the greening of AMERICA, CATHOLIC STYLE, 1930–1950

This article examines the rise and fall of the “green revolution” philosophy developed by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in the 1930s as a distinct strain of American environmentalism. After reviewing the evolution of the approach, its maturation around 1940, and its postwar marginalization, the article focuses on three aspects of the NCRLC. First is its ideology, as a “third way,” a distributist alternative to socialism and capitalism. Second is the attempt to foster sustainable agricultural technologies by creating communitarian institutions in which the parish priest was central and by bringing an agrarian curriculum into Catholic higher education. Third is the attempt to ground this orientation toward sustainability in a distinctly Catholic nature spirituality, based on cyclicity rather than space.

SHOULD STUDENTS OF AMERICAN environmental history study John Rawe along with John Muir? Rawe, a midwestern Jesuit priest, described his vision of a “green revolution” in 1936.[1] It was a profoundly different vision from the input-intensive agriculture which that term would come to signify in the 1950s and 1960s.
It is a green revolution because it is far removed from any battleground reddened by the selfish blood of class hatred, far removed from the red rags of Communistic tyranny and the wriggling swastikas of frenzied dictatorships. It is a green revolution because it takes place out in the green fields where the land, owned by the patient, productive, profitable, democratic, free, personal laborer is blessed and gladdened with the divine benedictions of life-giving moisture and smiling sunshine. It is a green revolution because it deals with deep planting and sturdy growth and not with wanton destruction and economic ruin; because it buries its roots in the soil, broken for cultivation and divided for ownership in such a way that human nature, individual and social, can grow to a bountiful maturity in sufficient prosperity, wider freedom, wholesale family life, and a closer union with the eternal God and fellow man in religion, in the arts, in culture, in work, in the whole of life.[2]

What Rawe and coauthor Monseigneur Luigi Ligutti called “America’s Third Struggle for Freedom” will seem strikingly familiar to the modern green regionalism espoused by the farmer-essayist Wendell Berry and others in the 1960s.[3] This green revolution was agrarianism with a twist. As well as arguing that the most stable and democratic social order was that based in family farming, its adherents celebrated the uniquely humanizing interaction with nature that such settled living brought in its train and they sought the sustainable technologies that such a way of living would entail.[4] But their concern was less with the structural foundations of a purified democracy than with creation of a stable and Catholic American class of peasant-proprietors. Its precedents and rationales came less from Jefferson and Roman republicanism than from German and Belgian agrarianism as well as from St. Benedict, Thomas Aquinas, and various papal encyclicals.[5] It was promoted by a group of social-theorist priests of whom Rawe was the most profound and visionary. Theirs was an environmentalism (using the term advisedly) of the Midwest, for (and occasionally of) farmers, of work rather than leisure. Their outlook was unapologetically anthropocentric. They used the terms “environment,” “stewardship,” and “organic,” but not quite as we use them now. The crisis that concerned them was in the first place social and structural—a crisis of a “mechanized and commercialized agriculture” resting upon a “finance capitalism” that was blind to the moral value of family and subsistence farming.[6]

This essay has two concerns. The first is to trace the rise and decline, between 1930 and 1950, of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) as the formulator of a distinctly Catholic-American environmental vision, both in terms of intra-Church factors and in the context of tensions and ambivalences that have characterized Catholic involvement with public issues.[7] The second concern is to explore the interface between American environmental history and American religious history. Remarkably, the Catholic “green revolution” and the environmental legacy of the NCRLC, and the writings of Rawe and his colleagues, have been missing from Catholic history as well as environmental history. Indeed, to a large degree, both environmentalism and American Catholic identity have been constructed so as to give us an American environmental history that is Catholic-free and a Catholic history that is environment-free.[8] The first generation of American environmental historians located the aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of environmentalism primarily in the relation of the individual to the wilderness. The moral motifs of that narrative, such as the purity of the wild, and the tales of its prophets, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, who meet God in lonely places, or Rachel Carson who speaks the prophet’s truth to power, suited, but also reinforced, an environmentalism that was, as Mark Stoll has eloquently demonstrated, peculiarly Protestant, even Calvinist.[9] A broadened environmental history now embraces the farm (and the city and the workplace) as well as the wild, but often it has found less room for the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual in those spheres.[10] It is with regard to the integration of these aspects with the material and the structural that the work of Wendell Berry has been so important, and that the reflections of the Depression-era Catholic agrarians are so rich.

Part 1 surveys the Conference from its origins through its heyday in the 1930s to the late 1940s, when its mission became increasingly diffuse. Parts 2 and 3 explore three aspects of the Conference’s environmental vision: the principles of its green revolution in relation to other strands of non-Catholic social criticism; its exploration of sustainable technologies and efforts to bring a sustainable-living agenda into Catholic higher education; and its tentative nature spirituality, which, ultimately, failed to establish an unambiguously Catholic identity for its programs. We conclude with reflections on the importance of the Conference’s work in terms of American environmental history and American Catholic history.


THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC Rural Life Conference was the brainchild of Edwin O’Hara (1881–1956), an activist Oregon priest. O’Hara was an associate of John Ryan, the leader of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the organization through which American bishops addressed regional and national problems requiring social action.[11] Commissioned to study rural Catholic education in 1919, O’Hara responded with a full demographic assessment of American Catholicism. He concluded that, with some notable ethnic exceptions, American Catholics preferred cities to farm life. Unfortunately, they were not reproducing themselves there, spiritually or biologically: Urban Catholics were falling away from the faith, producing too few vocations for the priesthood, as well as having fewer children than rural Catholics. If both people and faith were “farm products,” something needed to be done to avoid faith suicide. But the countryside was also at risk in O’Hara’s view. It was predominantly Protestant and in many places (including O’Hara’s Oregon) vehemently anti-Catholic.[12] O’Hara did not privilege rural living per se; rather the problem was to make the countryside attractive for Catholics and to adapt Catholic institutions to dispersed populations. To this end, he stressed education—summer short courses, book groups, and amateur dramatics to combat secular and urban values. He helped found a Rural Life Bureau in the Welfare Conference. It was concern about its long-term viability within the Welfare Conference that led to creation of an independent National Catholic Rural Life Conference in 1923.

Yet it quickly became clear that the problem had structural roots. For O’Hara was not working in a vacuum. A decade earlier Theodore Roosevelt had established the Country Life Commission to help the countryside share in technical progress and to mitigate the allure of city lights. One of its recommendations, marketing cooperatives, resonated especially well with the best organized rural American Catholics, the German Catholics of the Midwest, whose St. Louis-based Central Verein already coordinated local mutual assistance groups. While ostensibly national, the Conference was midwestern in fact. Until 1946 its office was in St. Paul; thereafter in Des Moines. It was centered in a German Catholic belt, stretching from mid-Minnesota and upper Wisconsin in the north to northern Kansas and Missouri in the south. Here a remarkably enduring subculture—formed in nineteenth-century Germany, in part from opposition to economic liberalism—still revolved around family farm, church, and small town, despite the attractions of the city and pressures toward agricultural concentration.[13]

The Conference did not try to duplicate the work of dioceses or of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s rural bureau. Indeed, one of its campaigns was for the appointment of diocesan rural affairs directors, who would be able to implement needed change. It remained independent from the hierarchy. Mainly it would be a forum for discussion, a clearinghouse for best practices, and an advocacy organization to promote its “Catholic rural philosophy.” Although not primarily an activist organization, from the late 1930s it supported a Washington lobbyist, the first being the California Jesuit James Vizzard. Its annual meeting of Catholic clergy and laity was held in a different city each year, and sometimes attracted large crowds (for example, thirty thousand at Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 1948).[14]

Although midwestern farmers had been suffering from low prices for most of 1920s, the Conference found a critical voice only at the end of the decade, during the presidency of the Harvard-educated Maryland priest W. Howard Bishop (1885–1953). In Bishop’s view, the problems of farming were “unbridled capitalism” and “ruthless individualism,” leading to “reckless disregard for life and all its fundamental sanctities, the uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity, the disproportionate emphasis on values that are not of permanent good … [a] civilization … out of tune with the laws of God and the highest interests of man.”[15] A rural-urban split was the fundamental division of the day, explained USDA economist O. E. Baker, one of its most active lay members, in 1935: “The farmer tends to think in terms of plants and animals, of births and growth and death,” the urbanite, “of wheels and levers and machines, or of buying and selling.” In short, the farmer’s philosophy was “organic,” the urbanite’s “mechanistic.”[16]

The focus on developing a coherent Catholic rural philosophy would prevail throughout the decade. During the middle thirties the Conference published three volumes of working papers, selected from papers given at its meetings, and entitled Catholic Rural Life Objectives. This effort would come to fruition by the end of the decade with publication of three major works. A Better Rural Life (1938), was a historical-sociological study of American rural institutions, with particular attention to problems of integrating Catholics successfully into rural life. It was written by the Benedictine Edgar Schmiedeler, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America. The Manifesto of Rural Life (1939) was a semi-official position paper of the Conference written by bishops Aloysius Muench (Fargo, North Dakota), Vincent Ryan (Bismarck, North Dakota), and the Rev. William Mulloy (later Bishop of Covington, Kentucky). Finally, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom (1940) was a combination of polemic and exposition of best practices by the Jesuit John Rawe and Monseigneur Luigi Ligutti, who would serve as the Conference’s energetic leader until the mid-1960s. Although not an official Conference publication, Rural Roads would be the most explicit and most radical presentation of the Conference’s “Catholic rural philosophy.” Marlett rightly calls it the “summa” of Catholic agrarianism.[17]

Figures 1 and 2. Illustrations from NCRLC Periodicals.

Thomas Allen, O.S. B, “The Land and Sacramentals,” Land and Home (September 1942), 2–3.

Sr. M. Irena, O.S.B., of the College of St. Benedict, was the art editor of NCRLC periodicals in the early 1940s. Her attractive black on white drawings were reused regularly as decoration; these more modernist images are rare in illustrating a particular article.

By 1940, the Conference had worked out its program. The spiritual and temporal welfare of individuals, as well as the welfare of the Church, indicated a prominent place in the social order for families based on plots of land which they owned, and on which they could produce a substantial portion of their needs. Public policy, institutions of production and finance, and Catholic education were to be reorganized toward that end. The next decade would be one of application. “Catholic rural philosophy” would be taught to leaders—initially priests—who would then organize parishes. The first of these short courses was given at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 1940; the next year there were two, in 1942 four, in 1943, nine; and in 1944 no fewer than sixty.[18]

Initially, the Conference sought to standardize such courses: a day each on the rural pastor and his parish, problems of the farmer, management of cooperatives, the farmer and government, the farmer and education. Lecturing was minimized to facilitate a discussion-intensive format, the idea being that the course itself should replicate desirable modes of community organization.[19] Faculty included the clergy who had formulated the Catholic rural philosophy, but also extension personnel, representatives of farm organizations, and prominent USDA administrators, including Soil Conservation Service staffers. By 1944 responsibility for organization had passed from the Conference to dioceses, colleges, and religious orders. Courses also became increasingly varied in focus, audience, and format (from single-day to two-week events). Those for teaching sisters appear to have been particularly popular: the 1943 Toledo course enrolled 750. Yet the Catholic rural philosophy remained a frequent focus. Some courses, notably those in New Mexico, focused on sustainable techniques of dryland farming in the high plains.[20] Attendance was impressive. The sixty schools in 1944 enrolled 1,700 priests, 9,000 sisters, 12,000 lay people.[21]

Figure 3. Rural Outreach.

Land and Home (Sept. 1942), 16.

Well into the 1940s, the NCRLC continued to regard parish priests, and, secondarily, teaching sisters, as the implementers of its rural philosophy. Farmers and the laity more generally were viewed as unlikely on their own to recognize appropriate modes of social and agricultural organization.

