For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Pastoral Reflection - Part 5

Responding in Faith 

Meeting Pastoral Needs

The Catholic Church has a pastoral presence throughout rural   America and in rural communities around the globe. Within our community of faith, farmers and farmworkers, land owners and contract growers, business owners and workers are called to the one Eucharistic table to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ.

Throughout history, rural parishes have built a sense of community, nurturing the spiritual and sacramental lives of their people, and offering formation and faith development programs. Rural parishes and many dioceses have sponsored schools, provided health care, supported community activities, and offered essential services for people in need. As rural populations diminish and the resources available in rural communities decrease, the role of the Church and those who serve it becomes even more important.

Priests, deacons, religious, and other pastoral workers are often the first people to whom farm and ranch families turn when they experience stress from economic and social forces beyond their control. Rural pastors and pastoral workers serve, comfort, and stand with their people, build and form community, and care for the needy in the face of many challenges. Some priests travel long distances to meet sacramental needs. Diocesan clergy, women and men religious, and volunteers also regularly travel to rural communities and farm labor camps to provide opportunities for adult faith formation, prepare believers to receive the sacraments, and join in the celebration of the Eucharist. They often serve as counselors and advocates, responding to family separation, fears about immigration status, and exploitation.

Around the world, the Catholic Church provides essential relief and development assistance in rural communities that are home to some of the poorest people on earth. Catholic programs provide emergency assistance in times of crisis and support a wide range of ongoing human, economic, and agricultural development projects.

We wish to express our deep gratitude for the hard work and dedication of those who serve in rural parishes and dioceses in the United States and around the world. They are supported by the work of many diocesan programs and national organizations.2 We hope this statement will be a source of affirmation, support, and encouragement to continue their essential service to the Church and rural communities.

Criteria for Agricultural Policy and Advocacy

Beyond meeting pastoral needs, the Catholic community has a responsibility to raise the ethical dimensions of issues that shape rural life and agricultural policy. As a Vatican statement on public life states, the Church has a “right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters”3 and to “instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good.”4

As bishops, we shall continue to share Catholic social teaching, to apply it to the ethical and human dimensions of agricultural issues, and to bring our values to agricultural decision making. We hope that Catholics throughout our country, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, will join in the effort to promote a food and agricultural system more focused on overcoming hunger, providing a decent living for farmers and farmworkers, and protecting the earth and its resources. Drawing on Catholic social teaching and the experience of the Church in rural communities, we offer criteria that should guide agricultural policy.

Overcoming Hunger and Poverty. The presence of so much hunger and poverty in our communities, nation, and around the world is a grave moral scandal. The primary goals of agricultural policies should be providing food for all people and reducing poverty among farmers and farmworkers in this country and abroad. A key measure of every agricultural program and legislative initiative is whether it helps the most vulnerable farmers, farmworkers, and their families and whether it contributes to a global food system that provides basic nutrition for all.

Providing a Safe, Affordable, and Sustainable Food Supply. Agricultural systems in the United States have been remarkably successful in providing sufficient, safe, and affordable food for consumers. These strengths should be directed toward serving better the needs and interests of hungry and poor people in the United States and abroad. Caring for land and water resources has become an increasingly important focus within U.S. agriculture. Farmers should expand the use of environmentally sustainable methods so that farmland in the United States can provide food for generations to come. We are concerned that as a society we continue to lose productive farm land for development as communities and transportation expand. In other parts of the world, agricultural and food supply systems also need to be strengthened. An important measure of international trade and agricultural policies should be how they promote safe and affordable food and sustainable, environmentally sound farming practices.

Ensuring a Decent Life for Farmers and Farmworkers. Food can remain safe and affordable without sacrificing the incomes, health, or lives of farmers and farmworkers. Catholic social teaching insists that all workers deserve wages and benefits sufficient to support a family and live a decent life. Farmers must be able to support themselves and their families through their work and to provide for important needs such as health care and retirement. Farmers and their employees receive less and less of every dollar spent on food. This is a matter of justice that should be addressed.5 Agricultural policies must take into consideration the risks associated with farming that are beyond a farmer’s control, such as weather and changes in global markets. Trade policies should better reflect the right to economic opportunity of all farmers wherever they may live. Agricultural policies should help ensure basic income security and provide opportunities for economic initiative for farmers in the United States and throughout the world, with special attention to small producers.

Likewise, public policies must address the needs of agricultural workers. A key measure of agricultural, immigration, and labor policies is whether they reflect fundamental respect for the dignity, rights, and safety of agricultural workers and whether they help agricultural workers to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. (See data box “Agricultural Workers: What Is Happening to Those Who Harvest and Process Our Food?”)

Sustaining and Strengthening Rural Communities. In rural areas of the United States and throughout the world, small towns and villages are the backbone of social and economic life. As rural populations decline and rural economies suffer, basic structures of rural life are at risk. Public policies should encourage a wide variety of economic development strategies in rural areas. They should continue to promote and support farming, especially family farms, as a strategy for rural development. Likewise, the practices and policies of Catholic institutions on leasing and ownership of farmland should be consistent with our principles, especially in the area of encouraging young people to enter farming. A key measure of agricultural and development policies is whether they encourage widespread diversity in farm ownership and advance rural development in this country and abroad, promoting and maintaining the culture and values of rural communities. (See data box “Rural America: What Is Happening to Rural Communities and Culture?”)

Protecting God’s Creation. Care for God’s creation is a central calling for believers. Agricultural and food policies should reward practices that protect human life, encourage soil conservation, improve water quality, protect wildlife, and maintain the diversity of the ecosystem. An essential measure of agricultural and food policies is whether they protect the environment and its diversity and promote sustainable agricultural practices in the United States and abroad. (See data box “Agriculture and Environment: What Is Happening to Land and Water?”)

Expanding Participation. To achieve an agricultural system consistent with these criteria, widespread participation and dialogue in the development of agricultural policies should be encouraged. Truly effective policies will be developed when people who are most affected have adequate information, time, and opportunities for real contributions to legislation, regulations, programs, and trade agreements.

These six criteria provide a framework for measuring policies related to agriculture in light of Catholic social teaching and the requirements of the common good. They are not comprehensive, nor do they suggest predictable positions on important issues. We hope they will encourage serious, thoughtful debate and dialogue on U.S. agricultural policy, the global agricultural system, and the impact both have on human dignity. As our contribution to this discussion, we offer an “Agenda for Action” that seeks to apply these criteria to key agricultural policies.

Members of the Catholic community can differ about the specific application of these criteria. We come to these issues from very different perspectives: as farmers and farmworkers, landowners and contract growers, business operators and workers, producers, processors, and consumers. But as Catholics we share a fundamental concern for human life and dignity and a basic commitment to the common good. As bishops, we invite Catholics and others to use these criteria to explore, discuss, and advocate for agricultural policies that protect human life and dignity and advance the well-being of all God’s creation.