Changing our Lifestyle: Wendell Berry, Catholics and Capitalists


Dr. Christopher Shannon has an excellent article in Crisis Magazine which begins with a reflection on Wendell Berry’s vision of America in a recent lecture. Berry is well known for his “his commitment to the virtues of family farming and small-scale community life”, but indeed what is at stake seems to be a much greater question of two different views of and for America: The “struggle between “boomers” and “stickers”—between those who see life in terms of boundless opportunities for self-advancement and those who seek to live within natural limits geared toward maintaining stability and continuity in place over time.  Berry clearly and defiantly stands with the stickers”. Shannon raises the question of what the Catholic position on the matter should be, and he too seems to side with Berry and stickers. Furthermore, he challenges other Catholic authors such as Matthew J. Franck who attacked Berry for this address on First Things, and more notably Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

This debate reminds me of David Schindler’s critique of certain ecclesiologically mistaken positions that gave way to a certain ‘boomer’ mentality. Here too, the environment and ecology became the playing field on which underlying ideologies came into conflict. Indeed, the view one has on creation and our relationship to it allows more fundamental issues to surface. In that sense I am not surprised as Shannon on how “Berry clearly touched a raw nerve (or the guilty conscience) of a certain kind of Catholic and a certain kind of American.  Where one stands on Berry says a lot about where one stands on Catholicism and America, or more precisely on Catholicism in America.”  At the end of the day a very serious question is raised here, which is what vision of America can be truly Catholic. Let us turn to Schindler critique of Richard Neuhaus and neo-conservative positions on the environment, which shed a light on the Berry debate raised by Shannon. Below a quote by John Paul II and then Rev. Richard John Neuhaus’ take on it:

This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor—be they individuals or nations—need to be provided with realistic opportunities. Creating such conditions calls for a concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort which involves sacrificing the positions of income and of power enjoyed by the more developed economies. This may mean making important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources.

(Centesimus Annus 52, emphasis in original)

Rev. Neuhaus responds to this call as follows: “Talk about changing established life-styles in order to achieve justice or sustain the planet is a commonplace in political rhetorics…. The single use of that language in Centesimus Annus does tend to stick out…. It has, in short, all the appearances of being a throwaway line. Should we all consume less, and, if so, of what? And how will that help include the poor within the circle of production and exchange?…. The sentence about ‘changing established life-styles’ is most likely a vestigial rhetorical fragment that somehow wandered into the text.”

This is quoted in Schindler’s “Heart of the World, Center of the Church” (p. 126), but also in other sources such as this blog, which also engages the issue. Schindler first of all makes the obvious point about changing lifestyles was not mistaken, and affirms its centrality in several documents such as Redemptoris Missio, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Populorum Progressio. It is also mentioned clearly in John Paul II’s 1990 (a) and Benedict XVI’s 2010 (b) Address for the World Day of Peace:

(a) 13. Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause. As I have already stated, the seriousness of the ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis. If an appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is lacking, we will also lose interest in others and in the earth itself. Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.

(b)11. It is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”.[26] Education for peace must increasingly begin with far-reaching decisions on the part of individuals, families, communities and states. We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment. This responsibility knows no boundaries. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity it is important for everyone to be committed at his or her proper level, working to overcome the prevalence of particular interests.

These affirmations are pretty compelling, but more worthy of note is Schindler’s underlying critique of how someone could conceive the primacy of “booming” and the full-out dismissal of the call to “stick”. The point Schindler makes, of which the environmental debate is only one manifestation, is that there is a misunderstanding of what is most important: the identity of God, the Church, of the human person. For Schindler, following the communio tradition of Conciliar Fathers such as de Lubac, Danielou and Ratzinger among others, the hermeneutical key for understanding reality is the Trinitarian God, which places the primacy of existence on gift and receptivity, before action and creativity. There is room, in the Church and in each person for both “sticking” and “booming” or to put it into Schindler’s language, for “being” and “doing”. Both dimensions fulfill the human person and conform our reality, yet there is an order, and an action well done receives its guidance from the “being” that precedes the action. In other words, all “booming” must come from a well integrated and primary “sticking”, otherwise the booming will be disordered and dispersed. Schindler says the wrong interpretation of the place and meaning of human creativity and agency gives rise to a mistaken comprehension of the importance of economic and social development. 

This is perhaps what Berry intended when he proposed a culture of ‘stickers’: family, community, unity. His agrarian vision seems like a concretion of the call to change lifestyles, and in that he is very Catholic. Nonetheless, I think the vision of how “sticking” takes place, of how to give primacy to being, to family and unity is something that can happen in many settings, not only small community farming. Certainly, an agrarian setting , rather than booming and bustling urban centers, may be more favorable for “sticking”, but it doesn’t guarantee it nor is it a necessary condition for sticking. Schindler too sees the main issue at stake not only a misconception of the identity of being (receptivity rather than autonomy) but also the priority and hierarchy of human action. There is an inherent relationship between “being” and “doing”, and in fact our being is fulfilled, in part, by our doing in this world. This is why Shannon is correct to conclude: “Our immigrant ancestors… boomed in order to stick.” But perhaps this may reflect a certain ‘Freudian slip’ so to speak, and booming has constructed a nation whose original intention was to stick. What is true nonetheless, is the necessary relationship between being and doing, we need both, but “sticking” comes first.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Jesus resolved this dilemma long ago: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (Jn 15, 5). Pope Benedict XVI has a reflection on this passage, delivered in a Lectio Divina to the Seminarians of Rome in 2010, which is pertinent to the debate at hand, and which in my very personal opinion is the most beautiful spiritual reflection of his pontificate. The Pope clearly indicates that “abiding” or “remaining” comes first and producing fruit and observing commandments, everything else really, comes later. The Pope emphasizes the order and hierarchy of activities, and abiding in Him, comes first. Here the risk, outlines the Pope, of observing before abiding becomes a fall into moralism – a formal obedience and legalistic approach to morality. As is well known, and exemplified in the recent political campaign, moralism is another trait we find in the modern world. Aristotle, who outlined an order in human activity: theoria, praxis and poiesis which very roughly translates into knowing (the truth), doing (morality) and making (things). A disorder in theoria will lead to consequences in praxis and morality, hence the Pope’s point, and also in all poieses, which pertains to the realm of “booming”. We must then “stick” first, hold fast and abide in the Truth, and from there all behavior and all booming will find their correct coordinates. Below the Pope’s own words on Jn 15:

The first words are: “Abide in me… in my love”…. “abide”, and “observe my commandments”. “Observe” only comes second. “Abide” comes first, at the ontological level, namely that we are united with him, he has given himself to us beforehand and has already given us his love, the fruit. It is not we who must produce the abundant fruit; Christianity is not moralism, it is not we who must do all that God expects of the world but we must first of all enter this ontological mystery: God gives himself. His being, his loving, precedes our action and, in the context of his Body, in the context of being in him, being identified with him and ennobled with his Blood, we too can act with Christ. 

Ethics are a consequence of being: first the Lord gives us new life, this is the great gift. Being precedes action and from this being action then follows, as an organic reality, for we can also be what we are in our activity. Let us thus thank the Lord for he has removed us from pure moralism; we cannot obey a prescribed law but must only act in accordance with our new identity. Therefore it is no longer obedience, an external thing, but rather the fulfilment of the gift of new life.

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One thought on “Changing our Lifestyle: Wendell Berry, Catholics and Capitalists

  1. Pingback: Fr. Schall on Environmentalism and Poverty | Faith & Environment

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