A Call to Contemplatives
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.”
Cicero Bruce teaches in the Department of English at McMurry University, Abilene, Texas.
Posted: January 31, 2006