vincent mcnabbThe Church and the Landby Fr. Vin­cent Mc­N­abb.

Few in our time have heard of Fa­ther Vincent McNabb—Irish­man, Do­mini­can the­olo­gian, lead­ing light among the Dis­trib­utists, and man of par­a­dig­matic char­ac­ter. Nor would many today rel­ish what he had to say if, by some chance en­counter, they were in­tro­duced to one or more of his thirty books and nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles. For he was no apol­o­gist for the way we live now. In truth he re­pu­di­ated it. He ar­gued prophet­i­cally that, since the In­dus­trial, French, and Sci­en­tific Rev­o­lu­tions, life in the West, hav­ing cen­tered it­self doggedly around the city and its mech­a­nis­tic val­ues, has lapsed into a stu­por of eco­nomic and moral con­fu­sion.

Nowhere did he make this ar­gu­ment stronger than in The Church and the Land, orig­i­nally pub­lished in Lon­don in 1925, and lately re­cov­ered and made avail­able under the aus­pices of IHS Press. In pen­ning and prof­fer­ing this “unity of thought and pur­pose,” as he de­scribed it, Mc­N­abb was not hop­ing “merely to make men read a book of his.” He was se­ri­ously seek­ing to in­cite the Catholics of his day “to ac­cept a chal­lenge and even to or­ga­nize a cru­sade.” The end of that cru­sade, the ob­ject of McNabb’s chal­lenge to the faith­ful, was a re­turn to con­tem­pla­tive rural life.

Back of Mc­N­abb’s chal­lenge was the his­tory of the British land­lords, who, by the eigh­teenth cen­tury, had be­come mere money-minded squires bent on com­pet­ing with urban man­u­fac­tur­ers by em­bark­ing upon schemes of “agri­cul­tural im­prove­ment.” Fore­most among these schemes were the en­clo­sures, the pri­mary in­ten­tion of which was to max­i­mize the rents of the lords’ lands. From the point of view of mere agri­cul­tural ef­fi­ciency, per­fected meth­ods of cul­ti­va­tion were a boon, in­so­far as they in­creased pro­duc­tion of es­sen­tial food­stuffs. But in the words of one of Mc­N­abb’s fel­low con­trib­u­tors to The Found­ing Pa­pers of the Catholic Land Move­ment (an­other vol­ume now avail­able through the reis­su­ing ef­forts of IHS Press), the agri­cul­tural pol­icy of the land­lords re­sulted fi­nally in oust­ing “the old small yeomen in favour of the later big ten­ant farm­ers.”

Though the cir­cum­stances were al­to­gether dif­fer­ent, in­de­pen­dent farm­ing in the United States suf­fered a com­pa­ra­ble de­cline in the first half of the last cen­tury. The cause was the Amer­i­can dream of pros­per­ity under the in­flu­ence of which the small farmer de­cided to grow fewer con­sum­able crops to feed his fam­ily and more cash crops to ex­change at mar­ket for legal ten­der. This de­ci­sion marked the be­gin­ning of the end of the Amer­i­can sub­sis­tence farmer, who, ul­ti­mately, be­came a ser­vant to the mar­ket as well as a vic­tim of its fluc­tu­a­tions. As the com­pet­i­tive farm­ing of cash crops evolved into a risky en­ter­prise nec­es­sar­ily re­liant upon sci­en­tific meth­ods and ma­chines that had to be pur­chased with ei­ther token wealth or bank credit, many whose an­ces­tors had en­joyed rel­a­tive in­de­pen­dence in the coun­try­side flocked to urban areas where they joined the servile ranks of pro­le­tar­ian wage earn­ers.

Mc­N­abb be­lieved there were ur­gent rea­sons why the Church could not ig­nore the prob­lem of ur­ban­iza­tion in the An­glo-Amer­i­can world. For one, the sheer num­ber of Catholics in­volved was sig­nif­i­cant. Be­tween the World Wars, up to ninety-five per­cent of Great Britain’s Catholic pop­u­la­tion, which had grown in the nine­teenth-cen­tury as a re­sult of the Ox­ford Move­ment and as an out­come of im­mi­gra­tion in the wake of the Irish famine, was urban. Dur­ing the same pe­riod in the United States, ap­prox­i­mately eighty per­cent of Catholics was con­cen­trated in in­dus­trial towns, al­though urban and rural pop­u­la­tions were roughly equal. But the most com­pelling rea­son of all was the fact that what Mc­N­abb called the smoth­er­ing “in­cubus of in­dus­tri­al­ism” threat­ened to quash the fam­ily, Catholic cul­ture, and human lib­erty.

