Challenging Catholic universities,farmers: "To live out the universal assent to the world as a whole." An address by Dr. Christopher Thompson

The following remarks by Dr. Christopher J. Thompson, Academic Dean of the St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas, not only help us understand the needs of farmers and the role of the Church in agriculture. They more generally demonstrate how the Catholic faith and its intellectual tradition enters into worldly topics to challenge us all—in any vocation—to respect human life and build up the common good.

Thanks to Dr. Thompson for permission to republish his presentation, which he gave last week at the Faith, Food, and the Environment symposium.

On a personal note, it was a pleasure to meet Dr. Thompson in person after we had both been interviewed last year for a feature story on the Church and ecology for Catholic World Report. And as a small aside: during the symposium I struck up a conversation with a seminarian studying at St. Paul's. When he learned I was interested in ecology, he immediately (and without prompting) sang the praises of Dr. Thompson. You know a scholar is both knowledgeable and dedicated to their vocation when students have that much enthusiasm when speaking about them.

“The Person in the Human Ecology”

Conditions and Challenges

Dr. Christopher Thompson

Glory be to God for dappled things–

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-fire coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. …

The Jesuit priest poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, penned these lines at the end of the nineteenth century, when his beloved English countryside, that world that gave such glory to His God, was becoming increasingly beclouded under the darkness of industrialization. The loss of the beauty of creation, the silencing of creation’s voice, was often one of his central themes. Hopkins went on to write several poems celebrating our glorious earth, and his poetry speaks beautifully about the dignity of creation and our vocation as stewards. He is, as many of you perhaps already know, one of the outstanding figures in the Catholic literary tradition.

I like to start here because I think it was precisely during my efforts at teaching his poetry to my students that my interests in the Catholic church’s teachings about agriculture, and the call for a human ecology, actually began.

We were talking about one of his poems, one which opens with the famous phrase: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragon flies draw flame.” A hand went up in the back of the class: “What’s a kingfisher?” the student asked. I explained that it was a bird, often found perched on branches overhanging still waters—and the bird bursts into action and swoops down to capture fish—as if it were catching fire, in other words—as kingfishers catch fire, dragon flies draw flame, I went on.

The next day we took up another Hopkins poem. This one happened to about a grove of aspen trees that had been cut down. Another question comes up: “What’s an aspen?” he asked. I paused and tried to explain.

Now before I go on, I want to be clear from the beginning. I think it is rude and ungrateful for professors to complain about their students—and so I’m not complaining. These are the best, brightest, most promising young men and women you’ll ever have the privilege to know. I’m so very grateful to be their professor. But, in truth, I started to notice a serious gap in their knowledge about some the most basic features of the natural world. I was encountering the effects of what Richard Louv called a few years ago, in his book, The Last Child in the Woods, a “nature deficit disorder.”

And so I thought I would try to address this “nature gap” and go out into the rural areas of Minnesota, just to begin to expose students to the great outdoors. We went to three different farms: a large industrial operation, a much more modest scaled farm, and a hobby farm. At the end of this little retreat, I asked the students to write comments about their experience, what worked and what didn’t—that sort of thing.

A student wrote: “I didn’t know they raised animals in Minnesota.” In fairness, she was from California – LA, to be exact and flew from LA to the Twin Cities and as a result, she had no idea that animals were raised in Minnesota and had no idea where they may have come from. But she is not alone in not knowing where her food comes from or how her food is produced.

Other comments I’ve gotten over the years . . . :

Dr. Thompson, I see you have rain barrels for your garden—is it safe to put rain water on the garden? “God does,” I said.

Dr. Thompson, I heard you tap trees for maple syrup, but I’ve heard that sap from maple trees poisonous.

So what does the artichoke animal look like?

All of these questions have been asked by people with college degrees. We’ve all heard similar things in our various lines of work. It’s not just an occasional ignorance, but a kind of cultural blindness.

And so you have to start to wonder, what’s going on here? What’s happening in our culture when entire generations of the best and brightest seem oblivious to their natural surroundings, especially when it comes to their food and the earth that sustains them? And how are we going to develop a responsible human ecology in these circumstances?

