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"Should the Church be involved in agricultural policy?" by Jim Ennis

A Commentary


By Jim Ennis
Executive Director, NCRLC
 
A popular rural radio program recently posed this question to its listeners: “Do you think churches should take positions on agricultural issues?”
 
The underlying subtext was that faith-based organizations, especially churches, have NO business taking positions on agricultural matters. In the minds of some, Churches should only provide

“spiritual nourishment” to its members and should not be involved in agriculture policy-making. Or, Faith is a personal matter and should not be imposed on society.
 
Bishops and churches have historically followed a different track: Hearing the cry of vulnerable farmers & ranchers, the church is animated to act. 
 
The Christian community and the Catholic Church in particular address agricultural issues because much is at stake in moral and human terms: food sustains life itself. 
Who can deny that providing food for all is a Gospel imperative? But this prompts a legitimate question: If the ultimate need is to provide food for all, then why should the Church ask anything more from farmers than producing an abundance of food, as modern industrial practices do?
 
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recognizes that farming is a way of life for many families and communities across the countryside. They notably say this in their “Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers” (For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food, 2003). They explicitly say agriculture holds a special place in the eyes of the Church “because it touches all our lives, wherever we live or whatever we do. It is about how we feed our own families, and the whole human family.” 
 
When & how does the Church take positions on agricultural matters?
 
The world of agriculture is complex; and for most Catholics—and our nation in general—it is a distant reality, little seen and less understood. When food prices rise, a family’s main concern is the cost of groceries. It takes an effort to understand the human cost to farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities who grapple daily with the uncertainty of weather, rising operating expenses or fluctuating markets.
 
During the early 1980s when farmland value collapsed, many farm families found it impossible to reduce their debts. A farm that had been in the family for generations was now suddenly lost, leading in many cases to suicide or break-up of families. That farm crisis became a time of pastoral care. When the Church does act for farmers in such hard times, it is always for comfort and hope but also carries the seed for changing the way things are.
 
Every five years or so when the Farm Bill is debated by Congress, the Church gives particular attention to agricultural, food and rural development issues. The bishops give careful consideration and offer their positions based on Catholic social teachings. This may implicitly support some agricultural policies or explicitly question others, but the intent is not to set public policy as much as create a moral framework.
 
In our Catholic tradition, positions related to food and farm policy begin with food security for all. The Church also has a primary concern for the farmers and farm workers who grow, harvest, and process food. They rightly deserve a just return for their labor, with safe and just working conditions for all. Furthermore, the bishops know that supporting rural communities sustains a way of life that enriches our nation. And they consistently note that stewardship of the earth and its natural resources requires policies that support sustainable agriculture as vital elements of agricultural policy.
 
When the Church does engage in reflections on agricultural policy, it does so to create a broader dialogue about the ethical and human dimensions of farming and food production. A particular perspective or stated position is not meant to disenfranchise anyone, but to work towards a spirit of the common good and "living in the light" of Gospel teachings.
 
Are the agricultural positions of the Church directed to individuals?
 
This brings us back to the intent of the question raised by the radio show: Should the Church tell individuals how to farm?
 
No, of course not. When church leaders and bishops take positions on agricultural issues, they first try to understand the structure of the economy and the difficult choices faced by farmers and ranchers. They want to understand the actual lives and experiences of farmers, ranchers and their families who struggle within a challenging and globally complex agricultural and food system. The Church is particularly concerned about the most vulnerable in rural America and whether limited government resources are directed their way. But it often seems that the big get bigger and the rest of us go hungry.
 
In the light of this, the bishops offer elements of a moral framework for policy-makers -- political leaders and agricultural experts, advocates, and activists -- and ask them to look at policy choices and how these choices touch the most vulnerable within agriculture. As bishops and pastoral leaders, they also encourage members of the broader Catholic community to give greater attention to issues of food and agriculture. The Bible teaches us that injustice and misuse of the land is defilement because it ultimately squanders and rejects life.
 
We cannot ignore these questions or leave the answers only to those directly involved in agriculture.
 
They touch all of us.


Comments


Joe Kenny | Monday, September 27, 2010

The Catholic bishops of Missouri have been heavily involved by supporting legislation opposing the huge confined animal feeding operations in the state.
Christine Adryan | Tuesday, September 21, 2010

May I ask, with all due respect, as the increasing damage caused by Confined Animal Feeding Operations becomes more evident why the humane treatment of farm animals never seems to be mentioned? The continued indifference of the Catholic Church to animal suffering may cause me to leave yet.

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