By the time Mc­N­abb began pen­ning The Church and the Land, urban con­flu­ence, com­pe­ti­tion for wages, un­em­ploy­ment, and ra­tio­nal­iz­ing ap­peals to the­o­ries of “over­pop­u­la­tion” had al­ready pre­dis­posed ur­ban­ites to ac­cept as “en­light­ened truth” the pro­pa­ganda of neo-Malthu­sian­ism. For this rea­son, the book’s forty-one es­says, which Mc­N­abb de­picted as “the blood-spurt­ings forced from the mind and heart of a priest in life’s fight­ing line,” re­sound with a clear in­dict­ment of the prin­ci­pal neo-Malthu­sians of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, most no­tably Amer­i­can So­cial­ist Mar­garet Sanger and her Eng­lish friend Marie Stopes, the con­tro­ver­sial au­thor of Wise Par­ent­hood (1918) and founder (in 1921) of the So­ci­ety for Con­struc­tive Birth Con­trol and of Eng­land’s first “fam­ily plan­ning” clinic in Hol­loway, Lon­don.

In the neo-Malthu­sian city that Mc­N­abb de­lin­eates, “there is no pos­si­bil­ity [wages and rents being what they are] for the av­er­age work­ing man to have an av­er­age fam­ily” and still be called “re­spon­si­ble” by his peers. (What Mc­N­abb con­sid­ered to be an av­er­age fam­ily is un­clear, but he him­self was the tenth of eleven chil­dren “born to a sea cap­tain and a peas­ant mother who,” as William Fahey in­forms us in the book’s new in­tro­duc­tion, “ex­em­pli­fied the lov­ing and ca­pa­ble par­ent­hood that so often marks Mc­N­abb’s so­cial crit­i­cism.”) To avoid the av­er­age fam­ily, the av­er­age work­ing man is co­erced by the cir­cum­stances of his urban sit­u­a­tion, to which there seems to be no al­ter­na­tive, to limit his off­spring ei­ther by con­tra­cep­tion or by ab­sti­nence—ei­ther by mor­tal sin, that is, or (in Mc­N­abb’s words) by “what is for the av­er­age in­di­vid­ual heroic virtue.”

For Mc­N­abb the city was noth­ing less than a prox­i­mate oc­ca­sion for sin and con­se­quently a hin­drance to a thriv­ing and de­vout Catholic pop­u­la­tion in the in­dus­tri­al­ized West. The Church, he there­fore con­cluded, must of ne­ces­sity en­cour­age and sup­port a back-to-the-land move­ment in the de­vel­oped na­tions. It could not ex­pect “heroic virtue” of its urban mem­bers, but it could pre­sent them with an op­tional way of life, a rural way of life that had sus­tained Catholi­cism for nearly two-thou­sand years and was con­tin­u­ing to sus­tain it where a healthy peas­antry sur­vived and where vil­lages were not yet de­serted. Mc­N­abb was con­vinced that on their own and far from the madding crowd the faith­ful stood the best chance of fully re­al­iz­ing and truly ac­tu­al­iz­ing their des­tiny as crea­tures of God. On the land, in other words, they could best har­mo­nize with the im­memo­r­ial des­cant of their Catholic faith.

And what was Catholi­cism for Fa­ther Mc­N­abb but the song through which be­liev­ers know what is ob­jec­tively good and true? He knew that with­out the Church’s guid­ance in dis­tin­guish­ing rel­a­tive or sup­posed goods from ob­jec­tive or real ones, men and women are sub­ject to what Saint Au­gus­tine of Hippo called the li­bido dom­i­nandi. It was pre­cisely this, “the lust for power,” that begot the in­cubus of in­dus­tri­al­ism, which ex­ploits the meta­phys­i­cally root­less who wan­der aim­lessly in the met­ro­pol­i­tan quag­mires of ap­par­ent self-sov­er­eignty. It was the lust for power that caused in­dus­trial Eng­land to or­ga­nize its econ­omy chiefly for ex­ports—to be­come the world’s work­shop. The tragic re­sult of that ex­per­i­ment, as Mc­N­abb re­hearses it in dirge­ful com­men­ta­tion, was that “[a] peo­ple ca­pa­ble of free­dom and of a noble life in their own homesteads…​crowded into the fac­tory and the mine; where de­ceived by loud praises of their free­dom and their dig­nity, they [for­got] that they [were] the bonds­men not only of their pay­mas­ters at home, but of their freer, hap­pier pay­mas­ters abroad.”