Now I need to focus my point here. I’m not suggesting that the church has never tried to address this matter. In fact, the magisterium has been raising the issues of agriculture for nearly a century and in truth, our time does not permit us to recall all of the efforts to raise concern about our environmental challenges in light of the human person.

Saint John Paul II, in many of his social encyclicals and especially in his own personal witness before the people of Iowa in 1979, brought the issues of agricultural stewardship before the conscience of the United States. The United States Bishops, too, at both the national and regional levels need to be recognized for their persistent efforts to lead the Church to a deeper understanding of the human, ethical, and social concerns at the heart of our ecological tradition.[i]

Special attention also needs to be given to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which for over 90 years has worked to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teachings of His Church into the heart of rural life in the United States.[ii] Historically, the conference served many and diverse aims: as a catalyst for discussion, a clearinghouse for best practices, and an advocacy organization to promote its Catholic rural vision. For my purposes, however, I would like to point out that among its many accomplishments was series of catechetical efforts including summer vacation schools, in which at its peak some 547,000 students participated at one point. There were courses in “rural philosophy” offered by theologians, social scientists, and agricultural experts, throughout rural communities. Sixty programs enrolled 1,700 priests, 9,000 women religious, and 12,000 laity in various schools sponsored by the Conference at Catholic colleges and universities. And 15000 participants gathered at its annual meeting in 1941 in Bismarck, ND.[iii]

And so the church has had, historically, put forth an enormous effort engaging communities, both ecumenical and professional, in questions about the environment—agriculture in particular—and the human person. We could have easily called this conference, Faith, Food and the Environment: A 100th anniversary.

But that was then and this is now as they say, for despite such efforts to raise awareness among the faithful about the importance of agriculture in both its moral and personal dimension, one has to come to terms with what now is perhaps the most staggering statistic concerning the essential relationship between agricultural life and Catholic life as it has unfolded in United States in the last 50 years. And it is simply this: Of the 244 Catholic degree granting institutions of higher learning within the United States, not one offers a program of study in Agriculture.

THIS is why need to have a conference of this sort. THIS is why it is so important and we are so blessed to have this occasion to come together. THIS situation is one of the reasons why the church is calling for the development of an authentic human ecology. We have a generation of students disconnected to the land and an institution of higher education unprepared to address it.

Indeed, considering the broader aspects of agriculture and its importance, namely, in food security, human labor, the use of the earth’s resources, the treatment of animals, habits of consumption, and migrant workers, to name a few issues, the exclusion of agriculture as a human and therefore moral endeavor from the arena of the Church’s educational mission is simply unacceptable.

The complete and thoroughgoing absence of any sustained interaction between Catholic educational institutions and agricultural studies can only lead to mutual misunderstanding and recrimination, alienation and isolation. Too often, the legitimate values of production are poised against the equally important values of preservation and conservation of the earth’s natural resources. The overall situation becomes unsustainable and is ultimately a contradiction of the human person, whose vocation from the very beginning has been to “till and keep the earth,” that is, to draw from her resources a meaningful livelihood, and to steward her resources for the generations to come.

In sum, we need to stop treating agriculture like a dirty word and honor and respect the vocation of food growers and producers in our own Catholic colleges and universities.

And so my first challenge, an invitation goes first to my own community, namely, the Catholic intellectual community, to continue the work of this conference beyond these few days. If we hope to promote an authentic human ecology, a comprehensive culture of life, then we have to celebrate the life of agriculture and begin to consider concrete ways in which food growers and producers can become contributors to the life of the university at large.

For too long farmers have been treated like second-class citizens; we need to welcome them to our university communities like the builders and shapers of culture that they in fact are. My hope would be to see the creation something like a Pontifical Institute on Agriculture and the Environment, in much the same ways we did with Marriage and Family, which would bring together the diverse groups who are deeply invested in these conversations and need the perspectives of each other in order to come forward with constructive solutions.


