farming was more of a profit-driven thing,” he said. “We didn’t think that way back then. We just saw the land as dirt; we didn’t see it as healthy soil. We didn’t think about the biology of soil and we weren’t taught that by our universities.”
Today he’s all about conservation. “It’s given me a lot of passion and energy to advocate for the farmers and work with the farmers,” he said.
Ethics of Agriculture
Br. Nick’s work is reminder, at least for me, that we need a set of principles for how we grow food. Perhaps we can begin with these three broad principles: Grow what is good for the earth; Eat what is good to grow; and Live in relationships that make these possible.
That was the basis of my talk at the luncheon session. If we accept that there are problems with conventional (or industrial) agriculture, then we must move towards a new kind of regenerative agriculture — a truly sustainable agriculture – that imbues a set of principles that go beyond economic efficiencies.
Well, much more needs to be said about this, and indeed Catholic Rural Life is doing so as we improve on our Ethics of Eating campaign. This is our attempt to help non-farmers – consumers! – to better understand how food is grown and produced, what are the impacts to the land, how rural communities are affected, and what it means for our overall health.
That is why we say “eating is a moral act” – because it touches so much of our human lives, the common good of communities and the care of God’s creation. We’ll continue to beat that drum until a new agriculture is in place!