Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Review of Fr. Vincent McNabb’s The Church and the Land

By: Dr. Peter Chojnowski
November 3, 2006

If Catholics are going to confront the world with the idea that they have the solutions to the ultimate problems of human life and society, they must, also, provide this same neo-pagan world with the proximate solutions to their ultimate problems. This, more than any other idea, is the point of Fr. Vincent McNabb’s recently republished text, The Church and the Land. McNabb, born Joseph McNabb in Portaferry, Ireland near Belfast in 1868 and ordained a priest in the Dominican Order, spent his entire life living out the statement in St. Thomas’ Summa that the most perfect form of human life is the one in which the contemplative channels his own attained wisdom into action, both through teaching others and acting amongst the society of men to achieve the good of all. The wisdom which Fr. McNabb drew upon was common fare for many Catholics prior to the twin disasters of World War II and Vatican II. The three works that he speaks of as being his well of inspiration were the Bible, the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Rerum Novarum, the encyclical on the condition of the working class issued in 1891 by Leo XIII. The coherent social teaching of the Catholic Church, beginning with Rerum Novarum, was, for Fr. McNabb, simply Thomism-in-action. Action, the actual realizing of “the good of the true,”was clearly the intent of The Church and the Land. If we see the concrete lived problems of the age, and we know the Catholic moral, doctrinal, and social principles which are meant to be remedies for any human problems, we cannot but desire to implement those truths, in the lives of real men, women, and children, in order to help ameliorate the evils incumbent upon life in the Liberal System and facilitate theirmovement towards their ultimate end. The problems which Fr. McNabb was addressing in 1925, when he wrote this text, were real, for example, the rapid decline of Catholic cultural life and practice in the urban milieu of England and America, along with the lower birthrates which were causing the Catholic portion of the citizenry in Britain and America to plummet relative to the overall growth in population. In support of this, he cites American Archbishop Edwin O’Hara who documented the demographic fact that the general population of the United States had increased by 17% from 1906 to 1916, while the Catholic Church increased its numbers by only 10% during the same period. This was compared to a 19% increase in membership in Protestant churches. Fr. McNabb’s answer to these very concrete problems was simple, Catholic families must return to the land if they are to serve as the building blocks of a restored Christian Order. This advice to the Catholics of the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s was not merely a matter of demography, but a grave moral concern, since he continually asserts that modern urban life is a proximate occasion of sin. Throughout this text, Fr. McNabb provides examples of the moral compromises that almost inevitably follow from life in the urban/suburban world of contemporary cities. What we see in McNabb’s advocacy of the Back-to-the-Land movement in England was not merely a practical moral solution to real human problems, but a general questioning of the progressive nature of our contemporary Liberal, Consumerist, and Technology-dominated world. In his “Attempt at a Social Balance Sheet,” McNabb challenges us by forcing us to look at the damage done to normal human life by industrialism and urbanization. How many families have their own Home? How many workers live over their work? How many mothers go out to work? How many children are in the average family? These are questions which the modern manipulators of mass opinion insist do not matter. But they do matter? Not only for Depression Era urban workers, but for ourselves in this MicroAge. Are we not continually saying that milieu matters? Is it not the case that the whole reason for reestablishing Christendom, other than to make everything a footstool of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is to make the external society more conducive to living the life of virtue, both natural and supernatural? Does the technology-based urban system, which is expanding every day, incline us and ours to the life that God wishes us to live. Does it provide us with the daily food for contemplation from which a stable life of human nobility and meritorious supernatural acts flow? Fr. McNabb’s answer is clearly, “No.” It is a “No” that has the potential to shake the inhuman economic system which daily forces men and women to sacrifice the normal so that a few richmen may increase their profits. The way in which McNabb’s critique throws into question the foundations of the current economic system is by focusing on the fact that the modern capitalist industrial economy, and certainly all of the socialist economies that have been known, concentrates human effort and manpower on the production of what Fr. McNabb calls “secondary goods.” The key to rectifying man’s economic maladies and dislocations is the dedication of the greater part of human manpower to the production of “primary goods,” the food, clothing, fuel, and shelter that man needs to sustain life. By focusing their craft know-how upon the basic means of human sustenance, the nation, the local community, or even, in a certain way, the family can attain a level of self-sufficiency that would establish them as stable and coherent communities. In this regard, Fr. McNabb, being always the Dominican, cites the political teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, in his text De Regimine Principum, to advance this view that the self-sufficient society and community, especially in regard to the production of “primary goods,” is the best form of human society. Citing from Chapter III of the De Regno, as this text is often called, McNabb points out that St. Thomas states, “The more a thing is found to be self-sufficient the better it is; because what needs another is clearly wanting. . . . Therefore it is better for a city if it has a sufficiency of things from its own lands, than if it should be exposed to commerce.” To this St. Thomas adds the authority of Aristotle who stated that, ”it is more fitting that the citizens should be occupied outside cities, than that they should dwell always within the city walls.” Here we see how McNabb, advocating a flourishing agrarian life, perfectly fits within Aristotelian-
