It is sad to remark that in preparing this introduction I found myself reading The Church and the Land in a tattered library edition of 1936. The book was well-worn, read by farmers, students, and monks of a different era. Heavily thumbed and creased, my edition had travelled through two college libraries, the College of St. Benedict (St. Joseph, Minnesota) and Mary College (Bismarck, North Dakota). There was no evidence of the book having been checked out in half a century. Yet I knew that my reading copy was a fortunate survival. The book in my hands had been called to Virginia from halfway across the country because the name and works of Vincent McNabb have slipped away from Catholic memory.
Vincent McNabb, O.P.: A Dangerous and Holy Crank
Joseph McNabb was born at Portaferry, Ireland near Belfast on July 8, 1868. He was the tenth child of eleven, born to a sea captain and a peasant mother who both exemplified the loving and capable parenthood that so often marks McNabb's social criticism. In McNabb's own family he saw an image of the Holy Family of Nazareth, for him the symbol and model of true Christian social order. Though without much money, the McNabbs were not without joy and charity. McNabb's earliest memories of his family life were of his mother's love for her own children, as well as the truly poor of the parish. McNabb set out in Eleven, Thank God!, a defense of the family that could thaw the most rigorous heart of our childless Age.
...McNabb held that Catholics should break entirely with the urban industrialized miasma of London and Birmingham and flee to the fields. In England, McNabb became the major proponent of the Catholic Land Movement, which sought to establish clusters of homesteading families in the countryside. The self-sufficient and anti-machine ethos of the movement bears some resemblance to the Amish. McNabb's agrarian vision, however, is more reminiscent of the Benedictine tradition. Perhaps the ubiquitous influence of Newman on English Catholicism is at work?
McNabb was not clamoring for separatism, but calling for integration. Today's white-washed history, so fascinated with urbanism and high technology, would have us believe that McNabb and his compatriots were nothing but obsolete cranks. Yet in four years alone, between 1926 and 1930, 14,000 men formally applied for small-holding grants with the British Ministry of Agriculture. Seventy-three percent of those involved during the first quarter of the century stayed on the land and became established farmers. In the United States, there was an even greater movement in the wake of large scale disillusionment with the volatility of finance capitalism. Between 1930 and 1932 alone, some 764,000 people moved from the city to the countryside to take up life on the land. McNabb, of course, was not simply concerned with economic security, important thought this was. McNabb hoped those he persuaded would find a life, like the Benedictine achievement, at harmony with nature, a life where work, worship, intellectual leisure, and family life were all of a cloth.
McNabb and Distributism: A Thumbnail Sketch
...Distributism may be described as a social disposition held by those who emphasize life as lived out in a local community. Distributists see this emphasis as the best response to the modern tendency of man to be attenuated by participation in larger abstract associations. Distributists hold that there is an organic link between the person, the family, the homestead, the city, and the State. Yet Distributists view concentrated political and economic power with suspicion and seek to influence private and public initiatives in such a way as to encourage a decentralized polity and the widespread distribution of property. Distributism encourages the orderly desire for ownership (in particular, the ownership of the means of production) among individuals, free families, and independent worker co-operatives.
Distributism was shaped initially in Great Britain by Hilaire Belloc, G.K. and Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty, Eric Gill, and, of course, Fr. McNabb. The movement came as a response to the perceived twin evils of Communism and the unrestricted Capitalism generated by classical liberal ideology. Both of these systems emphasize the materialist dimension of man and are marked by a false faith in the continual unfolding of Progress. McNabb and Belloc vociferously pointed to the unity of Marxism and contemporary Capitalism in their materialistic leveling of man. The point has been re-emphasized recently by Pope John Paul II in his reflection on Rerum Novarum: it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs. From the beginning, two complementary traditions of European thought opposed this two-headed liberal materialism and deeply influenced Distributist writings: Thomism, restored to prominence under Pope Leo XIII, and the anti-Whig medievalism of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century English cultural conservatives such as Cobbett, Coleridge, Ruskin, and Newman.
Distributist ideas would enter into North America chiefly through the works of the English Distributists and the growing influence of Catholic social teaching in political and economic thought. The works of Chesterton, Belloc, and McNabb had a deep and lasting influence on Catholics in America through numerous books published by the Newman, Bruce, and Sheed & Ward presses. Print works fostered personal contacts. The American, Herbert Agar, as London correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal and a regular columnist for the American Review, became a close literary friend with Chesterton and gave public prominence to Distributism. While Distributist ideas enjoyed broadening circulation in the 1930s and early '40s, it is little surprise given that the most successful American Distributists in the early twentieth century were Catholics, such as Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and members of the original Catholic Worker movement; Graham Walker and the New England Distributist League; and Virgil Michel, as well as those associated with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
...Together, the Distributists and the agrarians stood for local traditions, self-sufficiency, an economic life centered on the household, the stewardship of the land, and local political activism. They stood against the mechanization of society, laissez-faire capitalism, consumerism, cultural homogenization, the destruction of rural and small town life, and the veiled socialism of the Roosevelt administration. Together the Distributists and agrarians attempted to preserve what was described as a Jeffersonian position in American political life. The journal Free America became the flagship publication for the alliance in America; within Catholic circles, the Social Justice Review, Orate, Fratres, and The Catholic Worker regularly printed the essays of Distributists. In the British Isles, Eye Witness, The New Age, The New Witness and G.K.'s Weekly were the principal venues, with the Tablet, the Dublin Review and T.S. Eliot's Criterion occasionally weighing in. Whereas the Distributists anchored their thought in what they saw as a wider natural tendency for man to flourish in a local community, the Southern Agrarians worked out of a specifically regional milieu. The Southern Agrarians' quintessential but exclusive regionalism made a lasting and effective union impossible and the two remained merely allied forces achieving little public effect after the appearance of Who Owns America? in 1936. In recent years, the chief heir to this tradition in North America is Wendell Berry of Kentucky.
