"Cultivating the Soil & Soul" - book review by Christopher Thompson - Catholic Rural Life

“Cultivating the Soil & Soul” – book review by Christopher Thompson

Catholic Rural Life • February 8, 2013

“Cultivating the Soil & Soul” – book review by Christopher Thompson



Cultivating the Soil and Soul: Twentieth-Century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement. By Michael J. Woods, SJ. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010. Pp. 291. 

Cultivating Soil and Soul is Woods’ doctoral dissertation from The Catholic University of America. It weaves together two strands of Catholic theological movements: the agrarian and liturgical. Woods’ thorough sifting of NCRLC materials provides a solid basis for his thesis: that the liturgical and agrarian movements shared a common enthusiasm for the “principle of sacramentality,” that is, that created things bear a theological significance and have supernatural standing, if you will – or, as Monsignor Kevin Irwin (Woods’ thesis director) has put it, “that things matter and that matter is not just a thing.”

Scholars in the field of liturgical studies are in a better position to evaluate that portion of Woods’ efforts which pertain to their domain, but I, for one, could have benefitted from a clearer articulation of the “sacramental principle” as he understands it, especially since it does such heavy lifting in his analysis. Nonetheless, writing as one who has been championing the work of the NCRLC, I can say that Woods is to be commended for his efforts in bringing to light these issues. 

Reading through the narrative as Woods tells it was refreshing, if a bit disorienting, for in order to embrace the world of the data as presented, one has to suspend the oft-repeated and more familiar narrative of the Church in modern times: that prior to Vatican II the church was comprised of a pious folk who were reluctant to step out of the confines of the ghetto of Catholic life. Woods’ efforts ought to put to rest that naïve account—or at least complicate it. For as his careful efforts tell the story, there was “even before Vatican II” a rigorous and robust engagement with social concerns, well-beyond any “ghetto” however one may try to describe it. Theologians, philosophers, sociologists, agronomists, economists, including priests, religious, and laity–all were engaged in issues of bringing the life of Christ to their church in the modern world. Hundreds, if not thousands (not an elite few) were engaged in the “agrarian question,” and Woods’ work, now along with David Bovée’s (The Church and the Land) and others begin to point to a critical mass of scholarship that should stimulate exploration in this important arena of American Catholic life.

It is still amazes me, in other words, to read of such vibrant Catholic engagement with agriculture especially against the blighted landscape that characterizes Catholic rural thought now. After Woods, Bovée and others, the question is no longer: did the NCRLC have something to say? It is, rather, why do we have ears, but do not hear?

In conclusion, the NCRLC owes a debt of gratitude for the work of Michael Woods, SJ. He brings to the forefront in clear and convincing ways the impressive efforts on the part of the NCRLC and members of the liturgical movement to bring forward a Catholic agrarian social teaching that has in many respects been forgotten. I expect the book to prompt others to begin to tell the story as to why and what can be done to remember.

Dr. Christopher Thompson

Academic Dean, Saint Paul Seminary

NCRLC Board Member


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