Thomistic social, political, and economic thought. It is in the informative introduction by Dr. William Fahey, professor at Christendom College, that we find an answer to the question which continually surround the Agrarian answer to many of the modern world’s problems, “How can this pleasing vision of the way society ought to be be realized in the lives of real men and women in our own age?” In answer to this question, Dr. Fahey first provides us with a summary of the concrete results of the agrarian Catholic Land Movement as it really existed, both in Britain and the United States prior to World War II. Confronted with the economic catastrophe of 1929-1930, some 26,000 men took advantage of temporary government subsidies to move from urban areas to farming properties. According the statistics cited, some 73% of these transplanted city-dwellers remained on the land as successful small-holding farmers. These efforts in England, Wales, and Scotland were encouraged by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, the British Catholic Hierarchy, and a host of Catholic intellectuals. The race to the rural was even more impressive in the United States. Here,between the years 1930 to 1932, some 764,000 moved from the city to the countryside to take uplife on the land. By quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas’ De Regimine Principum and by continually citing Pope Leo XIII’s statement in Rerum Novarum that, “The law should favor ownership. Its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the humbler classes to become owners,” Fr. McNabb firmly sets his agrarian vision within the intellectual tradition of the Catholic world. The palpable and enticing goals set by Fr. McNabb, the American Catholic Rural Life Movement, the British Catholic Land Movement, and the Distributist League were instrumental in reviving an appreciation in the first half of the 20th century for the traditional political outlook of the Catholic Church that emphasized subsidiarity (i.e., a decentralized political and economic order) and the common good. Understanding himself to be only following a path cut by the great doctors of the Catholic past and, specifically, responding to the cry in Rerum Novarum that, “a remedy must be found, and found quickly,” we are not surprised that, in this text, Fr. McNabb explicitly denies that he is a part of any political movement, rather he understood himself to be a pastor of souls who was urging families to find a life in harmony with nature, a life where work, worship, intellectual leisure, and family life were all of a cloth, for the good of their bodies and their souls. “If the thoughts and hopes that have inspired [this book] do not inspire some of our readers, the book will have been written in vain. Indeed, not only will the writing of the book, but even the many years of life and thought behind the book, have been in vain. To find no one answering our Call to Contemplatives will seem to give the lie to one of our deepest and most mature convictions.” In this quotation from the first chapter of The Church and the Land, entitled “A Call to Contemplatives,”which he insists should, also, be read as the last chapter, Fr. McNabb states that what he is calling for is an Exodus. An Exodus from the modern techno-urban versions of the “flesh-pots” of Egypt to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” In order to clarify for his reader what he intends by this “call” and his reasons for drawing this comparisonbetween the flight of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt to the “wilderness” of Sinai and the “Back to the Land Movement” which he led, McNabb emphasizes that it is only for a religious motive that anyone would desert the cities for the difficult life of the country or remain on the land in spite of the financial enticements of the suburbs or the city. In pointing out that the Israelites left Egypt not to inherit a land of “milk and honey,” but to “worship God,” McNabb preached in 1925 what we traditional Catholics heard at a much later date from Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. In his Priestly Jubilee Sermon on September 23, 1979, the Archbishop stated, when addressing the lay faithful, “And I wish that, in these troubled times, in this degenerate urban atmosphere in which we are living, that you return to the land whenever possible. The land is healthy; the land teaches one to know God; the land draws one to God; it calms temperaments, characters, and encourages the children to work.” Why encourage “contemplatives” to rediscover the land? Shouldn’t we leave them alone lest they hurt themselves? Does it help the advancement of Thomism, the perennial philosophical tradition of the Church, that thinking men and women know what feed grain is needed for a ewe in her last period of gestation? Yes, it does. If the Realism of St. Thomas is to be more to us than a system of true, but remote, abstractions, we must continually refer back to the natural realities that generated the concepts in the first place. It is not to be forgotten that the primary referent for Aristotelian philosophy is organic being. In the farm yard there is no Cartesian “pure extension.”