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Professor Proposes to Reconnect Catholics to Creation
Julie Carroll
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, June 30, 2011
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Francis Blake and his sister Mary Klauke place eggs in a container at their family's farm in Iowa.
ST. PAUL. Minn. (CNS)—When St. Paul Seminary professor Chris Thompson recently went searching for the top agriculture programs at U.S. Catholic universities, what he found— or, rather, what he didn't find—shocked him: There aren't any.

He made the discovery after receiving an invitation to present a paper on developments in American agriculture over the past 50 years at a conference in Rome in May.

"There seems to be no presence of (agriculture) as a focused discipline or professional formation in (any of the 244) Catholic universities across the board," he said in an interview at the seminary, where he is academic dean.

"That's how I became the expert," he added with a laugh.

In addition to serving on the board of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Thompson has given lectures and participated in conferences on Catholic social thought regarding the environment. He also is slated to teach a seminary course on the topic in the fall.

"There's this odd lacuna, this odd blind spot in Catholic higher education in agriculture," Thompson told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "How can it be that the single largest economic force in the country has no presence or standing in the modern Catholic university?"

And, he added, what impact does that have, not only on Catholics interested in farming as a career, but also on society at large?

The May 16-18 Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice conference marked the 50th anniversary of "Mater et Magistra" ("Mother and Teacher"), Blessed Pope John XXIII's 1961 encyclical on Christianity and social progress, which addressed agriculture among a number of other topics.

"For the decades prior to 'Mater et Magistra,' the family farm was promoted by the Catholic Church as one of the most ideal conditions in which a family might be raised and a livelihood pursued," Thompson wrote in his paper.

The U.S. bishops saw farming as conducive to family life because it often involved multiple generations and it relied on nature's rhythms as designed by God, he explained.

Over the past 50 years, however, the number of family farms in the country has dropped by half, from 4 million to 2 million.

"The family farm has been decimated, and its status has been reduced to a nostalgic memory of an era largely believed to have evaporated," Thompson wrote.

While more and more people in recent years have become aware of the need to care for the environment, we also need to bolster our awareness of the moral dimensions of agriculture, he said.

"We really need a generation of thoughtful men and women, well-informed in Catholic social thought, entering into conversations on food production, food security, human dignity, rural life—all these things that have been on the margins of the typical Catholic university experience," Thompson said.

"I think we have to draw from our Catholic heritage," he added, "and in my mind, (St. Thomas) Aquinas has supplied for centuries the philosophical architecture to help us navigate those questions. I think he can still do that, but it's going to take some work on the part of educators to build that bridge."

In his paper, Thompson said Catholic universities need to introduce a "green Thomism," or a philosophy of creation as divinely ordered and a vision of stewardship that guides our participation in God's creation.

Over the past half-century, Thompson discovered in his research, Catholic universities have moved away from teaching philosophy grounded in nature as a starting point for understanding what it means to be human.

"Over time, what was originally a discussion of the human person distinct from (the plant and animal kingdoms of) lower creation but in relation to lower creation became a discussion of the human person just as a distinct entity," Thompson said. "There's no longer a philosophical discussion of what it means to be a human being in relationship to other creatures."

Agriculture, he added, is the one area of work where people's relationship to lower creation and their awareness of its rhythms are most essential.

This lack of reflection on nature and rural life in Catholic universities has led in part to the modern disconnect between people and the land, he said.

To illustrate his point, Thompson referred to a group of university students he led on a rural retreat to southwest Minnesota. Afterward, he asked the students to reflect on the experience. One graduating senior told him that before the retreat she hadn't realized that farm animals were raised in Minnesota.

"(Many people) have no idea where their food comes from," Thompson said. "I think that tends to sever our relationship to place; it severs our relationship to the land."

To get people thinking again about agriculture as a moral endeavor, Thompson said he would like to see the creation of a pontifical institute or centers of Catholic learning committed to the study of agriculture and environmental issues, as well as agriculture-related courses at Catholic universities.

"I think many people would say: '...How can there possibly be Catholic principles in agriculture? Are you telling me that there's something like Catholic farming ... ?' And I'm going to say, 'Yes, I think there is."

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