But I think there is even more to be gained by reflecting upon our place on the land. The search for a human ecology is not just a matter of calling for better land practices or broadening our circles of concern; it is not a matter of merely making each other more aware of our surroundings and our environmental life. Attending to the earth and our status as stewards, not only in matters of agriculture, but in regards to environmental stewardship in its broadest terms—is really about taking our own Christian heritage more seriously.

For here and only here, on this earth, squarely within this temple of creation, a Christian culture takes root, the good news of Jesus Christ moves from its conceptual power to its cultural expression, heaven and earth are united in the physical body of the believer, the mystical body of believers, and the plan of the Incarnation takes root in history.

For the Christian faith is not merely an idea, an abstraction nurtured in the intricacies of some philosophy, nor is it the private lifestyle of an ego dwelling on an island of self-preoccupation, nor, finally, is it a political agenda, a social program of like minded citizens united to a cause. Christianity is, rather, the extraordinary invitation of one enfleshed person to another, the bold exchange of a friendship between the embodied being of the human person and the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Christ, the Word of God made flesh, is the One through whom all flesh, all things, are made. The God made visible in the person of Jesus is one and the same God who remains veiled in His creation. The book of the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Nature are one, because God is the serial author of it all. Christians cannot be indifferent to this divinely inspired story of the earth, because we are not indifferent to the Lord of Creation who has been telling it.

Our faith also teaches us that the native habitat of the human person is as an embodied being among embodied beings, our natural dwelling place is an enfleshed creature in a material cosmos of enfleshed creatures, a world beautifully arranged by God and wonderfully pondered by man. The human person, whose dignity lies within a spiritual destiny, is nonetheless a creature of the earth, a living, organic being among living, organic beings, whose immortal soul by nature transcends this material creation and yet by grace permeates it with eternal significance.

The entire hierarchy of creatures, from the lowliest microbe up to the angels is permeated by a Provident intelligence that supplies the necessary connections among these things and their grace-filled care. Whether your life is one of contemplation, or conservation, or cultivation—each one of our divinely given calls unfolds within this milieu; every vocation begins in a location, the place of this beautiful earth.


Consider the vocation of the farmer: bent low in respect of the soil, he [or she] enters into a relationship with this order of creation that is itself already ordered and whose wisdom becomes his norm. His practical wisdom must submit to an intelligence which lies hidden in the order of things. This is why his labor was understood for centuries to be an “ars cooperativa,” a co-operative art, because his achievements are yoked to the intelligible forces at work in creation itself.[iv] Like the teacher who depends upon the natural desire to know on the part of the student, or the doctor who relies upon on the natural desire to live, or the husband and wife who enact the natural desire for children, the prudent farmer labors with nature’s creative forces and coaxes from the earth the fruits she is destined by Providence to yield.

The farmer’s practical craft is to be distinguished from that of the craftsman, who works to create what is first only in the human mind. The farmer, by contrast, becomes a master in his craft only through the long and laborious tutorial in the fields. Agriculture is a unique human enterprise, for it is through this labor, perhaps more than any other, that one learns of the grammar of the Creator.[v]

Saint Thomas Aquinas, patron of this university, insisted on this. Notwithstanding the dignity of the human being as the imago dei, the human person nonetheless occupies the lowest order of intellectual creatures, because the human being is completely dependent upon organic creatures in order to enter into any kind intellectual insight or understanding. For Thomas all human knowing is dependent upon things, things already thick with meaning, immersed in light, pregnant with intelligence. Blinded by the brilliance of each creature, I become an apprentice in the Braille of all learning. I have to feel my way across the texts of the world, discerning through its impressions the message of creation, the message of the Creator. Deaf to its vocation, I listen in solitude, for as the author of Job says, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”[vi]

As Fr. Hopkins so eloquently says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God, it will flame out like shining from shook foil, it will gather to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.” The world is charged with meaning, in other words, because it is a gift of Divine love. The coherence of living organisms as well as the community toward which they naturally tend are objectively given in reality and express “the design of love and truth of the Creator Himself.”