Courses for the laity began in 1944, yet it was hard for farmers to get away from their farms, and unclear what to offer them. Some pastors offered farmers’ retreats for reflection and prayer (particularly to St. Isidore). In the Winona diocese such a retreat attracted eight hundred attendees in 1944. Spiritual renewal was to lead to social action, but the tone was more often consolatory than activist. The social and economic plight of farmers was “frequently so intricate that leaders do not know where to begin,” admitted an organizer; needed was a recognition of these problems and their solutions as “fundamentally spiritual, although in their ramifications they reach into the economic.”[22] The retreats did not immerse attendees in the Catholic rural philosophy or equip them to set up co-ops. For the Conference, such leadership was the exclusive province of the clergy (it would not be for the Central Verein, through which Catholic farmers were organizing their own social action).

Increasingly the Conference’s periodical targeted the laity. As late as 1941 the decision not to address farmers directly had been defended on the twin grounds that there were not enough Catholic farm experts to write such a paper and that Catholic farmers were ignorant of the Catholic rural philosophy and would remain so until they had been evangelized by an enlightened and militant clergy.[23] Yet the next year the Conference transformed the thoughtful Catholic Rural Life Bulletin into the snappy Land and Home, which would be superseded in 1948 by a monthly tabloid, The Christian Farmer.[24]

Finding the right identity for a Catholic farmer’s paper remained tricky, however. Although the Conference recruited a small stable of writers who offered advice on family life and uplifting tales of rural worthies, a good deal of the monthly space went to reprints from other farm papers (which could claim greater expertise on agricultural technology and economics), or to the ecclesiastical affairs of the upper Midwest (including those of the Conference itself, which used it as an organ of self promotion). Cooking recipes, anathema to Fr. James Byrnes, its philosophical editor in the late 1930s, were a regular feature by 1943.[25] The paper’s technical articles often, though by no means uniformly, continued to champion what would later be called sustainable technologies, yet there was decreasing attention to “the Catholic rural philosophy,” which had animated writers in the 1930s. Thus, while The Christian Farmer was both Catholic and agricultural, the principles that linked the two were no longer as clear as they had been in the late 1930s. It would go under in 1951.[26]

The growing diffuseness had deeper sources, however. Most important was the changing structure of agriculture itself. In the midst of the Depression, a move to the land had offered security to an insecure workforce. During the war, workforce demands of industry and the military undercut that attractiveness and after 1945 technological changes were making clear that fewer farmers would be needed. Whether the agrarians liked it or not, American agriculture would pursue economies of scale. While Catholic rural philosophers had insisted that family subsistence must be the primary goal of agriculture, they had appreciated that a modest cash income was also essential. Already, the farm-city income disparity was high; to expect Catholic farm families to look forward to a cashless life in a period of inflation seemed plainly unrealistic. In response, some Conference leaders urged part-time suburban agriculture as an adequate means of meeting the most important goals of extricating families from the sinful city, putting them in touch with the sources of their subsistence, and making children an economic asset. Others would insist that agricultural policies be changed to meet social goals.[27] The Conference began to represent its social vision as decentralist rather agrarian.

Its program was also subject to ideological critique. Some saw the Church as having no business in public policy, or felt that its call for cooperative enterprise was communistic.[28] At the other end of the spectrum, Catholic agrarianism had been tarnished by its association with Nazi and Fascist “back-to-the-land” movements. Though German agrarianism was by no means intrinsically Nazi in the early 1930s, Conference speakers had spoken approvingly of the German drive for lebensraum, overlooking the fact that the expansion of German agrarianism to the east would come at the expense of Polish and Ukranian farmers. After touring Europe in 1939, John LaFarge, the Jesuit editor of America, acknowledged how readily the family-centered agrarianism the Conference espoused could be co-opted to ends antithetical to the freedom and democracy that it touted.[29]

There were pressing new issues too. One was rural poverty. In their Manifesto of Rural Life, Conference leaders had recognized that while pushing for stable rural communities of owner-operators, they must deal with the failure of that policy—growing numbers of tenant farmers, including sharecroppers, as well as unemployed urbanites seeking a living. Indeed, its most conspicuous successes would be in communal back-to-the-land projects for the dispossessed (notably, Granger, Iowa), rather than in organizing midwestern Catholic family farmers. Many of the rural poor were African American, Latino, and Native American Catholics in the South or the Southwest, whom the Conference had virtually ignored during the 1920s and early 1930s.[30]

Another factor was the war, which put a premium on surplus rather than subsistence. This preference continued in the war’s aftermath, in the form of rising attention to world hunger. Mechanized market (though not corporate) farming now looked more attractive. “A hungry world looks to the American farmer for food to ward off starvation,” wrote Land and Home columnist Fr. Joseph Ettel in 1947: “the philosophy of Catholic rural life will induce the Christian farmer to produce a bumper crop efficiently, in order to alleviate the food situation in a famished world, and will sanction the fair profits he will receive in return.”[31] Unlike the Conference’s earlier leaders, Ligutti was an inveterate globe trotter and saw American agriculture in a global context. The Conference urged food aid programs as a way to keep prices up without lowering production. While continuing to promote land tenure reform and aid for small farmers, it would favor the high-input version of the green revolution, not appreciating potential problems for farm structure. By no means did the Catholic rural philosophy disappear, but there were no important revisions of it after 1940 and it became less clear how it should address changing problems.[32]

Finally, the diffuseness was a reflection of leadership. Most of those who had put together the Catholic rural philosophy moved on—Bishop had gone on to mis-sionary work in Appalachia, others were busy bishops or academics. Rawe, the fiercest voice among them, died in 1947, at age 47, after a long illness. The char-ismatic Ligutti set a frenetic pace, but was not suited to focused analysis or to long-term programmatic development. He ultimately would become a Vatican adviser.[33]


NOTWITHSTANDING ITS RESONANCE with the communitarianism of midwestern German Catholics and the trigger of Depression-driven desperation in American agriculture, the Conference’s program was an intellectual one. It derived from Catholic social teachings, as developed in the encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) of Pope Leo IX, and Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI’s 1931 update. (Classical agrarianism was a secondary source of authority.) Behind both papal documents lay the social teachings of St. Thomas. Explicit references to Thomas are rare in Conference publications, yet in broad terms its philosophy was a Thomistic natural-law approach to American rural life—and, sometimes, to American life more generally. Despite a few tensions, there was remarkable unanimity among Conference writers as to what that heritage implied.

The central concern of the Rural Life Conference was with the production of a truly free man, one of “serious thought and deep-seated convictions, because truth, the principles and verities on which life is built, really mean something to him.” Freedom, in this sense, was a direct association with natural situations and responsibilities. The independent family farmer was well situated to acquire it, in part because nature instructed: “For the man who plants, and waters, and watches things grow, nature unfolds her secrets and the great fundamental truths of life and death, toil and pain, time and eternity, and God take on a new and deeper meaning. The man’s character develops, expands, and matures with the plants and animals he tends so carefully, … Thought and meditation to which the quiet, tranquil work on the land invites one, ripens judgments and broadens intellectual horizons.”[34]

This freedom fostered the usual agrarian virtues of perseverance, sobriety, and thrift. It bolstered resistance to materialism and consumerism and made one a better citizen, but most importantly it allowed fulfillment of the purpose of human life: it made for a life that was stimulating, joyful, meaningful, and which called into existence intelligence and creativity. The farmer was a “scientist,” “planner,” and “co-worker with God”; his life was better because it was varied, challenging, and vastly more interesting than the “slavish” life of a factory worker, who must “‘punch, punch, punch’ till his eyes grow dim, till his very soul is deadened.” A commercialized urban mass culture offered only addiction to artificial nutrition and contrived styles and recreation. Ligutti and Rawe summed up the promise of urban modernity: “we have harnessed science and nature. There is nothing left for you to do but breathe.” A government, which required no participation, would manage everything (at the behest of certain lobbies to be sure).[35]

The production of human dignity, the most important farm product, did not entail complete subsistence. Once a family’s immediate home needs were met, the marketing of surplus crops or handicrafts would supply a modest cash income. This understanding of need dictated appropriate farm size: “not … so large that the family cannot know the fields intimately, nor so small that the family will fear want.” The centrality of freedom as a constituent of human dignity made it essential that these farms be owned by those who operated them, but it required also a more precise delimitation of property rights, which were not absolute, but rather subject to the test of human flourishing. “Private ownership,” explained Ligutti and Rawe, “means primarily the title, possession, control, and personal management of productive property.” Here “personal management” and “productive” were keywords. By contrast, the so-called liberty of liberal economics was but collectivist commercialism, which had “created a nation of slaves,” and brought forth “untold suffering, want, and misery,” as well as “slums, canned thinking, and loss of faith.”[36]

This approach was distributism, developed from the principles of Rerum Novarum by the English Catholics G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc in debates with the socialists George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. It was a Catholic third way, an alternative to both capitalism and communism (and later, to other forms of statism). Virgil Michel, a Benedictine monk from St. John’s Abbey in Stearns County, Minnesota, per-haps the most densely German-Catholic area of the United States, became a spokesman for this Catholic vision, in part because Michel’s deep familiarity with European Catholic social thought allowed him to move outside the standard ideological boundaries of American party politics.[37]

Figure 4. Faith, Family, and Countryside.

Christian Farmer (May 1948), 3.

The integration of the themes of this drawing was the core of the NCRLC outlook.

To Michel and other Conference philosophers, whether collectivism came via a “tyrant state” or corporate monopoly made little difference—both derived from materialism and greed, both led to a monopolization that de-stroyed democracy, and made free farm families into a rural “proletariat.” “Capitalism” stood for distant and irresponsible financial networks that turned farming into gambling, artificially forcing up land prices, and pushing farmers into an extractive, “soil mining” cash-cropping that often culminated in foreclosure and tenancy. As “artificial entities, … joint-stock, private-profit corporations” threatened proper social order, wrote Ligutti and Rawe. Holding a human status legally but not spiritually, they “frequently operate[d] independently of the natural law,” taking actions which “any decent personal morality in business would reject as unfair, unjust, or illegal.” That danger came precisely because they were not persons, but rather “pseudo-societies.” But competition itself might be the problem. Subsistence farming, argued the Notre Dame humanist Willis Nutting, was a peculiarly Christian way of making a living because one person’s success did not require another’s failure.[38]

Corporate farming put at risk “the organic character of the national economy.” To Conference writers, “organic” meant something like “derived from natural relations.” The dominant metaphor from nature was holistic coordination; thus society was to be understood anatomically and physiologically—”primary dependence of the State on the family may be likened to the dependence of a body on its cells.”[39] These cells—the individual farms—had communal interests, whose pursuit was particularly important in a social structure increasingly dominated by corporate agriculture. The most prominent feature of a proper rural society would be cooperatives of many sorts, organized according to religion, and possibly ethnicity or race. Credit unions would distribute rural capital; along with consumer, purchasing, and marketing co-ops there might be production co-ops. Mutual aid would rule, noted Frederick Kenkel, secretary of the Central Verein, citing the anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The family was itself the exemplar of the co-op, noted another.[40]

At what point freely chosen cooperation merged into collectivism, or the farmer’s freedom needed to be reconciled with social accountability, was occasionally an important issue. At one end, the virtue of “independence” might degenerate into the despised “individualism” or worse “a rugged individualism.” On the other, the cooperation of free farmers crossed into a corporatism inconsistent with distributist ideals. Farmers’ guilds, concepts of stewardship, which treated the product of the farm as a social product (since the land was God’s) seemed to some speakers to go too far.[41] In the thirties, marketing (and to a lesser degree, purchasing) cooperatives—on the Rochdale principle of one vote to each member—were still widely approved as evening the playing field for family farmers in their competition with speculators, railroads, and corporate farmers. Yet the trend toward giantism and corporate farming was already plain to Rawe, who foresaw the ultimate monopolization of farm land with the consequent destruction of all “rural skills, cultural patterns, traditions, communities.”[42]

