By Christopher Killheffer
Environmentalists and traditional Catholics are often characterized as inhabiting entirely separate cultural and political spheres. On the one hand, there are the nature-worshiping tree-huggers, on the other, unthinking, medieval-minded reactionaries -- two groups who regard one another only with indifference, suspicion, or outright disdain. Of course these are stereotypes, but ones that unfortunately carry some truth in pointing to the distance and distrust between these groups. Should you raise the subject of the Catholic Church, for instance, among the kind of environmentalists I mainly know -- organic farmers -- you’ll find that most of them simply equate the Church with its unpopular social positions, especially its stance against contraception, which they see as clear evidence that the Church is not only anti-woman, but also anti-sex, anti-pleasure, even anti-body.
Should you, on the other hand, raise the subject of organic farming among traditional Catholics -- that is, among those Catholics most supportive of the Church’s opposition to birth control -- you’ll likely hear a fair amount of sarcasm, skepticism, sometimes even mild contempt. To many of these Catholics, the organic folk’s talk about revering nature sounds vaguely pagan; at best it’s seen as anti-science and anti-progress. Some suggest wryly that "organic" is nothing but a clever ploy to mark up prices.
If we accept the polarized terms of our society, then the opposition between these groups seems understandable -- we’re talking, after all, about hippie farmers and diehard, "rhythm method" Catholics, aren’t we? But what you find if you spend enough time with both sides is that these apparent enemies have much more in common than either group seems to realize. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the counter-cultural mindset they share: these are people who are comfortable, even quite pleased, to be living outside the mainstream. Organic food is starting to gain mainstream traction today, but for decades it was about as unpopular and as widely derided as the "rhythm method" practiced and advocated by traditional Catholics. A certain amount of unpopularity seems inevitable for both of these groups, who have, after all, done what still seems unthinkable to most people: they have opted out of certain parts of our universally lauded technological progress. That opting out is not a minor thing and these people know it isn’t; both groups seem well aware that their stances, while on the one hand common-sense, are on the other quite radical and paradigm-shaking.
This resemblance is not superficial; beneath the affinity in tone lie real similarities in content. Not only do both groups oppose particular technologies, but they oppose them for similar reasons, they state their objections with appeals to similar values, and advocate alternatives that are strikingly parallel in both principle and practice. Reading their books, listening to their speakers, you’re left with the impression that these people are in fact natural allies, fighting the same battle at different fronts, kept at odds only by a very superficial opposition.
Of course both groups are also often misunderstood and misrepresented, so to reveal the kinship between them it’s necessary to consider what they actually stand for -- and, perhaps more to the point, what they stand against.
Some modern contraceptive technologies have been minimally available since at least the nineteenth century, but their use was extremely limited until well into the twentieth, despite the work of many groups advocating for their widespread application. A dramatic increase in usage did not occur until the emergence of new contraceptive technologies, most notably the Pill, which were developed and marketed by large pharmaceutical companies in the decades after the Second World War. Advances in contraceptive technology were hailed as liberating women from the oppression of multiple pregnancies and the burden of raising large families. In turn this meant liberating families from the conditions of poverty, and freeing the growing Third World population from chronic hunger and overcrowding. The new technologies were also, of course, seen as finally making possible the old dream of free love -- that is, the dream of sex unencumbered by conception and child-rearing. Despite objections from some quarters (most notably the Catholic Church), the proffered benefits were too attractive to resist, and soon contraceptive technology was widely accepted, enjoying official sanction and even promotion by medical authorities, churches, educators, and governments. By the 1960s, contraception was sufficiently mainstream to fuel a massive upheaval in sexual mores, the very aptly named Sexual Revolution. What we might call industrial sex -- sex that is thoroughly mediated by modern technologies -- quickly became the norm.
