Many of us who live in rural parts of the U.S. have witnessed discouraging trends in recent decades: the increase in the size of farming and ranching operations; the destruction of small-town life; depopulation; a growing disregard for natural beauty; and the erosion of the work ethic. Those corrosive trends add up to the dissolution of a cohesive society. Human connection, human scale, and human aspirations are all snatched away by inhuman forces.
We rural dwellers have seen efforts to counteract the spreading dissolution. I recall hippies “going back to the land” but not lasting long. Even when the Age of Aquarius vanguard successfully settled in rural places, it brought along its anti-traditional values. (Exhibit A: Vermont.) And successive waves of progressive voters have built on the hippie foundations and attempted to dismantle all the offensive parts of rural culture anathema to the post-modernists.
Catholic activists have not fared much better in their agricultural efforts. Catholic Worker (CW) co-founders Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day frequently supported starting farm projects, but that impetus has never born much fruit. The answer to rural decline is found not in romanticism, activism, or nostalgia. None of those mindsets lead to an authentic Catholic renewal of rural life.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Thus, a rural dweller could be forgiven a skeptical stance regarding the “Catholic Land Movement” (CLM), with its tales of homesteading and rediscovered crafts and skills. Urban dwellers—if they notice anything occurring in the hinterlands and flyover country at all—might wonder why anyone would forsake certain comforts and the anonymity of city life. Is the CLM another lifestyle choice option for the post-modern-minded? Or is it a broad approach to rediscovering God’s gracious gifts to us, especially in the soil? Its advocates enthusiastically claim it is the latter.
Ideas come and go. Variants of the CLM have been around for at least a century, dating back to Fr. Vincent McNabb. He saw that urban life corrupted and degraded city-dwelling Catholics, and his answer was to urge those Catholics to get back to their agricultural roots so as to regain their work ethic and thrive in a healthier (physically and morally) environment. McNabb built on Catholic Social Teaching and Distributism. While McNabb has not faded completely from the world of Catholic ideas, there never has been his hoped-for large-scale exodus from cities to reconnect with the land.
Distinctly Catholic efforts to promote rural life have centered on existing agriculture and non-urban areas. There were also activist campaigns to assist migrant farmworkers and better their lives, most notably by Cesar Chavez. But subsequent work in that domain became disconnected from Catholicism and moved in a more overtly leftist direction.
The skeptic, learning all this, might conclude that the CLM is yet another idea taken captive by politics, or that it is another set of impractical theories. Might the CLM be outdated and resting upon no longer true assumptions of the urban-rural divide? As a final consideration, can the CLM be implemented in a way to support large traditional Catholic families?
To answer those questions, we can listen to what present-day CLM advocates and practitioners have to say. Michael Thomas, who homesteads with his family in Sharon Springs in New York’s rural Mohawk Valley, is a leading figure in the CLM. In 2022, he hosted a gathering at his farm and the nearby North American Martyrs Shrine at Auriesville, and he has been a guest on different podcasts. (A second CLM gathering is scheduled for June of this year.)
Thomas explains the CLM and its decidedly traditional Catholic orientation as part of our Faith’s fundamental teaching of properly ordering all aspects of life toward God. The map for that proper ordering follows the path of humility and rediscovering God’s gracious gifts to us in creation, especially the soil. Humility is an apt word for the attitude of the CLM, since it derives from the Latin for “ground” or “soil.”
Under the headings of restoration of property and restoration of tradition, Thomas emphasizes skills and fellowship as equally important. Skills enable us to move from a passive to an active role in life, while fellowship keeps us from being lonely and also encourages us to share skills and activities with others. That answers, in part, the skeptic’s appraisal of rural life as frequently daunting in its demands. Skills enable us to move from a passive to an active role in life, while fellowship keeps us from being lonely and also encourages us to share skills and activities with others. Tweet This
Thomas enumerates four areas he sees as key points to successfully implementing the CLM: education, especially in primary traditions and skills; connecting Catholics with the land, whether in an urban rooftop or courtyard garden or fifty acres of tillable rural land; fellowship and the social aspects of life; and, a distinctive emphasis on Christ, Catholic sacraments, and God. (The CLM seems to be built on the Vetus Ordo and the older rites; it seems worth pondering whether or not the Novus Ordo and other post-conciliar elements are suitable for the CLM.)
Very quickly one sees that this iteration of the CLM is a serious exegesis of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and other bedrock documents of Catholic Social Teaching. Thomas also mentions the anthology Flee to the Fields as a useful introduction to the topic.
So, it appears the CLM has answers to a skeptic’s doubts, though there are always more questions. Here are a few: Does the CLM attract dilettantes? Does the CLM play to an American antinomianism and anti-authoritarianism? How will there be enough priests to serve rural areas, especially priests who can and will celebrate the Vetus Ordo? Is the CLM just a variant of the Benedict Option, which has been criticized as merely running away from problems and not really solving anything? Is there a danger of cultishness? Are intentional rural communities desirable or necessary?
Some things are clear. Rural areas are facing wholesale collapse in their economies and networks. Bill Gates and others with unclear motives are buying up American farmland. The recent pandemic showed the weakness of the supply chain and the possibility of food shortages. And the government and Church hierarchy are increasingly acting against traditional values. So, the question is perhaps not why the Catholic Land Movement but, rather, why not?
[Image: “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet]