For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Catholic Social Teaching and Agriculture

Catholic social teaching offers important values and principles for assessing policies and programs related to agriculture. The following brief summaries of key themes of Catholic social teaching are not comprehensive. They offer an overview of principles that have shaped our current reflections on agricultural policies. We urge the reader to become familiar with the original documents that have developed and expressed Catholic social thought over time.7

I. Protecting Human Life and Dignity—The Right to Food

The Catholic Church proclaims the central truth that every human person is sacred. Created in God’s image and likeness and redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ, every person has fundamental human dignity that comes from God, not from any human attribute or accomplishment.

Every person has a right to life and to the material and spiritual support required to live a tru­ly human existence. The right to a truly human life logically leads to the right to enough food to sustain a life with dignity. The poverty and hunger that diminish the lives of millions in our own land and in so many other countries are fundamental threats to human life and dignity and demand a response from believers.

II. Social Nature of the Person—The Call to Family, Community, and Participation

The human person is not only sacred but also social. Each person lives and develops in community. Our inherently social nature makes pursuit of the “common good” an important goal and measure of society. The way we organize society economically and politically, including the way our agricultural system is structured, im­pacts human digni­ty. In our tradition, justice has three key dimensions: commutative, distributive, and social.

Commutative justice demands fairness in all relations and exchanges. But this must be understood in the context of both distributive justice, which requires that the benefits of social, economic, and political life reach all people, including those on the margins of society, and social justice, which insists that all people have opportunities for participation and authentic human development. All three of these dimensions of justice must shape decisions about the global agricultural system. Catholic teaching’s focus on justice and the social nature of the person emphasizes family, community, solidarity and cooperation, and the need for people to participate effectively in the decisions that affect their lives. Rural communities and cultures, with their focus on family life, community, and close ties to the land, serve as welcome signs of these social dimensions of Catholic teaching.

III. Option for and with the Poor and Vulnerable

While Catholic teaching calls us to seek the common good of the entire human family, Scripture and our Catholic tradition also call us to a priority concern for the poor and vulnerable. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus calls us to care for the powerless and those on the margins of society. For us, hungry children, farmworkers, and farmers in distress are not abstract issues. They are sisters and brothers with their own God-given dignity. In the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, they are also “Jesus in his distressing disguise.” Our care and concern extend in a special way to those who work in agriculture here and abroad. While some are doing well, others are vulnerable or struggling and poor. Those who farm, work in the fields or on ranches, and process our food must have decent wages and a decent life. Agricultural trade practices with poorer countries must be fair and must seek to protect the dignity of farmers in those countries. An important moral measure of the global agricultural system is how its weakest participants are treated.

IV. Dignity of Work and the Rights and Duties of Workers and Owners

We believe that the economy, including the agricultural economy, must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living. Catholic teaching on the dignity of work calls us to engage in productive work and supports the right to decent and fair wages, health care, and time off. Workers have a right to organize to protect these rights, to choose to join a union, and to have a voice in the workplace. Employers are obligated to treat their workers with dignity, providing decent wages, safe working conditions, and humane living conditions. Our tradition also supports responsible economic freedom, initiative, and creativity at the service of the common good. The Church has long defended the right to private ownership of productive property. Widespread ownership is a social good that must be promoted and protected. We must help families to maintain their farms and help others to begin farming. Our Catholic social tradition also speaks of a “social mortgage” on property, a concept that calls for responsible stewardship for the sake of the larger good of society and creation.

V. Solidarity

Solidarity is both a principle of Catholic social teaching and a virtue to practice. We live in a shrinking world. Disease, economic forces, capital, and labor cross national boundaries; so must our care for all the children of God. We are part of one human family, wherever we live. Starvation and widespread hunger indict us as believers. It may be tempting to turn away from the world and its many challenges. However, the Gospel and our Catholic heritage point to another way, a way that sees others as sisters and brothers, no matter how different or how far away they are. Agriculture today is a global reality in a world that is not just a market. It is the home of one human family. Our interdependence, as expressed by the principle of solidarity, leads us to support the development of organizations and institutions at the local, national, and international levels. Solidarity is complemented by the concept of subsidiarity, which reminds us of the limitations and responsibilities of these organizations and institutions. Subsidiarity defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society and affirms the essential role of these various structures. In the words of John Paul II, subsidiarity asserts that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”8In the case of agriculture, solidarity and subsidiarity lead us to support and promote smaller, family-run farms not only to produce food, but also to provide a livelihood for families and to form the foundation of rural communities.

VI. Respect for Creation

All creation is a gift. Scripture tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it holds” (Ps 24:1). All of us, especially those closest to the land, are called to a special reverence and respect for God’s creation. Nurturing and tilling the soil, harnessing the power of water to grow food, and caring for animals are forms of this stewardship. The Church has repeatedly taught that the misuse of God’s creation betrays the gift God has given us for the good of the entire human family. While rural communities are uniquely dependent on land, water, and weather, stewardship is a responsibility of our entire society.