Flee to the Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement
The Church and the Land
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
Long either entirely neglected or badly misinterpreted—sometimes regarded as a form of “socialism” by those espousing laissez faire capitalism and as too “capitalistic” by those espousing this or that variety of socialism—distributism “may be described as a social disposition held by those who emphasize life as lived out in a local community,” as William Fahey writes in his introduction to The Church and the Land. Distributists, he continues:
The movement in its prime included Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, as well as those whose names, respected in their own day, are no longer familiar, such as Chesterton’s brother Cecil, Fr. Vincent McNabb, Reginald Jebb (Belloc’s son-in-law), Fr. John McQuillan, Harold Robbins, and George Maxwell. With the exception of Chesterton, all of these have brief, representative essays in the reissued 1934 collection of papers of the Catholic Land Movement, Flee to the Fields.
The movement really began in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929. Its effects forced many in Britain (where two to three million were unemployed) to reappraise the accepted wisdom of the age that capitalism and industrialism constituted authentic expressions of Christian culture, as well as the idea—so lauded in the Victorian era—that urbanized Britain should be “the workshop of the world.”
Two facts about the conditions of urban British life in this period help explain the reason for the book. First, the industrial society of the cities was ugly, and degrading and destructive—materially, morally, and spiritually—of the family. Second, the largely immigrant population thus degraded was disproportionately Catholic. So the reappraisal of the system included a reflection on the deeper and perennial things, such as the place of the family, not only in, but—as Pope Leo XIII had put it—as a society; as well as the relationship of man to the earth, the nature of true community, the nature and inherent dignity of work, and—most important—the relationship of the soul to God.
Catholics found that answers to these questions were right under their noses: in the Bible, in St. Thomas, and in the great papal social encyclicals like Leo’s Rerum Novarum of 1891. It was the implementation of the principles found in such sources as these, and vibrantly articulated by the key distributist thinkers, that underlay the founding of the various British Catholic Land Associations, which began in Scotland in 1929.
For roughly the decade preceding World War II, which effectively ended the experiment for a number of reasons, these small rural communities were living testimonies to a more humane way of life in a deliberately Christian culture. They were set up as family-based farm communities (those who entered into the venture were thoroughly trained in farming skills), largely self-subsistent, with a high view of proficiency in craftsmanship and manual labor, decentralized where industrial production was concerned, but wholly centered in a common expression of faith. Flee to the Fields provides us with the rationale for all these aspects—and more—of this bygone undertaking through ten tightly written essays.
Some essays in the volume are, after seventy years, more obviously dated than others, but none are lacking in prophetic insight, and the social commentary they provide and the vision they promote still have challenges for us to face. Two quotations will give something of a taste of the sharp social critiques found in the essays, and they do not come from mere theorists or “armchair farmers” but from those who were actively living in the small Catholic communities they describe:
• Herbert Shove on expanding industrialism: “It is a system of living on capital, an attempt to reap where one has not sown, to satisfy the ‘greed for gain which knows no limit and tends to infinity’ [he is quoting St. Thomas] . . . fostering the inessential industries which tend to waste natural resources . . . which fill the modern home and give a false impression of a ‘high standard of living’ amongst people who do not even know what good food tastes like or how good clothes should wear . . . industrial production tends to become ever more and more of the mere rubbishy trimmings of life.”
• Reginald Jebb on the ennui of the modern wage earner (whom he likens to a drug addict) and the loss of authentic human community: “The real fact is that most wage earners have become so divorced from the responsibilities and the processes of thought inherent in free owners, that the wage they receive bears no relation in their minds to things produced or value given. . . . They start from cash paid as from an incontestable metaphysical truth, and base all their personal economic assumptions upon that. . . . The relaxations of leisure are for them things paid for and passively enjoyed. . . . Unnatural modes of life have become so habitual, that what is natural appears outlandish and dull.”
The principles upon which the land associations were founded had been well-articulated by Fr. Vincent McNabb, the brilliant and eccentric Irish Dominican greatly admired by Belloc and Chesterton, in 1925, four years before the Depression began. His The Church and the Land is a collection of his characteristically short, sharp, witty, and profoundly spiritual reflections (of a richly incarnational and Thomistic type) on matters of Catholic social doctrine. The IHS Press reprint offers a new Preface by Dr. William Edmund Fahey of Christendom College that is worth the price of the book. In it, he eviscerates our own “postmodern” societal context, thereby underscoring McNabb’s relevance for readers today.
The Church and the Land shows its age here and there, and there are things in it that would be incomprehensible for the typical modern reader apart from Fahey’s annotations. That caveat aside, the pieces are rich with perennial and pithy ideas, prayers, biblical meditations, social skewering, and prescriptions (often taken directly from Rerum Novarum) for what ails the culture, and they exhibit—in good Dominican style—indebtedness to St. Thomas and the thirteenth-century theologians. In short, this volume rewards close and thoughtful reading.
Those who are troubled by directions our society has taken in so many areas crucial to the continuance of culture—devoid as it is of moral compass or common sense or knowledge of God, repeatedly sacrificing the normal to the abnormal in everything from sexuality to entertainment to the workplace to politics to law—should spend time with these health-giving books, and anything else that IHS Press is currently publishing. The recently established publisher is to be commended for republishing long-out-of-print and hard-to-come-by classics of Catholic social teaching.
Christians of all sorts will find sustenance, challenge, encouragement, and consolation aplenty in these nearly forgotten books.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.
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