...In narrating the tradition, we place Vincent McNabb among the agrarians and Distributists. McNabb, however, was long uncomfortable with such easy labels:
For him, his economic and social theory was not his, it was not Chesterton's, it was not Belloc's, it was the social teaching of St. Thomas, of the Fathers, and of Holy Scripture. Distributism was merely Faith and Morals affecting the temporal affairs of Christians, in particular, affecting their social, political, and economic life.
The Need for (radical) McNabbian Conversion
Yet, a reader may ask, what really is the relevance of such thought today? Even if we accept McNabb's personal holiness, has not the science of economics so advanced that we may understand and treat our social ills much more effectively than in Leo XIII's or Vincent McNabb's day? Surely, we do not have to worry about the industrialization of the workplace or the effects of factory life on the home? The foulness of a disrupted food system has passed away as have the dark satanic mills of the western landscape. Food and material wealth are in abundance; classical liberalism has won the day. Surely, no one would consider Fr. McNabb's positions as either prescient for his day or appropriate to our own. As for homesteading and small crafts, these have gone the way of the draft horse, the windmill, and the iron forge.
Well, dear reader, the fact that you have kept going after that last paragraph points to at least a whisper of hesitation over whether or not all is well. Modern man, for all his climate-controlled comforts and toys, still doubts that he has it right.
Let us turn first to the work place. In McNabb's day there was a cry to improve the hideous conditions of the worker. In certain areas, victory can be claimed though to what body or system we should grant the laurel leaves is disputed. Certainly working conditions in many western countries are improved. On the other hand, most of the (so-called) manufacturing work that McNabb challenged so squarely has moved to the Southern Hemisphere and the Far East, comfortably beyond the horizon of suburbia. Do we really think that the working conditions at any of the mills and factories that provide our clothing, tools, and raw materials are significantly different from the slums of Pittsburg, Birmingham, or Dublin a century ago?
...Hence the gravity of the problem perceived by McNabb. To the degree that there is not a Christian social order, the souls of men will be assailed and scorched. To the degree that there is not an honest Christian social order, the life of virtue and indeed salvation itself lie beyond the eye of the needle, and Man becomes a lusty camel satisfied with this world's blandishments. Man becomes a rich, well-fed, well-paid, and thoroughly amused beast.
Joy, both eternal and temporal, evades modern men and women. Why? In the name of freedom we have been told to forsake the very material conditions which might support a life befitting human dignity. Everyday becomes a day calling us to practice heroic virtue. We are conditioned to suspect as coercive, confining, or outdated institutions such as the family farm and the tradition of the family-directed business and craft; indeed, we now fear the family itself.
And yet...does anyone still grow restless like McNabb upon scanning the horizon? The answer, thankfully, is yes. There are, of course, the remnant of Western communities that never abandoned the traditional peasant life of the West: we find this remnant in the remote farms of Poland, Ireland, and Mexico. We find it in North America among the Amish and Mennonites. Nor has the West lacked thoughtful men who have seen the problem and tried to steer men away from proletarian existence: the original Catholic worker movement, the Southern Agrarians, Russell Kirk, and Wendell Berry.
What is more, the very voice that in McNabb's day tried to call men from their lotus-slumber still calls. The Catholic Church still holds that the world is in need of redemption. And for those willing to look beyond the proud prelates of the Church and the conveniently distracting scandals, much of the message is the same, if lacking in McNabb's Thomistic lucidity and Irish wit. Ironically, as the Church increases her study of globalization, She remains constant in her praise of traditional ways of life.
...Meanwhile, those who believe that Rome has, with the 1991 publication of Centesimus Annus, abandoned the Church's earlier social economic tradition and moved in the direction of classical liberalism fail to note the heavy qualifications placed on any approval of the market system. Additionally they must dismiss or ignore the subsequent criticisms of the resurgence of classical liberal economic policy. And they cannot pretend that it is or was the intention of the Church, with John Paul's concessions to the free economy or market economy, to contradict Herself by retracting or softening the condemnation of economic liberalism which forms one of the essential bases of the earlier social encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.
McNabb would have been pleased with the Church's constancy, if distressed at the decline of faithful support for the social teachings especially among lay and clerical intellectuals since his day. Not only are the worker and his rights, the life of traditional agricultural societies, and the wide-spread distribution and just stewardship of resources still championed, but the life of the family remains as well at the center of the Church's discussion of a Christian social order.
If such teachings are to be more than manualistic cookbooks of Christian knowledge, they must of course be anchored to Christian tradition. There exists a tradition. But if tradition is to remain a living force, it must be handed down to those who will practice and defend the life envisioned. Vincent McNabb's work points to a concrete attempt to replace the twisted lights of a crooked Age with the lamp of perennial wisdom. Let us read McNabb and not react; but armed with principles, confident and humble, let us act. Let us put aside shadows and tokens and seek instead a life natural, dignified, and holy.
William Edmund Fahey
Front Royal, Virginia