What does an artichoke animal look like?

WASHINGTON - Catholics are at risk of losing their connection to the land, according to a professor from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

"There are 244 Catholic degree-granting institutions in the United States, and not one of them offers an undergraduate degree program in agriculture," said Christopher Thompson, academic dean at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, which is housed at the university.

In the classes he has taught over the years, he said he was baffled by his students' seeming ignorance of even some of the basics.

Thompson said one student asked him what a kingfisher was. (It is a bird.) Another student asked what an aspen was. (It is a tree.) A student from Los Angeles, after going on a Thompson-led weekend retreat that visited three farms in Minnesota, remarked: "I didn't know they raised animals in Minnesota."

A graduate student in one class not only had never heard of the chemical giant Monsanto, he had trouble pronouncing its name. Another student told the professor, "I've heard that sap from maple trees is poisonous." (No; it is used to make maple syrup.) Yet another student asked, "Is it safe to put rainwater on a garden?"

"God does all the time," Thompson told members of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference during its meeting as part of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

For Thompson, the topper may have been the student who read a recipe that called for artichoke hearts and asked, "Do you know what an artichoke animal looks like?"

"These are our best and brightest," Thompson said, yet they "seem oblivious to their surroundings, especially when it comes to the land and the food that sustains them."

It is not that the Church has been silent in its teachings on environmental stewardship, he added; it's just that "it hasn't been received."

That puts the Church at risk of being shunted aside when it comes to discussions about all aspects of agriculture policy, from feeding the poor to the use of genetically modified organisms, he said.

One factor may be the decline in the rural life conference's membership, which mirrors the decline in the number of farmers overall. As farms and ranches grow bigger because of consolidation, the numbers of people who own and operate them shrink.

The rural life conference today claims about 2,200 members in 46 states. But in 1941, the conference had 60 programs throughout the United States, with 1,700 priests, 9,000 women religious and 12,000 laypeople enrolled. The rural life conference's meeting that year in Bismarck, N.D., drew 15,000 participants, according to Thompson. About 30 - two-tenths of 1 percent of that number - were present at the recent meeting.

The danger of such diminishing numbers, Thompson pointed out, is "the loss of a theology of creation, a philosophy of nature, which lies at the heart of the Church's social tradition concerning the meaning of man and the task of agriculture."

Man was involved in the fall from grace, but "the order of lower creation, that is, the organic world of creatures, animals and plants, was not directly implicated in the fall," Thompson said. But with genetically modified organisms, "lower creation" may render man more culpable in our own time, he added.

"One ignores the order of reality at the risk of one's own peril, as the practical wisdom of arming must submit to a 'logos,' which lies hidden in the order of things," Thompson said.

"At the heart of all this is a subtle Pelagianism - which is a heresy, by the way," he said. The Pelagian theory held that good will and strenuous effort without divine aid could overcome sin. In agriculture, a Pelagian view would regard efficiency as "a relevant problem. It is not an end," Thompson said. "Efficiency does not produce a spiritual result."

As humans consider their relationship to the land, they should keep in mind the ultimate worry, which Thompson described as "global warming in the next world."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970