Notwithstanding their unmistakable Thomist tinge, these themes were hardly uniquely Catholic. American farmers had never fully participated in the prosperity of the 1920s and the Depression only exacerbated the enduring problem of high production and transportation costs coupled with low commodity prices. The need for an alternative to capitalism and alienating individualism, for a social unit at once economically viable, socially stable, and culturally rewarding, was evident to those at both ends of the ideological spectrum and to New Deal rural planners.[43]

The Conference’s theorists and leaders had an off-and-on relationship with fellow travelers. Certainly they shared many of the interests of the farmers’ organizations that had fought grain traders and railroad oligarchs over the previous half century. Yet cooperation with the sectoral interests of farmers was beset by tensions characteristic of the relations of Catholic Christian Democracy to parallel secular social movements: to engage with others on causes however apparently worthy might undermine Church authority and unity. Thus, while the Conference would come to endorse farm unions, it maintained distance both from farm activism and from the region’s populist political heritage. This institutional reticence did not necessarily carry over to individuals: There were “not a few Catholics in the Farmer’s Union today,” observed the Benedictine sociologist Edgar Schmiedeler. But what puzzled Schmiedeler was not the greater involvement in such organizations, but the failure to follow European precedents and develop Catholic unions and political parties.[44]

The ambivalence toward farm activism and progressive politics reflected a view, common to Conference writers, that political engagement and economic activism were not the main solutions of political and economic problems. Rather, the solutions to problems of rural living were cultural and communitarian; the changes needed would not be imposed by Congress, state legislatures, or Roosevelt’s economists, but would arise within Minnesota parishes. Thus sectoral interests were subordinate to community welfare. “Community” was not primarily a geographical entity; it meant “Catholic community” or even “parish.” Thus, credit unions and cooperatives were to be Catholic institutions. Some writers even saw a need for separate institutions for the individual Catholic ethnic groups, since success would depend on intra-group trust, which was cultural. Thus the Central Verein, a collective of ethnic Catholic community organizations, would be more important than the Farm Bureau, the Grange, or any of the farmers’ unions. Since self-sufficiency was the first purpose of the family farms that made up these communities, problems of low agricultural prices, however irritating, were not as critical as they would be to the commercial family farmer.

While German and Belgian Catholic agrarianism supplied more important touchstones of praxis than American populism or the Jeffersonian legacy, assimilation was selective and the Conference’s programs cannot be seen simply in terms of the transfer of ethnic institutions. Much of the inspiration for cooperative organization came from Catholicism’s own mini-New Deal, the rejuvenation of the failing economy of eastern Nova Scotia by a brain trust of economist priests at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.[45] An ethnic, or even a Catholic pedigree was less important than evidence that a social experiment nurtured culture and strengthened community. Thus there was much attention to Protestant Scandinavia, both to cooperatives and folk schools.[46]

Another key area of potential alliance was with the rural social scientists of the New Deal, many of whom were similarly interested in community-building and disturbed by the effects of concentration in agriculture. Some of their approaches, such as short courses on rural philosophy (for extension personnel) mirrored or anticipated the Conference’s programs. By the mid 1930s a few USDA officers were participating regularly at the Conference’s annual meetings, and later in the programs of its Rural Life Summer Schools. Some, notably the economist O. E. Baker and Soil Conservation Service chief W. C. Lowdermilk (for whom soil conservation was the eleventh commandment) became active members of the Conference and important exponents of its Catholic rural philosophy (though neither appears to have been Catholic).[47] In a symposium on “The Modern Social and Economic Order,” Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace himself had made “copious use” of the economic encyclicals.[48]

But here too there was ambivalence. The New Dealers faced a national economic problem and operated in a much more complicated political landscape. If for them community-building might be an important means, it was not the primary end.[49] The Conference, while acknowledging in principle an obligation to address rural welfare in all regions of the nation, largely ducked the serious problems of dislocation that New Deal technocrats were struggling with in the South and in California. In practice the Conference advocated strong communities in a region where communities already were strong. While welcoming programs to protect family farms and promote conservation and rural development—electrification, irrigation, road-building—its writers were deeply distrustful of statist remedies. To Ligutti and Rawe, “New Dealers” were of a piece with “industrialists, finance-capitalists, … Socialists, technocrats, Communists and Fascists” in working toward “bigger governments, bigger cities, bigger industries.”[50]

More appealing was literary and philosophical agrarianism, and most important within this genre was the volume of essays, I’ll Take my Stand (Harper & Brothers, 1930), the work of twelve humanists associated loosely with Vanderbilt University. Their themes of the country life as the safeguard of family, religion, and regional tradition, and as the antidote to pervasive consumerism, overlapped with those of Conference writers. The intellectual links were multiple. Influenced by the English distributists, the Southern agrarians had considered grounding their crusade in an explicitly Anglo-Catholic ethos, but rejected the idea because Catholicism was not the indigenous religion of the South. In the mid-1930s Rawe had met with them to explore common interests, but while Conference writers occasionally would draw on the Nashville essayists for a splendid quotation, they were generally impatient with their uncompromising and romantic anti-modernism.[51] Defensive at being dismissed as champions of the medieval, Conference writers represented theirs as a “forward to the land” approach. What was needed was not a wholesale return to the land, but “balance” in rural-urban relations and more thought to social order in the development of science-based technology.[52] But their obliviousness to, or occasional bemusement with the many strains of non-Catholic agrarian social criticism also reflects their sense of the artificiality of many of these proposals. It might be very well for a group of romantic literati or the occasional alienated secular loner to champion rural cultural renewal and glorify the life of the dirt farmer, but that they should do so from a position outside any living community and treat culture as an exogenous input to be summoned up at the asking, was quaint at best. Where Conference writers could justly claim to differ from the Bromfields, Nearings, et al., was in seeing rural life not as a retreat from the world into lonely authenticity but as a re-made, and intensely social world founded in an existing community of faith.

For a brief period in the early 1940s, however, Conference leaders collaborated effectively and creatively with at least some secular agrarians and decentralists. Besides Herbert Agar, whose distributist journal Free America published the work of leading Catholic agrarians, the most important of the fellow travelers was the New York economist-advertising consultant Ralph Borsodi, whose 1929 Flight from the City was the first of several critiques of the social and personal damage of urbanism and industrialism.[53] What particularly intrigued Conference writers was Borsodi’s School of Living, precursor of the numerous sustainability demonstration projects that would come into existence in the 1970s. During the 1940s Ligutti and Rawe taught at the school, while Borsodi taught at some early Rural Life Summer Schools.[54] The Conference’s evolution during the 1940s from agrarianism toward a broader communitarian decentralism brought in an even larger group of fellow travelers, including Arthur Morgan and Lewis Mumford.[55]

By the end of the 1930s a regular feature of the Conference’s periodicals was a page or two of book reviews. While works aimed at a Catholic readership were included, the secular press dominated. Reviewed were works on agricultural economics (e.g., Theodore Schultz), conservation (e.g. Russell Lord, Henry Fairfield Osborn), democratization and technology (e.g., Stuart Chase), and on practical and alternative farming (e.g., J. I. Rodale). Indeed, one can get a good sense of the Conference’s self-image from the books it recommended and sold in its mail order book shop. In 1939 the top dozen books on rural life included two by Herbert Agar, one by Hillaire Belloc, one by Ralph Borsodi, James Adams’ March of Democracy; and several on cooperatives.[56] Still, the influence was primarily in one direction: Conference authors looked beyond their own tradition for enrichment, yet that tradition was not acknowledged as significantly enriching a broader public discourse.[57] Partly to blame was the Conference writers’ ambivalence about assimilation. The magnificent Rural Roads to Security of Ligutti and Rawe addresses broad issues, yet its reform program often imagines a rural America that is exclusively Catholic.


THE THIRD “STRUGGLE for Freedom” of Ligutti and Rawe was also a revolution in sustainability (a term they did not use), dictated by social and spiritual goals. Damage to persons (and thus to society) was also manifest as damage to the land which alone could sustain a good society. “Behold … fertile American valleys commercialized, gullied, barren, and parched,” noted Rawe and Ligutti at the beginning of Rural Roads. Indeed, in the 1930s the most conspicuous environmental problem in the American Midwest was erosion. It was due, Conference writers insisted, not simply to short-sighted agricultural practices but to basic flaws in social structure rooted in wrong values.[58] As well as a transformed social order, the recovery of sustainability required a suite of quite different technologies and skills and an educational commitment to produce them and to instill values appropriate to them. Here the debate was within Catholic circles as well as beyond: Catholic institutions of higher education, Conference writers reiterated, were almost uniformly delinquent, endorsing values incompatible with natural law.

Soil exhaustion was largely a result of a cycle of greed, mechanization, debt, disenfranchisement, and desperation, Ligutti and Rawe explained. Where good agriculture required long-term investment in complex rotations, the displaced tenant farmer, seeking to get back into ownership and gaining nothing from improving the land, had an incentive for using up the soil’s fertility as rapidly as possible. Of course this could not last—”growing things have an adamant way of following their own laws”—but until a proper social order returned families were being destroyed. A key theme of this critique was the attack on mechanization itself.

“With minds unable to grasp the incompatibilities of their projects, the mass-production engineers, chemists, and mechanics are trying to contract a marriage between soil and machinery. Nothing would please them better than to be able to set up the unstable household of Soil and Big Machine on the domain of United Farms Incorporated.”[59]

In part this was an attack on debt-financed giantism of the “money lords and their giant tractors … [who] slash and plow for dividends or rent, while we go off to join the dispossessed proletariat to live in company houses, flat, apartments, and hotels in the hope that we shall find ourselves as a cog in the large-scale, machine word.” But it was also part of the promotion of the living over the artificial. Always to be kept in mind was that agriculture was “a biological science”; the farm presented “an entire train of correlated and interrelated life processes.” In isolation a tractor was high technology, considered holistically, “in its relation to the farmer himself, in its relation to the farm as an integrated whole, and in relation to the wholesome organization of the national economy, agricultural and urban, … and to biological and sociological relationships” it was but a disruptive machine. Animal power would allow a large, healthy, rural population without creation of surpluses. Many farmers, claimed Ligutti and Rawe, were finding the expensive tractor did not “fit into the biological integration of farm activity,” and were returning to horses.[60]

The proper farm would combine garden, fruit trees, and wood lot. Cropping would be planned for family use, soil enrichment, and modest cash yield. Settlement on marginal land would be avoided; homestead sizes (and water allocations) would be calculated on climatic considerations and family farm viability. All of this required a cultural reproduction which was not occurring. The “little modern minds” of so-called scientific agriculturalists, were “unable to integrate and interrelate”; they consequently “trample[d] out the life technologies of good livestock breeding and expert livestock feeding, the technology of scientific plant cultivation, … of good seed selection.” Without direct attempts to reproduce such skills, farm families would “drift in the prevailing current of commercialism with its bigger units, its preoccupation with mechanics and physics and commercial chemical developments which have no interrelation with vital processes.”[61]

Accordingly, Conference writers were ambivalent, at best, toward modern agricultural research institutions. As W. Howard Bishop complained in 1933, “our agricultural preceptors have been teaching farmers to grow two blades of grass where one grew before, apparently indifferent to the fact that insofar as this program succeeded we were hastening the day when only one farm family could thrive where two thrived before.” Why must the agricultural sector be downsized, he asked. Was it “because the idol of efficiency must be fed with still greater worlds to conquer and mechanical progress must be given the right of way no matter how many human values must pay the forfeit?” As would Wendell Berry four decades later, he issued a manifesto: “I refuse to be moved to admiration at any so-called efficiency that keeps the economic order upset.”[62]