Throughout the whole period many Christians -- some Orthodox and Protestant, but largely Catholic -- rejected contraception on moral grounds, and offered an alternative, the "rhythm method," which was widely derided as ineffective and backward. By the late '60s, when the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception was reiterated definitively by Paul VI, objectors to birth control had come to seem hopelessly old-fashioned, held back by their dusty philosophy from enjoying the fruits of progress, committed to antiquated methods that plainly didn’t work. It wasn’t long before the exasperation became hostile: contraceptive advocates railed against the Church for denying the benefits of the new technologies to women all over the world. Responsibility for overpopulation, poverty, starvation, and later the AIDS epidemic, were all laid at the Church’s doorstep. Modern science, advocates maintained, had given the human race a tremendous boon, but the Church was more concerned with its irrational, faith-based qualms.
The history of industrial agriculture runs roughly parallel with that of modern contraception. Industrial farming technologies, as we know them, were all but unknown until the early twentieth century, when tractors and factory-style "scientific management" made their first substantial impact on the rural American landscape. The changes of the 1920s and '30s were significant, especially in the West, but the full blown industrial agriculture that we know today didn’t arrive until after the Second World War, when the chemistry and high-volume production techniques used to fight human enemies were turned toward American fields. Artificial fertilizer -- a variation of the ammonium nitrate used in explosives -- replaced manure, cover cropping, field rotation, all the various traditional ways of maintaining soil fertility. The use of pesticides -- many of them variations of the organophosphates used in warfare -- became widespread. Armed with these new technologies, farmers began to plant all their acreage in single crops for market, and soon the small, diverse, largely subsistent holdings we still think of as "farms" began to disappear in favor of huge monoculture operations. Farmers themselves disappeared as well; from 1950 to 1990, the number of American farmers shrank from 23 million to 4.6 million -- nearly 20 million people displaced from the land in the course of a single generation. Most of those who remain on the land now manage highly technologized, chemically dependent operations that would have been unrecognizable to their grandparents.
This history differs from that of contraception in that the new technologies of agriculture enjoyed official sanction from the beginning. Whereas contraception advocacy began as a sort of grassroots movement that was later seized upon by pharmaceutical companies, the driving force behind industrial farming initially came from the government and big business. Farmers themselves were often skeptical, even resistant to the changes, but government experts, business leaders, the media -- and therefore the non-farming public in general -- greeted the new technologies with enthusiasm. According to its proponents, industrial agriculture would, by maximizing efficiency and productivity, free farmers from poverty and back-breaking labor, and liberate people throughout the world from the threat of famine and starvation. Some agriculturalists, such as J.I. Rodale and Sir Albert Howard, were in the '40s and '50s already calling for a return to more "organic" methods of farming. However, such methods were not only dismissed as backward, but also blamed for the chronic hunger that plagued poorer nations. In the late '60s and '70s, while the Sexual Revolution was just getting under way, American agribusiness sought to bring what it called "The Green Revolution" to the Third World, teaching subsistence farmers to use petrochemicals and heavy equipment to produce monocultured cash crops. The American model of factory farming started to become a global norm.
Looking at nature
On what grounds do Catholics and organic advocates oppose technologies that are so widely accepted, so loudly credited with postwar prosperity?
Beginning with the Church, it’s important to note that its argument against contraception is not made on specifically Christian, or even religious terms, but rather on a particular vision of nature. The Church approaches the question of sexuality as it approaches many questions, from the standpoint of what it calls "natural law" -- a term that refers not only to moral law that is known naturally, or without the benefit of divine revelation, but also moral law that is inherent in the nature of things. An important relationship is implied: natural law is known by nature because it is present and discoverable in nature. In his book Dominion (2002), Matthew Scully has helpfully summarized the concept: “The key insight is that all moral truth arises from the nature of things, true in themselves and in crucial respects accessible to reason. Every being has a nature, and that nature defines the ends and ultimate good for which it exists.” Scully speaks of "reason," but this should not be understood as the merely scientific, "objective" rationality that the West, and now much of the world, tends to mean by this term. The "reason" of natural law is tempered and enlightened by reverence, by an understanding that what it regards in nature is good. It perceives in every particular thing a telos or end -- not in the sense of a function or use, but, as Scully says, an “ultimate good for which it exists.”
