Fundamental Values: Reverence for Agricultural Work

By Robert Gronski on May 24, 2013

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(Part 5 in Series on Fundamental Values)

In his May 1961 encyclical on Christianity and Social Progress (Mater et Magistra), Pope John XXIII gave great attention to agriculture (n.123-165). He described the problems and difficulties of agriculture at that time, and offered some guidelines and solutions for its improvement. At one part, though, he spoke with a kind of reverence for agricultural work and the life of a farmer. If I may quote at length:
144. Those who live on the land can hardly fail to appreciate the nobility of the work they are called upon to do. They are living in close harmony with Nature—the majestic temple of Creation. Their work has to do with the life of plants and animals, a life that is inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God the Creator and Provider. They produce food for the support of human life, and the raw materials of industry in ever richer supply.
145. Theirs is a work which carries with it a dignity all its own. It brings into its service many branches of engineering, chemistry and biology, and is itself a cause of the continued practical development of these sciences in view of the repercussions of scientific and technical progress on the business of farming. It is a work which demands a capacity for orientation and adaptation, patient waiting, a sense of responsibility, and a spirit of perseverance and enterprise.
Beyond the practical aspects of agriculture and how farmers must master many talents and disciplines, Pope John XXIII goes on to raise this work to a spiritual level:
149. In the work on the farm, the human personality finds every incentive for self-expression, self-development and spiritual growth. It is a work, therefore, which should be thought of as a vocation, a God-given mission, an answer to God’s call to actuate His providential, saving plan in history. It should be thought of, finally, as a noble task, undertaken with a view to raising oneself and others to a higher degree of civilization.
Can we still speak these words without feeling wistful of a time gone by? Has the industrialization of agriculture finally wiped away the vestiges of this idea of spiritual growth?
Wendell Berry, American farmer and man of letters, makes the point that to live is to work, and therefore decries the modern separation of life and work which holds manual labor in low esteem. One of his well-known books is “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” which makes the convincing argument that our overall cultural health – including the economy, personal relationships, morals and spiritual values – is dependent on the outcome of the American family farm.
In his Jefferson Lecture delivered last year in Washington, D.C., Wendell Berry still spoke with a prophetic voice when it comes to the unsettling of America: “(The) land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.”
Then he concludes with these hopeful words: “But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.”
As long as I am recounting what more insightful people than I are saying about reverence for agricultural work, let me evoke the thoughts of Bishop George Speltz as I have been doing throughout this series on fundamental values. Specifically, I hark back to his treatise on “Agriculture with a Human Face” where he makes well-argued plea for “a value system to sustain an agricultural rural people.”
In the same vein as Wendell Berry, Bishop Speltz explains how dominant economic forces favor capital-machine intensive production over a more labor-intensive production. This is not to argue against labor-saving devices, but to make the point that appropriate technology for a family farm takes into account the worker’s art, not just the bottomline. Appropriate and smaller-scale technology makes possible creative ways to work the land with its diverse qualities and location. “Clearly,” Bishop Speltz wrote, “capital-intensive agriculture has a different value system that mitigates against an authentic rural culture and against a healthy wider culture of any nation.”
Agricultural work alters not only the land, but also develops us as human beings. We can raise ourselves so much more if we can cultivate our own spirituality as well as the material goods of the earth. We can go outside ourselves for the greater good, or else we doom ourselves into a kind of solitary confinement. As Bishop Speltz prophesied:
“If the rural way of life is to be sustained, it must see agricultural work as eminently worthy of a farmer’s time and effort. When this value is forgotten, rural culture will be impoverished and with it, the land.”

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