What was needed, explained Rawe, was a quite different agricultural science, one combining “subsistence economics, … the scientific care of many plants and animals … domestic science … [and] cooperative activity of every type.” This diversification was not primitivism, simply the “scientific” study of maximizing home production to cushion the effects of market instability. Rawe felt that even Catholic adjuncts to state universities—for teaching philosophy and Catholic economics—would be an inadequate protection against the “perverting hands of an exploiting commercialism” and concluded that there was “greater national need for … a Catholic school of agricultural economics and rural sociology than … for a Catholic school of engineering, of business administration, of commerce or any of the trades.”[63]

Conference leaders regularly badgered Catholic colleges to create this expertise but without marked success. In “The Catholic College and the Land” (1938), Willis Nutting complained of the embourgeoisement of Catholic higher education. Catholics were trained to hate farming because physical work and dirt were being denigrated. “Witness the supreme importance attached to immaculate fingernails and white collars,… the dainty shrinking from anything grimy or slimy—and this in Catholic circles too! One might say that the confidence with which a person walks through a barnyard varies inversely with the number of years that person has spent in college.” Ultimately to blame was an insufficiently earthy clergy: “We must realize that the fact that the community does not expect the bishop to mow his own lawn is one of the reasons why his people do not like the idea of mowing their own hay.”[64]

In 1931 the Jesuit seminary at St. Marys, Kansas, undertook a study of farm tenure and agricultural economics. A few, predominantly Benedictine, colleges in the Midwest (notably St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa) began agriculture programs, but these were small, and relatively poor institutions. The University of Notre Dame, while making occasional gestures of cooperation with the Conference and forays into rural sociology, would close its campus farm in 1932. That the farm land is now covered by a golf course speaks volumes about the dominant strategies of Catholic assimilation.[65]

Such efforts were hampered by a dearth of Catholic agricultural expertise. In 1942 Creighton University launched a year-long farming course at Elkhorn, Nebraska. The program’s brochure touted “stewardship farming,” “Family-type farms,” “bio-dynamic farming,” “wholeness and completeness of nature,” but its director, the sociologist-philosopher Rawe, was hardly qualified to oversee the more technical training. By the time the Penn State-trained agronomist Paul Sacco became active in the Conference in the mid 1940s, the heyday of agrarianism had passed.[66]

Just as there had been need for a well-defined alternative economic institution—the cooperative—so too there was need for a well-defined alternative agricultural technology. During the late 1930s and early 1940s this was biodynamic agriculture. In its narrow sense biodynamic agriculture was a method of composting. Like most of its American followers, Conference writers (chiefly Rawe) ignored or were unaware of its origins in the anthroposophy of the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his theories, which involved tapping into astral forces.[67] For Conference writers “biodynamic” referred generally to “methods that conserve the health and fertility of the soil by several means,” including not just composting, but crop diversification, soil-building cropping, enhancement of soil biota, and soil and water conservation practices. Moreover, “since bio-dynamic methods aim to conserve human life, the term also denotes farming to support a family; that is, producing goods that the family will use, before producing goods for the market.” For Ligutti and Rawe “adequate direction in biodynamics and biological techniques” was essential.[68]

Calls on Catholic farmers to take up biodynamic techniques were regular until 1944 when a Land and Home reviewer hinted that orthodox agricultural science regarded biodynamic agriculture as fad if not fraud. Lacking in-house agricultural expertise, Conference writers had no way to evaluate such criticisms. They could endorse the diagnosis that “soil sickness,” increasing problems of weeds, bugs and pests, droughts and dust bowls were caused by a faulty relation with nature based on ignorance and greed, but had to accept on trust the dictates of Steiner’s disciple, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, and the group of researchers at Dornach, Switzerland, and Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, who were filling out the master’s vision. One wonders if Rawe’s endorsement of the biodynamic arcana—the medicinal herbs “chamomile, yarrow, sting-nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian” to be used as compost accelerators—could really carry much weight with Catholic farmers.[69]

Yet if “biodynamic” would no longer serve, the need remained for a fount of truth as patent as was the falsity of conventional agricultural principles. This might be met through J. I. Rodale’s organic agriculture or the approaches of the English Soil Association. Another aspect of alternative agriculture became increasingly prominent, the concern that products of industrial agriculture subtly undermined human health. Already in 1940 Ligutti and Rawe had complained of the “emasculated” flour that went into white bread and worried that eggs from factory-farmed chickens were not all they should be. By the mid 1940s they were taking an interest in the Missouri agronomist W. A. Albrecht’s worries about loss of trace nutrients resulting from the use of artificial fertilizers. Occasionally a link was made between nutritional inadequacy and political economy. The extra work required to cultivate truly healthy food was only worthwhile if one were eating it oneself, according to the Notre Dame biologist Julian Pleasants.[70]

Ironically, as its mission was becoming increasingly diffuse and its philosophical critique and capacity for systematic technology assessment were waning, the Conference was becoming increasingly cognizant of particular environmental problems. A 1941 article worried that swallows would no longer return to Capistrano, because of “commericalized ‘factories-in-the-fields’ agriculture in the region, poison sprays, etc.” (Biodynamic agriculture was to be the solution.)[71] In 1948 The Christian Farmer reprinted an article on the dangers of DDT—thirteen years before the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Most interesting was the substance of the critique, which was not empirical but logical. Even if DDT showed no immediate adverse effects, indiscriminate use of a fat-soluble, permanent, possibly toxic molecule seemed patently unwise: “If that insecticide which you put on this year still is there 10 years from now—along with what you’ve applied each year between now and then—what will be the effect?” Again, in the early 1950s, the Conference campaigned against strip mining.[72] Yet it failed to recognize on a consistent basis that increasing reliance on inputs threatened the vision of sustainable subsistence it had advocated so insistently earlier in the decade.

Essential to the production of human dignity was cultural reproduction. Traditional crafts and foods, song, dance, and theater (and religious processions) were as important as (and not distinctively different from) production of crops. Conference leaders were interested in imitating the Danish folk schools as a means reproducing rural arts. Farming itself might be a medium of self-expression. In his eulogy for “Old Ed,” a life-long dirt farmer, the Hector, Minnesota, priest Joseph Ettel observed that Ed saw his work on the farm as an art-like activity” and would have had much in common with the English Catholic printmaker-philosopher-agrarian Eric Gill.[73]

Almost a decade later Ligutti used America’s cut-over lands—the swath across the northern states left useless by loggers who clear cut the forests and moved west—as a metaphor for the nation’s cultural condition. “On all sides we have the biologically and culturally cut-over territory. [In] … rural districts … the human crop is born, trained; there it waxes strong and thence it leaves. As the healthy and promising young trees of the forest separated from the native soil are slid into the fast flowing rivers, so to the canyons and vortex of the metropolis, the country boy and girl, bruised and impersonal, go either to rot or become cogs in the mass production line.”[74]


LIGUTTI’S CURIOUS METAPHOR compares the quality of forests to the quality of a human population. Appeals to a distinct “nature” permeate Conference programs, but the subject did not get much direct attention. Their “nature” was neither wilderness nor paradise, neither a source of redemption nor in need of it, but rather a grounding for human existence. While the countryside was good, there was no mandate to cherish or protect it; no unique spiritual state to be gained from interacting with it; no imperative to draw urban Catholics out of cities or prevent rural Catholic youth from leaving for them. Yet with the hindsight of a half century of ecotheology, we also can see that a greater effort to draw from the Church’s traditions a sense of a sanctity in nature might have balanced an instrumental understanding of the countryside simply as a good place for nurturing the faith and reproducing the faithful. There was, for example, no reference to the Franciscan tradition that the medievalist Lynn White would later proclaim as the appropriate foundation of a Christian ecological ethic.[75] Appropriate rural saints were underpublicized, complained a teaching sister.[76] Doctrinal or liturgical treatments of nature (or of other aspects of rural life) were minimal in Conference publications. One can get a sense of what was missing from a rare instance of its presence. Communion in the Mass with the mystical body of Christ took place as a community, argued Virgil Michel, and thus indicated a political economy built around cooperatives.[77] But Michel’s deriving of political economy from liturgy is unique; Conference writers were simply not much concerned with theology.

Nature was more conspicuous in terms of cosmology than spirituality. As Ligutti’s metaphor suggests, the Conference rejected the separating of the human domain from the natural: humans were natural. Not for nothing was the main ethical tradition known as “natural law.” Why else be so concerned with the determinate relationship between the “environment” (the word was often used, though more to designate social and cultural rather than physical circumstances) and human flourishing? The authors of the Manifesto of Rural Life had remarked that “human erosion [another put it, ‘soul erosion’] is closely related to soil erosion.” For Conference writers anthropology was a normative science; working with a clear conception of what humans should be, they could readily recognize ways of living on the land that produced good or bad results. A Conference reviewer admired the verbal and photographic artistry of Russell Lord’s exposé of soil erosion, Behold our Land, but puzzled at Lord’s limited ability to explain the damage soil erosion did except in meager materialistic terms.[78]

Figure 5. St. Isidore the Plowman.

Christian Farmer (February 1951), 8.

Creating a uniquely Catholic rural heritage was not unproblematic; teaching sisters complained of a paucity of rural saints. From early on, St. Isidore (1070–1130), was the main point of reference.

Occasionally, this enlarged agenda for soil treatment would be made explicit. In its treatment of the rights of land ownership, the 1945 multi-faith manifesto, “Man’s Relation to the Land” defined ownership as “stewardship” and obligated the steward not only to preserve, but “to enrich the soil he tills and to hand it down to future generations as a thankful offering to God, the giver, and as a loving inheritance to his children’s children.” It also redefined “efficiency.” This was “not to be judged merely by material production, but by a balanced consideration of the spiritual, social and material values that redound … to person, family, and society.”[79] Joining Soil Conservation Service and university agronomists and rural sociologists in a series of workshops around Illinois, the Rev. Edward O’Rourke of the University of Illinois Newman Center explicitly made soil erosion an issue of social justice. Bishop William Mulloy, too, in his 1947 Conference presidential address, called for a commitment to the soil that went beyond technical and commercial considerations. Here too, “stewardship” was not so much a covenant with regard to the land per se, but a commitment to reproduce, “for all peoples and for all times,” a culture of free persons whose freedom depended on the gift of productive land.[80]

Their reflections took the form of deductive chains. Human good required ways of living consistent with created nature. The land’s status as gift from God entailed its preservation for posterity; the physical laws of sedimentation and deposition mandated that protection of the soil was a communal rather than an individual undertaking; local clergy had an obvious role in representing the interests of community and posterity, hence it made sense for them to take a leadership role in soil conservation. Only 20 percent of the impediments to successful conservation were technical, O’Rourke observed: the rest lay in the area of effective community organization.[81] Yet this too would be a social role of the clergy: unlike Michel, O’Rourke did not derive action on soil erosion from the mysteries of the faith.