This wisdom, moreover, written into the very order of things, is not directly implicated in the fall; it is not directly wounded by original sin. The punishment of original sin, what some call the loss of original justice, does not directly affect the lower orders of creation, specifically the animals, the plants, or inorganic matter. Rather, it is our grasp of the wisdom of creation that is now fleeting and fraught with error due to original sin. And so now, after the fall, as Christopher Franks so aptly put it, “We resent our nature, and we resent nature in general. We struggle against it, and we seek ways to triumph over it through technology. Ours is a pathological ingratitude, a special sort of ingratitude, because it amounts to being resentful of who we are.”[vii]

But for their part, Aquinas says, “all natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art.”[viii] Divine providence continues to extend to the communities of creatures, even in this fallen state, for the nature of animals, he explicitly states, was not changed by man’s sin. (I.96.1) Their habits of being are precisely now what they would have been prior to the fall, for it is only the intellectual creatures, the angelic and the human, which are immediately caught up in the drama of rebellion. In contrast to our checkered history, each creature of lower creation has always born the impress of God, indeed the impress of the Trinity.

And so a second challenge goes to the farmers and agricultural workers, if we hope together to develop an authentic human ecology, it will be necessary to respect the order of creation and respect the creatures whom God has placed under our care. God exercises dominion over the entire creation and we participate in that dominion and we therefore are called to live within the parameters of that partnership.

It follows, then, if it is we who are caught up in the drama of sin and creatures are not, a certain docility to their intelligibility would be the only prudent measure to take. Before we propose to modify creatures to suit our expectations, it would be wise to consider how our own ways of acting may be in need of modification. Before we ignore the form and finality of living things—the distinctive features of organic life, we might pause to consider how our modern biases have lent themselves to reducing the creature to an artifact of our productions. The deliberate, genetic modification of a naturally occurring creature is not just an exercise in human ingenuity; it is a recasting of the divine creature as a mere product of human making. If unchecked by habits of humility, natural piety and the norms of prudence,[ix] such practices run the risk of deforming creation, whose original wisdom is our norm, of transforming the creature into a “resource” whose value is to be merely to be “used.”

When our “use” of creation involves the manipulation of its very structures and natural purposes, as in the case of the trans-genetic modification of creatures, such an enterprise ought not be undertaken except in deliberate deference to the order and wisdom of Creation of which the creature is a part, with utmost care and prudent circumspection, when proportionate goods are clearly identified and reasonably expected, and all other reasonable alternatives have been considered, including the modification of one’s lifestyle.[x] It is not a question of using creatures for the benefit of man and the glory of God. It is rather a question of the norms for such use, norms which are not only written in the human heart, but written into creation itself from the beginning.[xi]

In closing let me say that committing ourselves to a faith filled human ecology would no doubt require a measure of restraint and self discipline. But I think it would also supply something of a relief, for it would provide us with a needed antidote against the mindset that wants to elevate nature and its ways beyond proportion. For while the doctrine of original sin reminds us that it is we who are aliens in an otherwise integral order, such alienation will only find its remedy in the grace of Christ. In short, there are no practices at the personal or public level which will overcome the alienation which lies at the heart of the human being as he or she ponders one’s place in the world.

At the heart of so many programs of environmental stewardship lies a subtle Pelagianism, that is, the notion that one can be saved or all can be made right with the world simply by practicing ever more austere programs of efficiency or simplicity. It was Pelagius in the 4th century who preached the heretical doctrine of salvation through good will and arduous effort, self-discipline and austerity, rigor and steadfastness, and it is this same promissory tone one often encounters in contemporary discussions of the environment. Efficiency is a feature of prudent use, but it is not itself an end. It cannot address the spiritual wound within the heart of the human being, who nonetheless dwells in the gift of an integral cosmos.

By investing green practices with a kind of significance they simply cannot bear, we place a false and ultimately futile confidence in technological solutions to what are spiritual problems. The absence of any reference to Christ when considering agricultural or ecological practice reduces the original vocation to care for the earth merely within a secular horizon, as if our destiny is merely to co-exist among species, as managers in a managed world.