The implications of such a view are tremendous. The modern "objective" view sees nature in terms of analysis and utility; it tends to reduce things into parts and does not hesitate to reconfigure existent realities to serve purposes external to the things thus manipulated. Such an approach is not, of course, necessarily wrong, but it is a fundamentally different approach from that taken by thinkers concerned with natural law. Pope Benedict has noted that from a purely scientific concept of nature, “the moral and the feasible are identical.” Natural law thinking, concerned with a thing’s telos, cannot make this identification; it seeks to know not the possible uses of a thing, but the good uses, the uses that promote the good for which the thing itself exists. Again Scully: “That which advances a being onward toward its natural fulfillment is good; that which frustrates or perverts its natural development is bad.”
The nature of sex
Applying this perspective to the question of contraception, the Church first tries to understand what in fact sex is. Biologically speaking, sex involves organs that are obviously ordered toward reproduction -- they are, after all, what we call "reproductive organs." These organs can, of course, be used for any number of things unrelated to reproduction, but again the question here is not what is feasible, but what is in accord with nature. Reason asserts that the telos of genitals and sexual intercourse is reproduction. This biological fact is certainly significant, but the Church’s view of sex is not merely physical -- such a view would itself be reductive, isolating one aspect of sex from its whole meaning. The Church’s position has often been misrepresented as this kind of "physicalist" reduction, but in fact its stance takes full account of the psychological and communal aspects of sexuality. “In the perfect act,” writes theologian Herbert Doms, “the two partners grasp each other reciprocally in intimate love; that is, spiritually they reciprocally give themselves in an act which contains the abandonment and enjoyment of the whole person and is not simply an isolated activity of organs.” Knowledge of the other, giving to the other, enjoyment of the other: contrary to its reputation, the Church is not at all uncomfortable with the love, pleasure and conviviality of sex. Intimacy and pleasure are themselves part of the telos of sexual union -- a telos that is, above all, one of creativity -- not just in terms of creating offspring, but also in terms of the bond it tends to create between the lovers. Even at the biological level we see evidence of this bond-making quality: intercourse produces a flood of the same attachment-forming chemicals produced in the brain of a nursing mother. Sex seeks to unite the lovers -- or, more precisely, the spouses, since the bond it seeks to forge is lifelong and encompasses the whole person.
This unitive aspect of sex is not really separable from the procreative aspect; they are in a sense two sides of the essential telos of creating new community -- the community of the married couple and the family formed around that central bond. The unitive and procreative aspects of sex, says John Paul II, both “pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. The one is activated together with the other, and in a certain sense, by means of the other.” This two-fold, intertwined creativity is what sex is.
The nature of farming
Critics of industrial agriculture rarely use the term "natural law,’ but the idea pervades their thinking. They are, not surprisingly, full of phrases like "respect for nature" and "learning from Mother Earth" -- phrases that to some people imply fuzzy, romanticized thinking. But the organic position is grounded in something much firmer than sentiment. “Our acts,” says Wendell Berry, “are being measured by a real and unyielding standard that was invented by no human. Our acts that are not in harmony with nature are inevitably and sometimes irremediably destructive. The standard exists.” An inflexible standard, inherent in the nature of things, to which human actions must be conformed: the perspective here is shaped not by romanticism, but by natural law. The organic approach to farming is based on this standard; it begins by asking: what is the nature of agriculture? What are the laws and limits inherent to it?
Among some environmentalists, it has become common to speak of agriculture as itself a fall from nature, a first, disastrous step away from ecological living from which we have yet to recover. But organic advocates think of farming as something essentially natural to human beings. Man of course needs to eat, and by nature he has a reason that inclines him to not only hunt and gather, but also to cultivate his food -- that is, to stimulate the productivity of nature. This cultivation of the fields (ager-cultura) is part of what human beings are, creatures who receive their food from nature primarily by actively participating in nature’s food-making.
