Manifesto on Rural Life

Aloisius J. Muench
Bishop of Fargo

One need but take a cursory glance through American history to see that this nation has always had some kind of agrarian problem. Agrarianism has had a long and troublesome history. When our nation began, Daniel Shays led the farmer into rebellion. The farmer of revolutionary days was burdened with heavy debts; contracts were ruthlessly enforced against him; prices were low; the savings of hard labor expended in clearing land of timber, stumps, and rocks were being lost. Shays organized the first pressure group among the farmers. His rebellion was crushed by armed force. From the hard times of 1785-86 down to the hard times of our day is a far cry. But in the intervening 150 years the farmer often found himself face to face with serious problems. To cope with them, all sorts of panaceas were rushed upon the scene. Some were radical and revolutionary in character; others were legislative and monetary; still others were economic and political.

The fact is, of course, that the farmer's problem is so complicated by many factors that it cannot be solved by a simple formula. It is not the purpose of this MANIFESTO to offer such a formula. The MANIFESTO is not in the nature of a blueprint with detailed specifications to show how the new agrarianism is to be built and how the farmer's problems are to be solved. There is no such complete solution available.

The purpose of the MANIFESTO is to state certain fundamental principles and policies without which it would be folly to essay a solution. These principles and policies are chiefly derived from Catholic social philosophy as expressed in the social encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI.

In propounding social philosophy, the Catholic Church does not leave out of view the spiritual nature of man and his ultimate spiritual destiny. She would not be true to her mission if she did so. Indeed, the salvation of souls must ever be her first concern. But so intimately are material things interwoven with man's daily conduct, its motives and its deeds, that the Church cannot be unconcerned about what goes on in the material order of things. In point of fact, a pure secularism which would divorce man's earthly life from spiritual concerns is not in accord with the realities of man's daily living. To ignore either the spiritual or the material in their manifold interrelations can only result in disaster.

The Church has ever shown a special solicitude for those whose living is derived from the land. "In the Twenty Centuries of Her Existence," writes Archbishop Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, "the Catholic Church has ever shown, emphasized even, her predilection for those who till the soil, on whose work and efforts depends so important a part of the well-being of all."[1] One need not search far or deeply for the reason of this solicitude for the tiller of the land. The occupation of agriculture offers the most favorable conditions, generally speaking, for the development of private property, the fostering of home life, the culture of initiative, prudence, thrift, courage and other priceless virtues, and for the promotion of simple but wholesome and rugged living.

Agrarianism has entered upon a new phase in the twentieth century, especially beginning with the period after the World War. Foreign markets have been greatly reduced, nations have embarked upon vast, even though costly, programs of economic self-sufficiency, domestic markets have shrunk owing to lessened purchasing power and a lower birth rate. Population shifts, because of the steady migration of farm youth from the populous areas of Rural America into the dying city centers of Urban America, have given origin to new and complex problems, and a dozen other factors, largely of an economic and social character, have given rise to great disparities between urban and rural living. The unbalance between the two has been aggravated by the Great Depression from both an economic and a social point of view. Archbishop Cicognani has summed up the whole problem in a few trenchant words: "In the present world-wide economic disorder, brought about by the abuses of capitalism, by technological changes, and by dislocated relationship between rural and urban life, dangerous inequalities and disproportions have developed to the detriment and, in some instances, to the degradation of the farm population. Those who live on the land form the larger portion of the human family and their labor is the most important and indispensable for the livelihood of all. The most elementary justice entitles them to standards of living no less abundant and complete than those enjoyed by the urban population. Briefly, justice should prevail between the farm and the city."[2]

It would be a mistake to think that the problems of agrarianism are entirely rural. What goes on back on the farm has its repercussions in the city, and what happens in the city has its reactions on the farm. Wheels of industry are quickly stopped if the farmer cannot buy industry's products because he does not obtain a just share of the nation's income. The immigration of farm youth to the cities often entails as consequences the reduction of wages, the lengthening of bread lines, and the swelling of city slums. A thousand different interrelations exist between city and farm. The sooner it is recognized that agriculture and industry form an economic whole with varied implications of a moral, social, and political character, the better it will be for the material well-being of the nation. To keep this thought to the fore has been among the prime objectives of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference from the day it was founded by the Most Rev. Edwin V. O'Hara, now Bishop of Kansas City. To give this thought more definite expression is one of the chief aims of this MANIFESTO. Hence, the economic, social, cultural, moral, and religious have all received consideration in this statement. It represents the thinking of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference over the years that have elapsed since it was founded. For a long time the great need of a concise statement on agricultural and rural problems has been felt by Catholic Agrarian leaders. The MANIFESTO is the joint product of thought of eminent leaders in the field of Catholic rural thought.

Lest the document be encumbered with factual, statistical, and illustrative material, and cluttered up with references of a varied sort, Annotations have been added in Part II. The reference to these is by paragraph number.

In a special Introduction to the Annotations we have given expression to our sentiments of appreciation and gratitude to those who, by advice, suggestion, and workmanship, were helpful in producing the document.

The MANIFESTO makes a venture on new ground, not that all fields have been covered and that nothing more remains to be said on rural life questions, but rather that for the first time, so far as we know, principles and policies have been stated in a succinct and orderly fashion with respect to Catholic Rural Life. We hope that the Rural Life Movement will march forward with new strength and courage under the stimulus that has been given it by this MANIFESTO.

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