Conference writers did not dwell on whether nature or natural objects had intrinsic value, a question that was emerging in other quarters during the period, and which has been primary for a later generation of environmental ethicists. In general, for reasons suggested above, they would have found the question unintelligible, yet if we force their writings to address it, the answer must be “no”: created things did not have values that excluded them from human use. Apparently sensing that others might disagree, Ligutti and Rawe took up the issue, but in passing: to live, humans needed fuel, food, clothing, and shelter. “And since the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms have no ascertainable purpose except to provide these necessaries, and since there is no other source from which they can be had, every family is entitled to use them to eke out a livelihood” (though, not, notably, to exploit them unsustainably or to use them to garner wealth). They noted too that only about half the area of the United States was suited to mixed family farming. A fully settled America would “still leave approximately another billion acres for forests, for grazing, for game preserves, and for parks.”[82] Others touted farm ponds as wildlife habitat (and for their beauty). Wild birds were valued—and not, it would appear, solely as a means of insect control.[83]

Arguably, the premium Catholics of the period placed on populousness as a mark of a healthy family-based society—a matter on which there was no noticeable dissent within the Conference—deflected attention from extrapolating to a future when the human population would exceed sustainable carrying capacity and extinguish habitats and species. In fact, Catholics involved in the NCLRC moved easily between condemnation of “mechanized and commercialized agriculture” and endorsement of the “natural” rhythm method of contraception, as opposed to “artificial” alternatives. (The real problem, Virgil Michel added, was not too many children, but “economic improvement of the situation of the poor.”)[84] After World War II, Catholics extended their critique of the disruptiveness of modern technology to infant formula, and became the most prominent proponents of a return to breast feeding.[85] But the first two decades after the war also witnessed bitter disputes between Catholics defending the church’s prohibition on birth control and scholars and policy-makers concerned about world population growth.[86]

More broadly, Conference writers and modern environmentalists viewed nature differently. Only occasionally did Conference writers extol wilderness and sites of rare natural beauty or find meaning in mountain or stream.[87] They did find value and beauty in nature, but in organic processes and temporal cycles, not in scenic places or wild species. They did not see nature, or parts of it, as enspirited, but they did see some aspects as emblematic—sometimes of particular Christian teachings, more often of general existential truths.[88] If nature was not sacred, work in nature was sacramental. In many ways, their aesthetic is most readily understood as grounded in the agricultural Midwest. It emphasized sky and soil, watching small parts of nature change through the seasons—what Cronon calls the “humble places” of the “middle ground.”[89]

That temporal and cyclical focus fit the Catholic rural philosophy. Conference writers were, after all, pressing Catholics not to seek a life of travel and adventure, but rather, like Dorothy on her return from Oz or the celebrated English naturalist Gilbert White, to accept that there was no place like home, and that all the messages that God sent via nature could be read in one’s own place. Hence, if unique scenic places were not particularly valued, places were. Each was special and irreplaceable—and entertaining: Ettel wrote that Hector, Minnesota, nights “never [became] monotonous.”
Some nights there may be only a crescent moon; some nights a full moon sneaking through the cloudy skies, like a mischievous urchin; or no moon at all, and then if it is cloudy, the blackness of the night seems thick, and a few scattered flares will light up the landscape with enchanting wizardry. Some nights are so calm and quiet that trees appear as if painted on a stage curtain; some nights the wind sways the great evergreens, whips the bare branches, and whistling joins the merry-makers. Sometimes the evergreens are all white with their arms full of new-fallen snow; or a heavy frost will trace their outlines in white. Nature sets the stage and shifts the scene fascinatingly, without cost or effort. The program lends itself to abundant and pleasing variations. No one is timid or disheartened by the excellence of any professional performance. And even a dyspeptic’s mouth would water as he hurries to the nearby farm house, the waiting lunch of homemade bread, country sausage, and hot coffee.[90]

An ecological perspective came readily to these writers because of the centrality of their “organic” outlook—again, their notion that a proper social order derived ultimately from natural processes and reflected recognition of the interconnections of phenomena at various levels. Still, the argument that nature is unitary and best thought of in systemic terms was not presented as a matter of doctrine nor even as a theological truism (i.e., God made all things and they must therefore somehow work together), but rather as an induction from agricultural experience and as the appropriate guiding premise for technological development. Alluding to the Dornach biodynamic experiments, Ligutti and Rawe noted that the cultivated field was to be seen “as a living organism.” One needed to appreciate that “habits of thinking, which may be adequate in the cities of machinery and manufacture, break down when they face the many organic factors which we call life. Whether we like it or not, nature makes the rules for the vital processes. Nature will not permit her rules for vital processes to be replaced by the rules of commercial mechanization. An effort must be made to understand nature and follow its rules in its far-flung integration and interrelation of minute biological processes, if the game of life is to go on.” Rawe would later emphasize “the wholeness, the oneness, the completeness of nature in the life … of the farm,” the importance of “unity and balance” and “right proportion” in the “rotating wheel-of-life,” the need for “biological balance and unity,’ and to protect the “pattern of life.”[91]

That “pattern of life” was manifest in the particular place over time. Repeatedly, the spiritual message of Conference writers is to reflect on cyclicity and permanence (and to acknowledge one’s own earthly impermanence in that context). “The birth, growth, and death of the animals of his flock and the crops of his fields remind him that his own life too is only a pilgrimage here below,” wrote Ettel.[92]

Cycles and time were the chief motifs of a nature aesthetic as well. In his Thoreauvian “Color in Rural Life (1945), the Minnesota farmer Bennie Bengtson weaves the human and the natural, indigenous knowledge of native plants, celebration of bird life, woods, and streams into reflections on digging a potato-cellar. Seasons organize the reflections. “I thought of the tedious job of cutting the seed in preparation for planting it. I remembered too, the planting time in the spring when the apple trees looked like great, pinkish-tinted cumuli clouds rising from the earth, and the row of plums were a fragrant snowbank of white. Along the creek blue and yellow violets bloomed and wake robin and marsh marigolds.”[93] The aesthetic might even be geological as in E. M. Tiffany’s 1949 meditation, “The Soil”: “I think of ancient mountains, prehistoric plains, and hosts of lowly creatures bred and nourished there; of massive rocks that held these tiny grains which from the distant past their meager message bear. … Despised earth, thy grimy blackness is a shroud for struggling forms that pulsed and perished in the past, that man might tread and till a soil with life endowed and garner stores of wealth of centuries amassed. … Holy earth, we pledge to use our heritage and hold its conservation as a trust sublime. Our husbandry will not condone the sacrilege of wasting from thy field the precious gifts of time.”[94]

The outlook was reflected in prayer too. To be sure, there was a good deal of blessing of crops and flocks, but also an acceptance that one owed God thanks for aspects of nature which were either non-productive—”wind and boundless space”; “the sky’s rich color”—or even counterproductive, though surely somehow necessary: “Thanks be to God for the light and the darkness/Thanks be to God for the hail and the snow.”[95]


CLEARLY THE CONFERENCE did not transform rural America. Not only did its green revolution fail to take off, it left hardly a memorial of its failure.[96] How different at first glance the contemporaneous Catholic Worker movement—a tiny, largely lay-led group earned extraordinary respect and a wide following, and took action, even founding agrarian communes.[97] The Conference would seem to have been better placed for success, with its quasi-populist program and ready constituency of German Catholics living the virtues of family, community, and settled sustainable farming. During the Depression, Conference-inspired programs (most conspicuously Ligutti’s Granger, Iowa, homesteads) did offer a means of subsistence to some families, and its influence may well have furthered adoption of soil conservation and the establishment of credit unions and coops. It may even have persuaded families to stay in farming.

Yet, remarkably, even after two decades of propaganda, the examples it could cite of successful application of its philosophy were few. Diffuseness of mission, an ambiguous relation to a Catholic hierarchy little interested in rural matters and ambivalent toward that mission, and lack of mechanisms for translating advice into action hampered its effectiveness. More decisively, its views were antithetical to the dominant paradigm of American agricultural policy. Unwilling (or unable) to subject their arguments to demography or economics, its leaders were themselves unsure whether their focus could be rural America alone, or whether they must address American social structure in its entirety. Their brief attempt in the mid-1940s to encourage what they called “two-footed” living—professional work in the city, a homestead with a few chickens, and a cow on some nearby farmland—came as it became clear that the postwar farm sector would not be expanding. In fact, it was a recipe for suburban sprawl in the name of a distributism and decentralism. Ligutti and Rawe (and Borsodi) endorsed the multi-lane highways it would require without recognizing how dominant the automobile would become.[98] Nor did they appreciate how readily home production would be dispensed with when good cheap food was available at the supermarket. The highway building would occur, but maximizing home production would not be a characteristic of the “crab-grass frontier”—though careful attention to an artificial landscape would be.

The thrust of this article has not been “Catholics were environmentalists too,” much less “Catholics got there first.” In broad terms, neither the Conference’s critique nor its social policies were wholly original. The concern, rather, is to ask how the Conference’s activities alter the American story. This in turn means asking why its activities have been so largely invisible both to American Catholic historians and American environmental historians. The neglect cannot simply be ascribed to failure or insignificance. The Conference was not, at its peak and within its core territory, a small or insignificant movement, as evidenced by attendance at its meetings and summer schools.[99] Ambiguity of mission, lack of expertise, ecclesiastical ambivalence , and incompatibility with the dominant paradigm in agriculture explain failure, but not neglect. The narratives of environmental historians and Catholic historians are full of heroic failure—indeed, these enterprises arose to recover roads not traveled and margins neglected in a master narrative.

One reason for that neglect is the invisibility of community-strengthening, of seeking to leave a mark in lived values rather than in bricks and mortar or reformed institutions. The Conference’s chief claim to uniqueness (and importance) lies in its appreciation that profound social change did not come from the rants of intellectuals, but somehow had to be grounded in lived culture, in community. “Culture” was no placeholder. For Conference writers, it meant the integration of social and economic (though not political) life in terms of a common faith and, often, common ethnicity. It meant more than that the countryside be inhabited by Catholics; and equally a realization that a community could not be invented out of a raw material of disparate, displaced persons, unskilled in rural arts, and alien to the places they inhabited—precisely what led to the early failure of the Catholic worker communes.[100] In these diffused efforts, Conference leaders were not trying to found an environmentalism yet to be born, nor were they aspiring paragons of conservation.

Yet there is a simpler and broader reason for that invisibility. Scholars (including ourselves) did not look for early Catholic environmentalism because we did not expect to find much there. Indeed, only within the last decade has it become possible to begin to shake off Lynn White and to read American environmentalism as profoundly religious. Yet even then, environmentalism historically has been linked to certain themes in Protestantism, through the work of Mark Stoll, or seen, in the work of Thomas Dunlap, as an emergent religion, an alternative to established faiths. Catholicism seemed to lie outside the pale as uninterested in nature and antithetical to environmentalism (most sharply with regard to control of the human population). The antinomies are familiar: Environmentalism is liberal, even radical; Catholics are conservative and traditional. Protestants encountered environmental problems as they tried to live off the land, or reflected on the vast wealth they had extracted from it and accepted the responsibilities of national leadership; Catholics huddled in urban enclaves, trying to scrape their way into the middle class, afraid both of the assimilative tendencies of public involvement and of the prejudice that met their tentative political overtures. Environmentalism emerged as a rebellion of a sensitive and aesthete few, who sought authenticity in the purity of nature; Catholicism repressed not only rebellion, but also individualism and aesthetic authenticity; in Catholicism the moral problems which required the individual’s direct reckoning with God were mediated by priests and dictated by doctrine (and anyway Catholics, America’s urban peasantry, were already too authentic). Environmentalism was scientific and secular, or if not, pagan and pantheist; Catholicism (equated with “superstition” for much of America’s past) had been uncomfortable with independent, and possibly materialistic science ever since the Galileo embarrassment, while the antitheses of classical pantheism and Teutonic paganism had been vital in the consolidation of Catholicism. Finally, while environmentalism reveled in the worldly, Catholicism, even more than Protestantism, denied the body and was other- if not anti-worldly.

By no means are these stereotypes without foundation. Rawe and his colleagues addressed problems of successful sustainable living within their terms. Sometimes their Catholicism frustrated them (as when they faced the consequences of its ambivalence to science), sometimes they faced the need to translate its traditions into new contexts or to re-explore theology. Sometimes, also, as with regard to priorities it placed on human dignity and social justice, their Catholicism was an advantage: The heritage of natural law, the concept of materialism as sinful, the liturgical connection of the body of Christ to the world in which we live, the longstanding linkage between beauty and holiness, and the explicit analyses of modern social malaise in the encyclicals of Leo and Pius XI provided a more powerful foundation for criticism than was available elsewhere in the ideological spectrum (certainly any coyness about capitalism was unnecessary).

