menu

Reading Mater et Magistra, Part III

Reading Mater et Magistra, Part III August 30, 2020

In this post I consider my reflections on Mater et Magistra, the first social encyclical of Pope John XXIII.  The first two parts of these reflections can be found in Part I and Part II.   Links to earlier ruminations on Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno can be found in Part I.

Our discussions this past week went on a temporary digression as I was looking for the answer to a question that had come up in a discussion on social media.  According to the principles of Catholic social teaching, are workers required to join unions?  Or to put it another way, are the “right to work” laws in various states, which are intended to undermine the strength of unions, contrary to CST?  No one in my reading group could remember any passage, and I jokingly said that I was going to electronically search for the words “should” and “must” in the texts of RN and QA.   I remained curious about this question and so did exactly that.  After a dozen or so false leads, I came upon two paragraphs 83-84, in Quadragesimo Nanno that do not quite give an affirmative answer, but do point in that direction.  Speaking about the labor market, and how labor should not be treated as a commodity, Pius XI speaks about organizing workers and owners jointly into organizations:

For under nature’s guidance it comes to pass that just as those who are joined together by nearness of habitation establish towns, so those who follow the same industry or profession – whether in the economic or other field – form guilds or associations, so that many are wont to consider these self-governing organizations, if not essential, at least natural to civil society….Because order, as St. Thomas well explains,[49] is unity arising from the harmonious arrangement of many objects, a true, genuine social order demands that the various members of a society be united together by some strong bond. (par. 83b-84a)

This is not categorical, but it first treats associations of workers (and owners, though he later suggests that these could be separate if needs demands–cf. par. 85) as being very important, and second the appeal to “order in unity” seems to imply that workers should belong to their unions.  Indeed, earlier Pius XI makes it clear that he regards union membership as so important that he would tolerate workers joining socialist unions as long as they formed sub-organizations dedicated to Catholic principles.  (See par. 35.)  There might be situations arising from particular circumstances where this is not the case, but on the basis of this passage, and the continued emphasis placed in RN, QA and MM on workers acting collectively for their benefit and for the common good, it seems to me that union membership should be the norm, not the exception.   Further, laws which encourage workers to not joint unions in pursuit of their own individualistic ends, would appear to be contrary to this goal, especially if these laws are ultimately for the benefit of the employers and the detriment of workers.

Once our discussion got back on track, we began discussing paragraphs 122-184, which are devoted to questions related to farms, farmers and farm workers, and to national and international agricultural policy.  These are very important passages, and in the course of the discussions I realized that I had uncertain feelings about farming in general.  I have never lived on a farm, no did I have any living relatives who were farmers.  My father’s family in Mexico were lower middle-class:  my grandfather was a shopkeeper and government bureaucrat.  (I touch on him in a post I wrote a decade ago.)  My mother’s grandparents had a farm, and her mother grew up on it, but my mother herself was born and raised in the city.  For a lot of complicated reasons (most no longer relevant since everyone involved is long dead) she hated the farm and everything connected to it.  I wonder, now, if her visceral feelings have somehow colored my own feelings about farms.   For I must confess that I feel no particular attraction to farms or farming–I have done a bit of gardening, but have never had a “return to nature” moment.  Moreover, I have often felt that some parts of the left had overly romanticized farming (e.g., Wendell Barry).  I have been a student of  Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement for over 20 years, and I find her thinking highly persuasive in its interpretations of CST.  But at the same time I always found her (and Peter Maurin’s) fascination with farming incomprehensible.

In short, if I try to summon an image of farming to mind, I am more likely to “see” campesinos engaged in back-breaking labor than I am to see a happy farm family.  In our discussions, however, I learned that one of the members of our group grew up on a midwestern farm, another had family who still owned a dairy farm, and a third had been in close contact with groups of college students who came from farm families that were reeling from the farm crisis.  These experiences gave them a very different perspective, one which, as you can see, have led me to reflect a bit more carefully on my own baggage, and on the nuances of the text we were reading.