As Catholics, as Christians, we are not called merely to eat lower on the food chain in order to reduce our carbon footprint, but to engage in the practices of fasting and abstinence in order to walk with Christ among his poor. As Catholics, as Christians, we are not called merely to reduce our habits of unbridled consumption, but to share from our abundance and tithe our rewards. Just imagine what would happen if Christians across this country decided to invest just 10% of their resources into supporting just and sustainable practices. This small, mustard seed of faith-filled witness would move the mountains of historic indifference.

We cannot demonize our farmers, or demonize agricultural companies, and demand that they change their habits of production, if we ourselves are unwilling to change our habits of consumption. Fasting on simpler meals, abstaining from excessive consumption, and tithing—dedicating our resources toward a just economy; these are the ancient spiritual practices that would allow us to place our concerns for the earth against the horizon of heaven. For it is global warming in the next life that poses the most serious threat to a truly sustainable lifestyle. It is Christ, not creation, that the answer to a fulfilled life, and fidelity to His kingdom, not the animal kingdom, will be our only route to a satisfying stewardship.

My last challenge, or invitation, then, is to everyone gathered here, whether your interests are academic or agrarian. I invite you to enter prayerfully into the project of this gathering and celebrate in the coming days, maybe this Thanksgiving, what I take to be at the core of any authentic human ecology.

Josef Pieper, the German Thomist philosopher, says that all true celebration comes down to this: “to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” Underlying all festive joy, he says, there has to be an absolute affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of the human person especially; that everything is, is good, and that it is good to exist.

To live out the universal assent to the world as a whole.

That’s ultimately what an authentic human ecology is about – gratitude and joy before the blessings of creation. That’s what this conference is about. It is what the Catholic Rural Life is about. It’s finally about entering the very real, and thus poetic, world of Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things–

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.

[i] USCCB (2003) For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farm Workers; (1988) Report on the Ad Hoc Task Force on Food, Agriculture and Rural Concerns; (1986) Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U. S. Economy; also, (1958) Explosion or Backfire?; (1968) Statement on Farm Labor; (1972) Where Shall the People Live; (1973) Resolution on Farm Labor; (1974) Statement on World Food Crisis: A Pastoral Plan of Action; (1975) Food Policy and the Church: Specific Proposals; (1991) Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action on Environment in Light of Catholic Social Teaching.

[ii] For a life of Archbishop O’Hara, see, (Archbishop) Timothy Michael Dolan, Some Seed Fell on Good Ground: The Life of Edwin O’Hara. (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992). For a history of the NCRLC more broadly see, David S. Bovée, The Church & the Land: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American Society, 1923 – 2007. (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

[iii] Bovée, 140.

[iv] John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 37, “Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.”

[v] See Chapter 3, “Agriculture and Personal Values,” in The Importance of Rural Life According to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: A Study in Economic Philosophy. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1945). Also Emerson Hynes, “Consider the Person,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2.2 (1939) 16. The integral nature of agricultural labor as well as, more generally, the family farm was a constant theme of Catholic rural social teaching throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s in the United States.

[vi] Job 12: 7 -9.

[vii] Christopher Franks, He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s Economic Teachings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 10.

[viii] Summa theologiae I.91.1.

[ix] Because I appeal to the exercise of prudence, it precludes the notion that the deliberate, genetic modification of lower creatures is, strictly speaking, intrinsically disordered. At the same time, prudence would demand the greatest circumspection in such an instance. Because “we are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself,” (Compendium, 458) it is only wise to counsel against such practices.

[x] “Thomas understood that by resisting some practices of a developing profit economy, he was defending the very notion that reality is penetrated by divine reason.” Franks, He Became Poor, 184.

[xi] Compendium of Catholic Social Thought, 458, 459. Also, “Science and technology must be put in the service of the divine design for the whole of creation and for all creatures. This design gives meaning to the universe and to human enterprise as well. Human stewardship of the created world is precisely a stewardship exercised by way of participation in the divine rule and is always subject to it. Human beings exercise this stewardship by gaining scientific understanding of the universe, by caring responsibly for the natural world (including animals and the environment) and by guarding their own biological integrity.” International Theological Commission: Communion and Stewardship: The Human Person in the Image of God, (2002): 61.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.