What their efforts suggest is that the recent crossing of American environmental history with American religious history as evident in the works of Stoll and Dunlap must be explored within a framework of religious pluralism. As we suggested at the outset, accommodating the “green revolution” of the Catholic agrarians of the 1930s within the framework of American environmental history requires stretching that domain, though not beyond recognition. Indeed, some longstanding environmental concerns emerge more strongly within the NCRLC writings than outside of them. Its vision of sustainability alerts us to the centrality of images of nature in calls for religious renewal. Its comprehensive critique founded in moral philosophy and political economy draws attention to the social visions implicit in the writings of other critics.

In other areas of American history, master narratives have come to accommodate pluralism; its emergence in environmental history reflects the maturation of that field. But the pluralism is not merely important as a gesture of inclusivity; it is essential in the fulfillment of Ted Steinberg’s call to return nature to American history. As Steinberg, the most recent in a long line of environmental historians and historical geographers, has pointed out, nature has been there all along.[101] But so long as nature, seen as the exclusive possession of environmental historians, is essentially a sectarian crotchet, that fulfillment cannot happen. Rather Steinberg’s call to make nature a central character in the stories we tell (without invoking any simplistic nature/culture divide) assumes that communities (including those defined primarily in terms of religion) were working in and with, responding to, and having attitudes about nature, even if they did not express them or expressed them in terms we find utterly strange. In such a view, midwestern Catholics, even had the Conference never arisen, would still be important subjects for environmental historians. Equally, within such a framework, the history of religious communities, urban and rural, as studied by social and cultural historians of religion, would no longer be carried out with blinders to nature, as if the re-creation of religious culture was only incidentally related to ways of living and to assessments of the propriety and permanence (or equally the eschatological significance) of the prevailing economic order. The consequence of a more far-reaching cross between religious history and environmental history then would be that two marginal domains of inquiry would amplify each other, each filling in elements that the other tends to overlook.

The creation of such a narrative—recovery of the acuity of Michel, the passion of Rawe, the energy of Ligutti—does, of course, have implications for contemporary American self-identity, and not just for American Catholics. It suggests to Catholics that they are not who they thought they were; it makes clear that Catholic citizenship was different and broader than has usually been imagined. It helps perhaps to explain the fascination of contemporary Catholic intellectuals with Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. Recognition of a longer history of Catholic (and perhaps of other religious) engagement with issues of environmental quality can perhaps do something to challenge the image of religious environmentalism as an afterthought rather than an essential component of a cosmology (as Thomas Aquinas certainly recognized and most anthropologists would acknowledge). Arguably, following such recognition, concern for environmental quality would appear less partisan or sectarian, and more a matter of effective action within a pluralist framework, on real problems of justice and sustainability.

Christopher Hamlin is professor of history at Notre Dame. He is the author of A Science of Impurity (California, 1990), and Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick (Cambridge, 1998). John T. McGreevy is professer of history and department chair at Notre Dame. He is the author of Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (Norton, 2003) and Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North (Chicago, 1996).


1. The term “green revolution” appears in Catholic circles in the mid 1930s. The first source may be Michael Williams, “The Green Revolution,” in Catholic Rural Life Conference, Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Series of Discussions on Some Elements of Major Importance in the Philosophy of Agrarianism (St. Paul, Minn.: National Catholic Rural Life Conference, [1935]), 31–36. Williams was a publicist and journalist. Easy Essays (1936), a collection of Peter Maurin’s prose poems from the first three years of the Catholic Worker (founded 1933) was republished as The Green Revolution (Fresno Calif.: Academy Guild Press, 1949) after Maurin’s death in 1949, yet Maurin’s version was not uniquely agrarian, and none of the pieces carries that title. On the Conference, see David Bovee, “The Church and the Land: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American Society, 1923–1985” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1986), 196, 423–26; and Jeffrey Marlett, Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America, 1920–1960 (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002).

2. John Rawe, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in Agriculture,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Second Series of Discussions on Some Elements of Major Importance in the Philosophy of Agrarianism (St. Paul, Minn.: National Catholic Rural Life Conference, [1936]), 35–45. Rawe’s work is unsympathetically reviewed in the main modern survey of American JesuitsPeter McDonough’s Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century (New York: Free Press, 1992), 89–95.

3. Msgr. Luigi G. Ligutti and John C. Rawe, S.J., Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1940). For similar themes in the work of Wendell Berry, see Wendell Berry, Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1978); and two essays in Wendell Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), “Getting along with Nature,” 6–20, and “Two Economies,” 49–53. See also Christopher Hamlin and Philip T. Shepard, Deep Disagreement in U.S. Agriculture: Making Sense of Policy Conflict (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993); Allen Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind: the Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 2000), 178ff. Catholic agrarianism gets passing mention in David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 243; and Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and his Legacy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981), 354. It is not discussed in James A. Montmarquet, The Idea of Agrarianism: from Hunter-Gatherer to Agrarian Radical in Western Culture (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1989). For examples of the intersection of Catholicism with American modernity more broadly see John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

4. While “sustainable” is anachronistic for the 1930s and contested today, it catches the orientation of the movement better than alternative terms.

5. On European environmentalism and agrarianism see Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Derek Urwin, From Ploughshare to Ballotbox: The Politics of Agrarian Defence in Europe (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1980). See also Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 77, 123, 230–31.

6. Virgil Michel, “Agriculture and Reconstruction,” Commonweal (January 13, 1939), 317–18.

7. The Conference still exists; see, accessed November 29, 2005. Yet much of its earlier work is not visible in efforts to frame the Church’s response to environmental problems. The pastoral letters “This Land is Home to Me” (1975), by the bishops of Appalachia, and “Strangers and Guests” (1980) by the bishops of forty-four midwestern dioceses, discuss pollution, conservation, sustainable development, and the beauty and integrity of nature. While these documents reflect themes similar to those of the Catholic agrarians of the 1930s, the links are generic rather than explicit. The celebrated pastoral letter on the Columbia River—Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good” (2001)—by the bishops of the Pacific Northwest is even more remote from this tradition. On the Conference’s minor place in Catholic history, see Edward Shapiro, “Catholic Agrarian Thought and the New Deal,” Catholic Historical Review 6 (1979): 583–99.

8. Treatments of Catholic (and other denominational) environmentalism have generally represented it as reactive to, and often ambivalent toward contemporary public issues, rather than as responsible for unique and seminal contributions. See Patrick Allitt, “American Catholics and the Environment, 1960–1995,” Catholic Historical Review 84 (April 1998): 263–81; Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 165–66; also Thomas Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), which provides a framework for some of the homologies evident here.

9. Mark Stoll, Protestantism, Capitalism and Nature in America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997). The Conference’s recent chroniclers, David Bovee and Jeffrey Marlett, have challenged these constraints. Using Aldo Leopold’s 1948 essay on the “Land Ethic” as a benchmark, Marlett notes that both Leopold and the Catholic rural life writers attributed environmental problems to “human arrogance and agricultural ineptitude” and asserts that “an environmental sensibility, if not an explicitly labeled `land ethic’ pervaded the Catholic rural life movement.” He recognizes Leopold’s championship of wilderness and rejection of the “androcentric” premises of Abrahamic religions as key differences, however. Yet Leopold, while asserting the superiority of the wild, understood that for much land a wild state was not an option. For the farmer, he suggested modes of ecological agriculture, which Rawe had been championing a decade earlier. Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 24–26; Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Sierra Club/Ballantine, 1970), 237–64, quotation on 260. Bovee’s dissertation treats NCRLC involvement in the environmental movement in the post-Carson era, but does not address its earlier work as a strain of environmentalism.

10. Recent debates about the realm of environmental history, and its extension to working landscapes, are relevant here. See William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 1–28; and commentaries and responses, Ibid., 29–55; Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1087–1106; Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107 (2002): 798–820.

11. On O’Hara, Timothy Michael Dolan, “Some Seed Fell on Good Ground”: The Life of Edwin O’Hara (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

12. In 1922, the voters of Oregon approved a measure prohibiting parents from enrolling their children in private or religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, (1925).

13. Though its best known leader, Luigi Ligutti had been born in Italy, and its founder and many of its leaders were Irish, its constituency reflected the relatively greater success of rural parish-planting among German Catholics, and, very likely, the more positive agrarian heritage which they brought with them in comparison with their Irish or Italian coreligionists. On parish planting, see Edgar Schmiedeler, A Better Rural Life (New York: Joseph Wagner, 1938), 62ff; and Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 55–57. On the Verein, see Philip Gleason, The Conservative Reformers: German-American Catholics and the Social Order (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968). On midwestern German Catholic corporatism, Kathleen Neils Conzen’s work is crucial. See, for example, Kathleen Neils Conzen, Making Their Own America: Assimilation Theory and the German Peasant Pioneer (New York: Berg, 1990); Kathleen Neils Conzen, “German Catholic Communalism and the American Civil War: Exploring the Dilemmas of Transatlantic Political Integration,” in Bridging the Atlantic: The Question of American Exceptionalism in Perspective, ed. Elisabeth Glaser and Hermann Wellenreuther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Immigrant Religion and the Public Sphere: The German Catholic Milieu in America,” in German-American Immigration and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective, ed. Wolfgang Helbigh and Walter D. Kamphoefner (Madison, Wisc.: Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, 2004), 69–114; Kathleen Neils Conzen, “Immigrant Religion and the Republic: German Catholics in Nineteenth Century America,” German Historical Institute Bulletin 35 (Fall 2004): 43–56. See also Jon Gjerde’s superb comparative study, Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evaluation in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), esp. 261–69. See also the lasting effects of German ethnicity on Illinois settlement patterns in Sonya Salamon, Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming, and Community in the Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Salamon finds that German families avoided speculative practices, and occupied smaller farms, which stayed in families across generations.

14. Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 166.

15. W. Howard Bishop, “Agrarianism, the Basis of the New Order,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Series of Discussions [1935]), 49–56, quotation on 49. On Bishop, see Christopher Kaufman, “W. Howard Bishop, President of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1928–1934,” U.S. Catholic Historian 8 (1989): 131–40; Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 33.

16. O. E. Baker, “The Church and the Rural Youth,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Series of Discussions [1935], 7–29, quotation on 21. Baker was not a Catholic, but a regular participant in the Conference and an important developer of its philosophy.

17. Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 51.

18. There had been a trial version at St. Louis University in 1938. Martin Schirber, “Report on the First Rural Life School,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (August 1940): 8–11; “Conferences on Rural Problems,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (August 1938): 15; “Conference Affairs,” Land and Home 6 (March 1943): 26. In 1945–1946, one of Michel’s St. John’s protégés, the future senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, lived outside of tiny Watkins, Minnesota, in a failed effort to start a Catholic cooperative community (Dominic Sandbrook, Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism [New York: Knopf, 2004], 19–20).

19. “Rural Life Summer Schools,” Land and Home 5 (June 1942): 26; Martin Schirber, “The Rural Life Schools,” Land and Home 5 (September 1942): 17–18.

20. “National Catholic Rural Life Conference,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (November 1941): 84; “Rural Life Schools 1943,” Land and Home 6 (June 1943): 31; “Rural Life Schools and Institutes, Spring, Summer, and Fall,” Land and Home 9 (June 1946): 45; “Rural Life Summer Schools,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (May 1941):54; “Rural Life Summer Schools,” Land and Home 5 (June 1942): 26; Martin Schirber, “Schooling Along,” Land and Home 6 (September 1943): 62–64; Martin Schirber., “Schools of Rural Life,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 106–07.