We started by analyzing the concept of the balanced develop of the economy, a concept which occurs multiple times in the text:  a search of the word “balance” turns up 10 references which are connected in some way to this idea.  The encyclical sees the economy divided into three sectors:  industry & manufacturing, services, and agriculture.   The key argument is that as an economy develops (here John XXIII seems to be thinking about the third world) it needs to maintain a balance between these three sectors, and a mature economy must continue to strive to do so.    One member challenged whether this was possible to do in practice.  A number of us came up with examples of economies that were out of balance:  the first was the modern US, where agriculture is dominated by a handful of large, international agri-businesses, and more and more manufacturing jobs are lost overseas, while the service economy (especially finance) is thriving.  I pointed out the Soviet Union:  the communist party wanted to turn Russia, which at the revolution was largely rural, into a world power, and it did so by focusing almost exclusively on heavy industry, crippling the consumer economy.  Later, I also thought of the plantation economies which dominated many Latin American and African countries (as well as the American South prior to the Civil War).  Here, the entire economy revolves around farming as an extractive industry, leading to large populations of landless peasants (or slaves, in the antebellum South), a limited middle class and/or small farm owners, and a small group of wealth individuals who control government and society.  The example of Guatemala, whose government for a time seemed to be  a wholly owned subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, is a good example to bear in mind.

One of our group members suggested that while all of these examples are relevant, the concern for a balanced economy was central to the encyclical because John XXIII was primarily focused on farmers, and wanted to ensure that the family farm was both protected and promoted as economies developed.   And the text mentions family farms six times directly, often linking them with small businesses and artisan cooperatives as an important facet of the economy.  It is also worth recalling that in RN, Leo XIII argued that one of the goals of just wages was to allow workers to accumulate modest wealth, which he equated with owning property.  This suggested to me, at the time, that he saw the goal was to allow workers to buy their own farms–an idea which I had encountered previously when reading about Italian immigrants to America.  Many of them did not come to the US with the intention of staying forever, but rather with the goal of working long enough to go home and buy a farm.

A key feature of the discussion in the encyclical about farms is the focus put on why people leave farms and what governments need to do to encourage them to stay.  With regards to the former, it is worth quoting at length:

We know that as an economy develops, the number of people engaged in agriculture decreases, while the percentage employed in industry and the various services rises. Nevertheless, We believe that very often this movement of population from farming to industry has other causes besides those dependent upon economic expansion. Among these there is the desire to escape from confining surroundings which offer little prospect of a more comfortable way of life. There is the lure of novelty and adventure which has taken such a hold on the present generation, the attractive prospect of easy money, of greater freedom and the enjoyment of all the amenities of town and city life. But a contributory cause of this movement away from the country is doubtless the fact that farming has become a depressed occupation. It is inadequate both in productive efficiency and in the standard of living it provides. (par. 124, emphasis added)

John XXIII wanted to ameliorate these negative factors, and felt that it was a critical role of the state, in pursuing the common good, to address these concerns.  He argues forcefully for a number of rural development policies, including: improving infrastructure (par. 127), tax policies that favor small farmers (par. 133), the extension of loans and credit to farmers (par. 134), the inclusion of farm workers in the social safety net (par. 135), and price protection for agricultural products (137-140).  He goes so far as to argue that prices that are higher than those that might be set by the free market are a demand of social justice:

While it is true that farm produce is mainly intended for the satisfaction of man’s primary needs, and the price should therefore be within the means of all consumers, this cannot be used as an argument for keeping a section of the population—farm workers—in a permanent state of economic and social inferiority, depriving them of the wherewithal for a decent standard of living. This would be diametrically opposed to the common good. (par. 140)