Mc­N­abb wanted his read­ers to see that the “great in­dus­trial town which had nat­u­rally fas­ci­nated his eyes of youth and dimmed his vi­sion to the land” was not “the flower and scent of so­cial life but the scurf and pu­tres­cence of decay.” He would have pos­ter­ity re­mem­ber that, after only two hun­dred years of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, the urban cen­ters of Eng­land, Scot­land, Wales, and the United States had been “re­duced to such a state of eco­nomic bank­ruptcy . . . that race sui­cide could be made the only prac­ti­cal agenda for the peo­ple.” Until the end of his earthly so­journ he made it his apos­tolic mis­sion to em­bolden as many Catholics as pos­si­ble to flee to the fields. “Let your Ex­o­dus be after the com­ing out of Egypt,” he told them. “Leave the gar­den cities and the flesh pots, not in order to scorn sub­ur­bia or to lead a sim­ple life, but to wor­ship God.” For­sake your cos­mopoli­tan neigh­bors “not be­cause you hate them or de­spise them, but be­cause you love them so much as to hate the con­di­tions which de­grade and en­slave them.”

In his ret­ro­spec­tive in­tro­duc­tion to The Church and the Land, Pro­fes­sor Fahey ob­serves that, “be­tween 1926 and 1930, 14,000 men for­mally ap­plied for small-hold­ing grants with the British Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture.” How many of these men were di­rectly in­duced to do so by the Catholic Land Move­ment spear­headed by Mc­N­abb’s book re­mains a mat­ter of con­jec­ture. But the num­ber was likely con­sid­er­able, given the move­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion, me­thod­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, and doc­u­mented early suc­cesses. To be sure, Mc­N­abb and the Eng­lish agrar­i­ans had lit­tle if any­thing to do with a com­pa­ra­ble ex­o­dus which oc­curred in the United States from 1930 to 1932, when, ac­cord­ing to Fahey, some 764,000 Amer­i­cans took up life in the hin­ter­lands. Yet, this his­tor­i­cal rec­ol­lec­tion re­minds us that, up to the Sec­ond World War, agrar­i­an­ism and de­cen­tral­ist thought on both sides of the At­lantic had not yet been en­tirely muted by “the world of ma­chines,” as Wen­dell Berry puts it in his own call to con­tem­pla­tives, “run­ning be­yond the world of trees / Where only a leaf is turn­ing / In a small high breeze.”

It is tempt­ing to ex­pound the rel­e­vance of Mc­N­abb’s book to the pre­sent eco­nomic and moral sit­u­a­tion. Here is not the place, though, to re­con­sider Amer­ica’s sweat­shops, now out of sight, and out of mind; the no­madic lives of ca­reerists in the global econ­omy; the al­lure of the work­place, which has re­placed the home as the eco­nomic cen­ter of grav­ity; the en­thralling costs of fash­ion­ably in­ef­fi­cient au­to­mo­biles, ca­pa­cious homes, and cel­lu­lar gad­getry; the con­sump­tive bat­ten­ing upon the last ves­tiges of com­mu­nal and per­sonal au­ton­omy; the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of every as­pect of man’s pur­suit of hap­pi­ness; the decay of tra­di­tion; the loss of re­flec­tive leisure upon which au­then­tic civ­i­liza­tion de­pends.

Suf­fice it to say that the cur­rent im­por­tance of Mc­N­abb’s com­men­tary lies in the vex­ing ques­tions it causes the thought­ful to ask—yet again. And the im­per­a­tive ques­tion is this: “where are we al­low­ing our­selves to be led by our pas­sion for in­dus­trial progress and for an ever-higher stan­dard of liv­ing”? This, said Daniel Boorstin, “re­mains among the deep­est, the most em­bar­rass­ing, and the most unasked ques­tions of our day.” This, how­ever, is the ques­tion per­ti­nent to any lat­ter-day ap­pre­ci­a­tion of The Church and the Land, which, if it does noth­ing else, helps one “to con­tem­plate in the mind,” to ap­pro­pri­ate the words of sev­en­teenth-cen­tury York­shire di­vine Thomas Bur­net, “as on a tablet, the image of a greater and bet­ter world, lest the in­tel­lect, ha­bit­u­ated to the petty things of daily life, nar­row it­self and sink wholly into triv­ial thoughts.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the University Bookman (Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005)). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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