21. Martin Schirber, “An Open Letter to Sisters,” Land and Home 8 (March 1945): 8–9. Figures were similar in 1945: 1,700 priests, 9,600 sisters, 9,900 lay persons, 775 seminarians. Martin Schirber, “Rural Life Schools—Reconversion,” Land and Home 9 (March 1946): 1–2. The large number of sisters probably reflects their prominence in Catholic education. Whether there are links between these schools and the contemporary importance of green issues among several women’s religious orders would repay further study: See Patricia Lefevre, “Protecting the Planet: ‘Green nuns’ put land ethic into action,” National Catholic Reporter 39 (19 September 2003): 29, 35.

22. Rev. William Schimek, “Retreats for Farmers,” Land and Home 9 (March 1946): 5–7; “Farmers and the Just Price,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (August 1940): 15; “A Catholic Farmers’ Conference,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (February 1941): 15; “Jottings from Comprehensive Reports of Rural Life Directors,” Land and Home 8 (December 1945): 109–11.

23. “What about a Practical Farmers’ Journal?” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (August 1938): 15.

24. “Catholic Rural Life Notes in Brief,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (November 1941): 27. The Christian Farmer had been founded independently of the Conference by the Wisconsin priest Urban Baer in 1940.

25. Raymond Witte, Twenty-five Years Crusading: A History of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (Des Moines: National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1948), 165.

26. Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 315.

27. On the advocacy of part-time suburban agriculture, see the Benedictine economist Martin Schirber’s review of Theodore Schultz’s Agriculture in an Unstable Economy, “Rural Literature,” Land and Home 9 (September 1946): 88. On the argument that agricultural policies be changed, see Nutting, Reclamation of Independence; William Gibbons, S.J., “Whither Agriculture,” Land and Home 10 (February 1947): 1–3.

28. [Ligutti], “You’re a Communist” Land and Home 5 (September 1942): 14–15; “Must Have Misunderstood the Monseigneur,” Christian Farmer, November 1947, 6.

29. John LaFarge, “Europe Reconsiders Rural Life,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2 (February 1939): 3–7, 23–24. The motto, “in the east we shall be free” would warrant the Nazi claim that Germany’s agrarian destiny lay in the Aryan colonization of Poland, and even the Ukraine. Edgar Schmiedeler, “A Review of the Year,” Proceedings of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference 12 (1934): 33–40, quotation on 42; George Timpe, “Landward—At Home and Abroad,” Proceedings of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 11 (1933): 47–51, quotation on 49; O. E. Baker, “Will More or Fewer People Live on the Land?,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Second Series [1936], 57–71; Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 340.

30. It had begun to do this in 1937, at the Richmond meeting, one of its few non-midwestern conferences. There both African-American and Hispanic rural welfare were considered. See Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Third Series of Papers dealing with some of the Economic, Social and Spiritual Interests of the American Farmer (St. Paul, Minn.: National Catholic Rural Life Conference, [1937]). See also John LaFarge, “Rural Racial Problems,” Land and Home 7 (June 1944): 66–67; Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 454, 497. Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 172.

31. [Joseph Ettel], “I Am a Country Pastor,” Land and Home 10 (September 1947): 82; “The Battle of Food,” Land and Home 6 (June 1943): 54. It is clear that concerns about overpopulation linked in turn to campaigns for contraception were important in prompting this perspective. See Charles E. Kellogg, “The Earth can Feed Her People,” Christian Farmer, April 1949, 3, 6; “Exhuming Malthus,” Christian Farmer, December 1949, 3; Bovee, The Church and the Land, 365–73.

32. As minor exceptions, one might note a position paper, “Rural Life in a Peaceful World,” Land and Home 6 (December 1943): 104–05; a 1945 interfaith document “Man’s Relation to the Land—Land Policy,” Land and Home 8 (September 1945): 61–62—signed by seventy-five Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish rural leaders, and the most eloquent philosophical argument for agrarianism, Willis Nutting’s 1947 Reclamation of Independence. Nutting’s book, however, was obscurely published. The interfaith document called for protection of family ownership of farmland unless the land were being poorly farmed, but there was no organization to further this campaign. The Ligutti-Rawe Rural Roads to Security was reprinted in 1947, however.

33. “John C. Rawe, S.J, 1900–1947,” Land and Home 10 (December 1947): 94; Raymond M. Miller, Monseigneur Ligutti: The Pope’s County Agent (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1981); Vincent Yzermans, The People I Love: A Biography of Luigi G. Ligutti (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1976).

34. Luigi Ligutti and John C. Rawe, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom, 301; Leo R.Ward, “The Land and Human Values,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (August 1938): 2–4, 18. Compare to Berry, Unsettling of America, 110. Almost always the liberating language of the agrarians was addressed to men, though the unit of the agrarian revolution is the nuclear family. There are exceptions, however.

35. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 235, 48.

36. Ibid., 296, 30, 302.

37. Ironically, in America distributist ideals would initially be championed in secular circles by Herbert Agar. During the 1940s in particular the NCRLC was in sporadic contact with the English distributist movement led by Fr. Vincent McNabb, but it largely ignored that heritage on the grounds that the structural problems of agriculture were too dissimilar in the two countries. See Raymond G. Miller C.Ss.R., “Some Agrarian Beginnings,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (November 1940): 22–23; Charles Melish, “Big City Magazine talks Country,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (August 1941): 82–83. On Virgil Michel, see Paul Marx, O.S.B., The Life and Work of Virgil Michel (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1957). The Catholic Worker movement would have much closer ties to McNabb (Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 70).

38. Rawe, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in Agriculture,” 37–38; Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 18, 28; Willis Nutting, “The Catholic College and the Land,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (November 1938): 2–4, 22–24, quotation on 3.

39. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 18, 28, 50.

40. A green revolutionary like himself might be dubbed “an anarchist who happens to like farming,” admitted Nutting (Reclamation of Independence, 144). See also Frederick Kenkel, “The Ethical and Religious Background of Cooperation,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, [1935]), 43–47, quotation on 43–44. The anarchist strain probably draws less on Kropotkin than on P. J. Proudhon, refracted through the Belgian philosopher Yves Simon.

41. Raymond Miller, “The ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ and the Reconstruction of Agriculture,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, Second Series [1936]), 47–56. The communal ownership of farmland was not an option, however, since the farm was to be the primary unit of the family. Some New Deal agricultural analysts and some Protestant agrarians, by contrast, were attracted to collective farming in certain regions (Richard Kirkendall, Social Scientists and Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966); Jerry Dallas, “The Delta and Providence Farms: A Mississippi Experiment in Cooperative Farming and Racial Cooperation, 1936–1956,” Mississippi Quarterly 40 (1987): 283–308.

42. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 92. Those unable to distinguish the monopolizing collectivist implications of laissez-faire, Calvinism, and economic liberalism from “private ownership, private property, and private operation” properly understood, were already on the road to becoming victims of monopolization. (Ibid., 45, see also 75–76).

43. Richard Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), esp. ch. 3.

44. Schmiedeler, A Better Rural Life, 137, 144. On European political agrarianism see Urwin, From Ploughshare to Ballotbox.

45. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 336–42 ; E. I. Chicanot, “Cooperatives Expand in Canadian West,” Land and Home 8 (December 1945): 114–16. This work was recognized well beyond Catholic circles. See How St. F. X. University Educates for Action: The Story of the Remarkable Results Achieved by the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia (New York: The Cooperative League, [1935]); Leo R. Ward, C.S.C., Nova Scotia: the Land of Cooperation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942.See also Ligutti’s review in “Rural Literature,” Land and Home 6 (March 1943): 29–30; Bertram Fowler, The Lord Helps those … How the People of Nova Scotia are Solving their Problems through Cooperation (New York: Vanguard Press, 1938).

46. Edgar Schmiedeler, “Art in the Countryside,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (September 1938), 7–9, 27–28. In part, this interest too came by way of Nova Scotia. See Michael Gillis, “The Adult Education Movement in Nova Scotia,” in Catholic Rural Life Objectives, A Second Series of Discussions, 73–80. Scandinavian (particularly Danish) social and economic experiments fascinated non-Catholic reformers as well. See Daniel T. Rogers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 318–66.

47. Walter Lowdermilk, “‘Lebensraum’—Agrarianism vs. War,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (August 1940): 16–17, 20–21. On Lowdermilk, see Douglas Helms, “Lowdermilk, Walter Clay,” American National Biography; on Baker, see Witte, Twenty-five Years’ Crusading, 116–17. On anticipation see Richard Kirkendall, Social Scientists and Farm Politics in the Age of Roosevelt, 142–43.

48. “Papal Pronouncements,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2 (August 1939): 15. Editor James Byrnes’ comment is indicative of the ambivalence. To Catholics, such “endorsement serves hardly at all as reassurance of the correctness of their position”; it was “welcome … as evidence that statements emanating from the Vatican are scrutinized in quarters where policies are made.”

49. The classic Arvin-Dinuba study of the relation of farm size to community health in California’s central valley, commissioned by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics in the mid-1940s, carried out by Walter Goldschmidt, and published in 1947, treated churches as a key feature of community health but not as a key factor in the constitution of community. Goldschmidt was also more interested in Protestant sectarianism than in Catholicism—Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1947); Kirkendell, Social Scientists and Farm Politics, 223–25.

50. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 174, 192. It does appear that the Conference was enthusiastic at the beginning (Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 65).

51. McDonagh, Men Astutely Trained, 89. Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom had early been attracted to Anglo-Catholic distributism. See Paul Conkin, The Southern Agrarians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), 107–08; Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 117.

52. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 11; L. G. Miller, “Some Agrarian Beginnings,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (November 1940): 22–23.

53. Conference leaders also regularly quoted from Who Owns America, a polemic by Agar and the Vanderbilt agrarian Allen Tate. For a fuller review of relations, see Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 137–8, 158, 168. Some of Rawe’s views had first appeared in Agar’s journal Free America.

54. Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 228. On Borsodi, who was also a single-taxer and generally hostile to religion, see Richard Douglas Schubart, “Ralph Borsodi: the Political Biography of a Utopian Socialist, 1886–1977” (PhD diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1984); Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 68.

55. “Hitchhiking for Rural Life,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (May 1941): 55.

56. “Current Literature,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2 (February 1939): 29–30; “Our Book Department,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (February 1941): 26. Also for sale were provocatively titled pamphlets by Michel: “Critique of Capitalism,” “Labor and Industry.” Its increasing conservatism by 1946 is evident in the changed stock. Gone are the Michel pamphlets; replacing them are such titles as “Sacramental Protection of the Family,” “St. Isidore: Patron of the Farmer,” and “This is Marriage.” “Pamphlets Published by and Available at National Catholic Rural Life Conference,” Land and Home 9 (June 1946): 60.

57. Reviewers occasionally were perplexed that when non-Catholic authors either ignored the Catholic perspective or caricatured it as hopelessly medieval. See LGL, “Review of Sorokin, The Crisis of our Age,” Land and Home 5 (June 1942): 29; FSM, “Review of Arthur Morgan, The Small Community,” in Land and Home 6 (March 1943): 29–30. They had some right to be: Russell Lord, The Agrarian Revival (New York: American Association for Adult Education, 1939), shares their critique. Lord begins by quoting Chesterton and alluding to the “spiritual,” but ignores the community-building efforts of the Catholic agrarians.

58. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 8; cf. 104–05: “industrialization … will reduce a nation of free citizens, to slaves, bring death to living things, barrenness to its soils, and final reduction of its rich acres to deserts, gullies, and dust bowls.” On the Worster-Malin controversy on causes of the dust bowl, Conference writers uniformly take an interpretation in keeping with Worster’s view: William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78 (March 1992): 1347–76. They also had concerns with regard to irrigation that were similar to Worster’s. See Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985).

59. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 84, 87, 919–2, 204–05, 204.