The element of participation is key. We sometimes speak of farming as the production of food, but of course farmers are as powerless as anyone else to actually produce food of themselves. Human beings do not photosynthesize; we "make" food not in the sense that we make a table, but only in the sense that we "make" a baby. We cultivate the land as we cultivate the sexuality of our bodies: by engaging the making power of the natural system, setting up the conditions for its proper functioning and fulfillment and then letting the system, in its created mystery, do its making for us. Our role is strictly participatory.
A crucial question is implied: if we are by nature participants in the fertility of the land, what are the laws and limits of that participation? Thinking in terms of natural law, we approach this question first by looking to discover the nature of the system in which we seek to participate -- in this case, the land. What are the essential characteristics of the natural systems that produce food? How does the land "farm"?
It is with precisely this question that organic agriculture finds its beginning. Sir Albert Howard, in 1940, suggested that all agriculture should be modeled after the ways of nature, “the supreme farmer.” All of nature’s "farms" -- its forests, prairies, wetlands -- are coherent systems that are remarkably diverse, self-sustaining, and productive. An immense variety of species, both plant and animal, interact in a pattern whose overall structure is circular -- what Howard called “the Wheel of Life,” the cycle of fertility that links the waste and death of one creature with the life and sustenance of another. Last year’s leaves become this year’s root growth; yesterday’s grass becomes today’s manure becomes tomorrow’s grass. The significance of this cyclical pattern is immense; as Wendell Berry explains in The Gift of Good Land (1982): “All that is sloughed off in the living arc of a natural cycle remains within the cycle; it becomes fertility, the power of life to continue. In nature death and decay are as necessary -- are, one may almost say, as lively -- as life; and so nothing is wasted. There is really no such thing, then, as natural production; in nature there is only reproduction."
The essential locus of this cycle in any natural system is the soil, the place where decay is linked back to growth, death to life. Healthy soil is an ecosystem in itself, astoundingly complex -- a single handful contains microbes that number in the billions, along with fungi, insects, worms, a tremendous diversity of creatures whose specific roles are only beginning to be understood. Where the soil is thus alive, the cycle of fertility is active, the Wheel of Life turns, passing energy from one creature to the next. The whole system lives from this turning; its health and the health of all its creatures ultimately depend on the liveliness of the soil.
And health, in the sense of wholeness and resilience, is precisely the telos that best characterizes these natural systems. A forest or prairie, with no external "inputs" other than sunlight, produces and supports huge amounts of life, and can do so indefinitely. Disease will kill individual creatures but the system itself, along with its diversity of life, remains intact.
These systems of resilient, soil-based, cyclical fertility are the "farms" on which nature grows her striking array of crops. Agriculture, from the organic perspective, is human participation in these systems, with human activity modeled on nature’s cyclical pattern and directed toward the telos of health.
From the perspective of trying to understand the telos of natural realities, the industrial revolutions in sex and agriculture appear no longer as mere technological advances, liberating humanity from ancient burdens. In the case of contraception, the Church sees the "advance" as an attempt to separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sexuality, using chemical and physical barriers to extract the production of pleasure from the full meaning of what sex is. Such an extraction is a “sin against nature,” not only a contradiction in itself, but one which inevitably results in a host of regrettable consequences. Critics of birth control often cite studies that link certain types of contraception with birth defects, various cancers and other ailments. They point to a history of dangerous contraceptive products released onto the market, then later withdrawn only when managing the side effects becomes financially unsupportable -- a sort of ongoing experiment on an unwitting public. It’s often difficult to establish causes definitively and there is much bickering about how to interpret the studies, but the serious risks in some cases -- like the early IUD and early Pill -- are uncontested, and even the “manageable risks” listed by the Physician’s Desk Reference for something like the Pill are alarming. None of this surprises opponents of contraception, who see disease as the inevitable result of violating the integrity of a woman’s “body ecology.” As a Natural Family Planning advocacy group, the Couple to Couple League, warns, “Nature bats last.”