In reading this section, I was struck by the ways in which the proposals contained in the encyclical reflected some of the policies of the New Deal instituted in the US during the Great Depression.  Here in the South, the Tennessee Valley Authority was a massive infrastructure project which literally remade parts of the rural landscape with a series of dams, which in turn provided low cost electricity.  This in turn was made available to farmers through the rural electrification program.  Up until this time, farmers relied on kerosene lamps and candles, which all cities and most towns had electric power.   What is particularly striking about this act was that control of the electrical grid was decentralized, and up to this day most of it is controlled by member-owned cooperatives (a key idea in CST, and an example which I had somewhat overlooked in our previous discussions).   Similarly, the Farm Security Administration worked to make financial credit accessible to small farmers, enabling many to purchase their farms outright (rather than working as share-croppers) or to expand and develop ancillary businesses (cf. par. 141).  Price supports were introduced by the Agricultural Adjustment Act.  Though ultimately found unconstitutional, other laws continued the practice and price supports have remained an important part of US agricultural policy.   The one area where John XXIII went beyond the New Deal was the insistence that farmers and farm workers be included in social security systems.    The New Deal deliberately left agricultural and domestic workers out of the program.  It has long been argued that this was done to exclude African-Americans (who made up a very large percentage of farm workers and domestics) from receiving benefits, though some recent scholarship questions whether this is a correct interpretation.   (See e.g.,  here or here.  I will confess that I am skeptical of scholarship that seeks out such alternative explanations, as in other cases it seemed to me more an attempt to avoid confronting racism in America.  However, I have not had time to read this literature in detail to draw my own conclusions.)

Our discussion turned to the reasons that the encyclical was stressing the importance of family farms.  Certainly, the disruptions caused by rapid urbanization were clear both in the history of Europe and the US, and in the problems occurring contemporaneously in the developing world.  One need only look at the number of “megacities” in the developing world, and the problems these generate.    But there are other dimensions as well, related to the values and identity promoted by farming.  (It was at this point that my own feelings about farming and its romanticization, discussed above, came to the fore.)   The encyclical notes that farming has a transcendent dimension:  farmers

are living in close harmony with Nature—the majestic temple of Creation. Their work has to do with the life of plants and animals, a life that is inexhaustible in its expression, inflexible in its laws, rich in allusions to God the Creator and Provider. (par. 144)

Here several of the participants, speaking from their varied experience, noted that living in rural areas, tied to the land through farming, had a number of positive features that those who did it felt were important to preserve.  There is a cooperative culture in rural areas that is different from the more atomized individualism of urban areas, and for many people this was and is a constitutive part of their identity.    This, they felt was part of what John XXIII saw, both in the developed and developing worlds.  He recognized it would never go back to a some nostalgic vision of an idyllic rural existence; rather, he felt that the dignity of farm work could be upheld (see par. 125) and movement of population from rural to urban areas could be managed more effectively if people were leaving for positive reasons and not just to escape crushing poverty (cf. par. 130).  Though I did not mention it in our discussion, in my notes I noted that I was reminded of John Mellencamp’s poignant song Rain on the Scarecrow, written during the crisis of family farms in the 1980s.   (I have noticed, over the years, that while classic rock stations periodically revive his songs, they almost never play this one.)

The encyclical returns to this point, at least obliquely, when discussing international aid.  While recognizing the need for both emergency relief and long term developmental aid (see par. 161-165), John XXIII was worried about whether aid could be used as a cloak for imperialism and colonialism under the guise of “helping”:  as he puts it:

There is also a further temptation which the economically developed nations must resist: that of giving technical and financial aid with a view to gaining control over the political situation in the poorer countries, and furthering their own plans for world domination. (par. 171)

Both the Americans and the Soviet Union were heavily engaged in this at the time, and the US and other countries such as China continue it today.   The encyclical calls for “disinterested aid”; we got into a long discussion trying to come up with any clear examples of this.  I suggested the Peace Corps, but one of our members suggested that a close look at its history would show otherwise.  This question merits further reflection, I think:  what would disinterested aid look like?

But returning to the point about rural values, John XXIII includes in this section a biting critique of Western materialism and suggests that aid programs need to respect and help preserve local cultural practices, which the encyclical notes, “have often preserved in their ancient traditions an acute and vital awareness of the more important human values, on which the moral order rests.” (par. 176)  The virtues associated with rural living may be included in this.

We finished on a more somber note than previously as we considered the many ways in which American attempts at international aid had gone wrong.  One member compared it to the portrait of our bungled diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia in the novel The Ugly American.

Next week, we finish the encyclical.


08/31/20:  Post updated to correct a reference to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to the novel The Ugly American.  I misinterpreted my discussion notes.


Browse Our Archives