60. Ibid., 126, 132, 189, 204–05, 212.

61. Rawe, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness in Agriculture,” 43; Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 204, 189.

62. “Presidential Address,” Proceedings of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference 11 (1933): 10–15, quotation on 12–13. Compare to Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” 121. The Conference members heard a mixed message from agricultural school deans. Chris Christensen of the University of Wisconsin looked to overseas markets and economies of scale. H. L. Walster of the North Dakota Agricultural College, however, pushed conservation of soil, water, and manure, greater social accountability in land use. Chris Christensen, “The Place of Youth in Agriculture and Rural Life,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, Second Series [1936], 19–26; H. L. Walster, “Backgrounds of Economic Distress in the Great Plains,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, Second Series [1936], 101–09, quotation on 103–04. Conference leaders had not taken such a view in the 1920s. At that time they had endorsed the productivist policies of the American Farm Bureau and the rationalizing agenda of public agricultural science (Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 12–14).

63. John Rawe, “Catholic Rural Social Planning,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, Third Series, [1937]); 71–81, quotations on 76, 78. Despite the prominence of rural sociology in the Conference’s outlook, its relations with the academic rural sociology being developed by Pitirim Sorokin and Carle Zimmerman appear to have been distant, notwithstanding a remarkable degree of common concern (Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 35–39). Rawe’s research agenda corresponds closely to what would be called “Farming Systems Research in the 1980s (Hamlin and Shepard, Deep Disagreement, ch. 13.)

64. Willis Nutting, “The Catholic College and the Land,” 2–4, 22–24.

65. Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 169–71, 282, 326; Witte, Twenty-five Years Crusading, 118–20, 207; Thomas J. Schlereth, The University of Notre Dame A Portrait of Its History and Campus (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 150–51.

66. “An Invitation and a Challenge,” Land and Home 5 (March 1942): 15. In 1946 Sacco laid out a detailed plan for a two-year Catholic practical farming course and started the St. Ambrose course in the same year. Two years later he was being listed as diocesan agronomist. “Diocesan Activities,” Land and Home 9 (March 1946): 12–13; Christian Farmer, August 1948, 2. According to Bovee, (“The Church and the Land,” 326), the course was still being given in 1960.

67. Suzanne Peters, “The Land in Trust: A Social History of the Organic Farming Movement” (PhD Diss., McGill University, 1979).

68. John Thomas and James Mcshane, “Farmers Must Reform Methods of Farming,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (November 1941): 100–03, 106; Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 189. Marlett rightly notes that “Catholic agrarians used bio-dynamic as a tool of cultural criticism as much as for agricultural reform” (Saving the Heartland, 42–46, quotation on 46).

69. “Rural Literature,” Land and Home 7 (March 1944): 29; Ligutti and Rawe, 116–17, 217–20; Rawe, “What, Where, and Why of Bio-Dynamics,” Land and Home 6 (September 1943): 67–68; Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 232. The Central Verein shared the interest. It would look to the English Soil Association and to Rodale publications as well as the biodynamic school: “Back to Humus,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 116–17.

70. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 13, 197–98; “Man and the Soil,” Land and Home 6 (June 1943): 49; “Rural Life in the Press,” Land and Home 6 (March 1943): 28; “Gleanings: Chemical Fertilizer,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 98; “Is White Bread Slow Poison?,” Christian Farmer, April 1948, 2. Albrecht’s researches, as well as the biodynamic tradition, would continue to be an important departure point for progressivist eco-agriculture in the 1970s, chiefly that version associated with the Kansas City agrarian, Charles Walters Jr. (Hamlin and Shepard, Deep Disagreement); Julian Pleasants, “Homesteading and Health,” Land and Home 10 (March 1947): 26–28.

71. “What Will Happen to the Swallows?” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (May 1941): 45.

72. Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 365–75; Jim Roe, “Super-Killers not so Duper,” Christian Farmer, July 1949, 2. See also James Whorton, Before Silent Spring (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), epilogue.

73. Edgar Schmiedeler, “Art in the Countryside,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (November 1938): 7–9, 27–28; Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 264; Emerson Hynes, “Rural Culture—A Necessity,” Land and Home 10 (March 1947): 7–10; [Ettel], “I am a Country Pastor,” Land and Home 8 (March 1945): 12.

74. [Ligutti], “Cultural Erosion,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 104.

75. The only explicit reference is a translation, without comment, of the “Sun Song” (the “brother Sun, sister Moon” poem): “Altissimo, Omnipotente, Bon Signore (the Sun Song of St. Francis),” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2 (May 1939): 10. A Spring 1938 column of the Hector, Minnesota, priest Joseph Ettel, however, is broadly Franciscan: “Every sprouting plant bursting the soil about it seemed to symbolize the Resurrection. The birds were chirping and singing their Lauds: the pert sparrows, loudest and noisiest of them all, proud and grateful, because of the assurance that Jesus gave them of His solicitude that not one of them should fall without the watchful care of God’s providence”; “It doesn’t strain the imagination to have the hills and the mountains, the sun and the moon, the heavens and the earth, the beasts and the birds, the dews and the fountains bless and praise the Lord; it’s much harder though to imagine a brick wall saying “Benedicte,” or a cement walk singing “Laudate.” “I am a Country Pastor,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1(May 1938): 5.

76. Sr. Mary Samuel, “Sisters for the Country,” Land and Home 6 (September 1943): 65–66.

77. Virgil Michel, “The Cooperative Movement and the Liturgical Movement,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives, Second Series, [1936]), 13–18.

78. “The Importance of the Rural Question,” Manifesto on Rural Life (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1939), 192. The notion of normative social sciences carried over to sociology. Schmiedeler dedicated his book to “To the greatest Rural Sociologist of All Times”—St. Benedict (A Better Rural Life, front matter); Hilary Leighton Barth, “Review of Behold our Land,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 2 (August 1939): 29.

79. “Land Policy,” Land and Home 8 (September 1945): 61–62. On the origins of the document, see Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 168. Similar use of “stewardship” is evident in earlier Conference writings, and the Manifesto of Rural Life, section 9, 17.

80. Edward W. O’Rourke, “Soil Saving—A Plan,” Land and Home 10 (March 1947): 22–23; William Mulloy, “The President Speaks,” Land and Home 10 (March 1947): 12–13.

81. O’Rourke, “Soil Saving,” 22–23.

82. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 52, 193. Things acquired value as creations for divine purposes. They would have argued that however one worked out a set of values of created things, the same principles would have underwritten the valuation of the human as the non human. To the degree that “intrinsic” implied transcending purpose, it would have made no sense to them.

83. Paul Sacco, “Soil Reconstruction,” Land and Home 10 (December 1947): 91–93; “Acre of Pond versus Acre of Pasture,” Christian Farmer, August 1948, 4; “The Ideal Farm Pond,” Christian Farmer, July 1948, 3; “Birds Draw the Color Line,” Christian Farmer, October, 1949, 2; “To Rural Scouts,” Christian Farmer, June 1948, 3.

84. Virgil Michel, “Birth Control,” in Social Concepts and Social Problems (Collegeville, Minn.: Order of St. Benedict, 1936), 114–16. See a series of experts’ assessments, assembled by Ligutti, on the expandability of the American agricultural sector. “Notes and Comments: Is There Room on the Land for More Full-time and Part-time Farmers in Postwar America?” Land and Home 8 (March 1945): 14–5.

85. Julie DeJager Ward, La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

86. Donald T. Critchlow, “Birth Control, Population Control, and Family Planning an Overview,” in “The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control in Historical Perspective” ed. Donald T. Critchlow (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 2–21. Schmiedeler would make opposition to birth control the thrust of his later career: Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 39.

87. One priest complained that wilderness spirituality had been co-opted by paganism, and in particular Nazi paganism, and urged its reclamation by Catholics in the postwar era. Terrance Tully, “Cracked Corn,” Land and Home 8 (December 1945): 117.

88. This is evident even in a striking Catholic treatment of the romantic sublime, in a mid- nineteenth-century attack on Protestant cultural hegemony by John Spaulding, bishop of Peoria: “In the presence of so silent and awful, yet so vocal, everything inclines the heart of man to hearken to the voice of God. Mountains and rivers; long-withdrawing vales and deep-sounding cataracts.” Yet the sublimity sets up the seasonal cyclicity with which Spaulding ends the sentence: “A … winter’s snows, and spring, over whose heaving bosom the unseen hand weaves the tapestry that mortal fingers never made; summer’s warm breath, and autumn, when the strong year first feels the chill of death, and ‘tears from the depth of some more divine despair rise in the heart and gather to the eyes.'” From Spaulding, Essays and Reviews, 1877, quoted in Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 10.

89. Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” 21–22.

90. “I am a Country Pastor,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 3 (March 1940): 5.

91. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 217–20; Rawe, “What, Where, and Why of Bio-Dynamics,” Land and Home 6 (September 1943): 67–68. The language suggests that Rawe was supplementing Bio-Dynamics with English organicist writers like Albert Howard and Eve Balfour. On the English input see Graham Carey, “The Art of Agriculture,” Land and Home 5 (September 1942): 8–10; “Back to Humus,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 116–17; and Jorian Jenks, “Agriculture as a Constant,” Land and Home 9 (December 1946): 114.

92. [Ettel], “I am a Country Pastor,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (May 1941): 35.

93. Bennie Bengtson, “Color in Rural Life,” Land and Home 8 (December 1945): 112–13. There is a machine aesthetic too: “Plowing for the potatoes I liked to watch the rich brown furrow crests slip by, to feel the power of the machine beneath me as I moved up and down the field, to hear the steading even churning of the exhaust.” In a few cases this cyclic focus made explicit reference to the Church calendar. See Rev. Benedict Ehmann, “Gather Ye into My Barns,” Land and Home 9 (September 1946): 66–67.

94. E. M. Tiffany, “The Soil,” Christian Farmer, April 1949, 8.

95. “Prayer for the Christian Farmer,” 1940, quoted in Witte, Twenty-five Years’ Crusading, 176; Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 152. However, the Conference also published a prayer asking God to protect from hail: “Prayer for the Blessing of the Fields,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 1 (May 1938): 13.

96. Its greatest influence may well have been outside the United States. Forthcoming work by Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens will detail the importance of the Conference and of Catholic agrarianism for the hundreds of American priests sent to work in rural Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s and ultimately its role in the emergence of liberation theology. Both Ligutti and O’Hara had important contacts in Latin America and traveled there repeatedly (Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 49).

97. William Gauchat, “Cult, Culture and Cultivation,” Catholic Rural Life Bulletin 4 (August 1941): 64–66; Bovee, “The Church and the Land,” 245.

98. Ligutti and Rawe, Rural Roads, 111–12, 200; “Land Policy,” Land and Home 8 (September 1945): 61–62; Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind, 119.

99. Along with tensions with radical environmentalism, Marlett notes a number of factors: the marginalization of Catholicism in American intellectual life; the marginalization of the Midwest and of midwestern Catholics; the rejection after Vatican II of elements of the Catholic heritage that were maintained most strongly in the Midwest (Saving the Heartland, 164–67). Nonetheless, discussion of this project with friends who grew up Catholic in the northern Midwest has elicited memories of activities that reflect the Conference’s work.

100. On the problems of Catholic Worker communes see Marlett, Saving the Heartland, 70–73. Particularly for rural America, community has been recognized as exceedingly important, yet hard to document. See Robert Swierenga, “Theoretical Perspectives on the New Rural History: from Environmentalism to Modernization,” Agricultural History 56 (1982): 495-502; also Alisdair MacIntyre, who ends his celebrated study After Virtue with a plea for a new, “but doubtless very different,” St. Benedict: After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 263. Contemporaneous urban Catholics were inclined to view their neighborhoods as sacred ground, John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 13–25.

101. Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107 (June 2002): 798–820.