Reclaiming Fundamental Values: The Communal Ethic
(Part 2 in Series on Fundamental Values)
In my blog posting of April 11 (Good Policies Begin with Fundamental Values), I raised a question about how to reclaim the foundational values that make for a vital life. And I wondered if rural life still holds true to such values. One value I had in mind was “communal ethic”: a way of living that valued community and lifted us out of solitary individualism.
In Catholic social teaching, this is traced back to the essence of Creation and the understanding that God did not create us to be solitary: “It is not right for you to be alone,” we are told. So companionship was made essential: by nature we are profoundly social beings. I believe that means we cannot develop our potential – we cannot complete ourselves – without being in communion with others.
We need churches, schools, civic and farm organizations, town boards and public commissions in order to reach our full stature.
So the theory goes. The agrarian spirit of many of our nation’s founders knew it would take the cooperation of many to make a go of it in this new world of untamed forests and unplowed soils. They quickly learned that conquering the land also meant degrading it; one response was to keep moving further west into the frontier, but we knew we would have to eventually come together and conserve.
But in respect to social impacts, could the early founders foresee that, in time, the economic successes would allow families and individuals to fall back in on themselves? Once basic material needs are met, would most people live in sufficient simplicity and moderation? Or would their lives be taken over by an unending pursuit of more and more materialistic goods? The American way of life seems to have taken the track of rampant Consumerism.
Rural people are not immune to these desires and temptations. They share the materialistic values of the day like anyone else. “It is truly a challenge to live by different values than those of the wider society,” Bishop George Speltz once said.
Here at Catholic Rural Life, we reflect back on the thoughts and writings of Most Rev. George Speltz who served as the bishop of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn. After his retirement in 1987, he continued to write on rural life issues, notably “Agriculture with a Human Face” (1995), which is the basis of this whole discussion about reclaiming foundational values.
Bishop Speltz hoped to the end of his life (2004) that rural people, living as they do close to nature in an environment conducive to reflection, will have a positive influence in restoring “humankind’s value system” and in doing so give agriculture a more human face. Here at Catholic Rural Life, we still draw on his wisdom.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition found in the Bible, we see ourselves as a people of the covenant: God cares for us, but God also judges. Bishop Speltz reminded us that the commandments are not arbitrary restrictions on our lives, but make life in community possible. Protection was given not only to property, but we are commanded to protect widows, orphans, the poor, the vulnerable and even strangers on the land. In the eyes of God, all are our neighbors.
The goods of the land – the earth and all it contains – is for the use of every human being and people (Gaudium et Spes). Created goods are to be regarded as common property in the sense that they are to benefit not only their owners, but others as well. As Bishop Speltz put it: “The Church’s teaching on this subject can be stated succinctly: Private property with community of use.”
We can go all the way back to the Midwest Catholic Bishops statement on the land, Strangers and Guests(May 1, 1980), to see this is a constant refrain: The people of God are summoned to respect the land as God’s gift, or else the land would be taken out of our hands. Ownership carries with it communal responsibilities; the spirit of the land is that it should serve all needs and never neglect the poor, the vulnerable and the least of us.
Bishop Spelt said it 20 years ago; it seems no less true now: “Present day individualistic attitudes and practices among farmers fall far short of the biblical teaching on covenant and community. This outlook weakens farm organizations and disposes farmers to go it alone at the expense of their neighbors and the wider rural community.” He foresaw, as many realize today, that this would lead to large-scale ownership and production with the consequent weakening of the family farm system and the rural community.
So let’s end on this prophetic note: Of all the values needed to sustain a vital agriculture and vital rural communities, none is more important than a strong sense of community.
By Robert Gronski,
NCRLC policy coordinator
Next in the series: A Strong Family Ethic