As contraception has sought to reduce sexuality to this kind of use, separated from reproduction, so the aim of industrial agriculture has been to produce food without reference to natural systems of fertility. Modern chemistry, having isolated some of the key elements necessary for plant growth, offers a substitute for biological fertility: artificial inputs very much external to the natural system, made from fossil fuels. The effects of this one substitution are immense and far-reaching. Michael Pollan has described how the introduction of artificial fertilizer played out on one typical Iowa farm:
What had been a local, sun-driven cycle of fertility, in which legumes fed the corn which fed the livestock which (with their manure) fed the corn, was now broken. Now [the farmer] could plant corn every year and on as much of his acreage as he chose, since he had no need for the legumes or the animal manure. He could buy fertility in a bag, fertility that had originally been produced a billion years ago halfway across the world. Liberated from the old biological constraints, the farm could now be managed on industrial principles, as a factory transforming inputs of raw material -- chemical fertilizer -- into outputs of corn (The Omnivore's Dilemma, 2006, 43-44).
The farmer no longer needs to preserve the fertility of the soil by keeping livestock and growing a diversity of rotated crops. Fields are planted in one or two species year after year, and to protect such highly vulnerable monocultures from pests a second substitution becomes necessary: in place of natural resilience, the farmer now stands in need of large amounts of chemical pesticides. In 1964, 215 million pounds of pesticide were being applied to American fields; by 1997 that number had climbed to 588 million pounds.
The soil, subjected to regular treatments of powerful chemicals, undergoes a fundamental change: from being a vital and active ecosystem, it becomes a lifeless vehicle for delivering inputs of ammonium nitrate. The processes of fertility slow down or cease entirely. Organic matter disappears, and the soil, losing its capacity to hold water, becomes more vulnerable to erosion. As natural fertility decreases, the farmer compensates with more chemicals, and a downward spiral begins. At the end of the process we find huge quantities of topsoil, built by nature and farmer over centuries, now completely exhausted and running off the land. In many cases, as much as 5 or even 10 tons of topsoil are lost for every ton of grain harvested. In the last half-century, topsoil erosion has claimed nearly a third of the world’s arable land.
Paired with the exhaustion of the soil is the new problem of agricultural pollution: all those tons of topsoil running off the fields carry with them vast amounts of high-nitrogen fertilizer that wreak havoc in local rivers, regional watersheds, finally in the ocean itself, creating hypoxic dead zones where no marine life can survive. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is now the size of New Jersey.
There are, of course, other chemicals running off fields: those 588 million pounds of pesticides also find their way into watersheds, into food, and eventually into human and animal bodies. We’ve only just begun to understand the far-reaching consequences of introducing such volumes of toxins into the environment (and into ourselves). Like critics of contraception, critics of industrial farming point to a long history of chemicals approved and released to the market only to be pulled years later when health-related lawsuits become too costly. (Some of these chemicals, interestingly, have been made by the same companies who make contraceptives -- companies like Bayer and Ortho.) A number of studies have shown that many of the hundreds of pesticides still approved for use have been linked to a variety of cancers, immune system problems, disruptions of the endocrine system, and fetal death.
None of these consequences come as any surprise to organic advocates, who are very much inclined to believe that “Nature bats last.” And beyond the ecological effects, organic advocates point to the incalculable social costs of a kind of farming that rapidly displaces millions of people, destroys cultural traditions, and removes growing food from the sphere of family and local community to the sphere of big business and international finance. The art of farming has been all but lost in many places: those farmers who have not been replaced by machines and chemicals find themselves engaged in a kind of agriculture so diminished that it is hardly worth doing at all. From the art of participation in a complex, even mysterious system of natural fertility, farming has become, in one farmer’s words, “just riding tractors and spraying.” An agriculture that essentially mines the land as a "resource" for production, without concern for its health, also has no regard for the health of human communities. Having watched a half-century of the industrial impoverishment of rural people and places, Berry laments, “Once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a resource, we are all sliding downward toward the ash heap.”
The Catholic and organic critiques thus converge. Both see the industrialization of sex in the one case and farming in the other as a breaking of our relationship to fundamental natural realities, substituting technological mediation for intimate knowledge, connectedness and the virtue of self-restraint. Likewise the alternatives that Catholics and organic advocates promote also bear a strong resemblance, both articulating a cooperative stance that acknowledges both the validity and limits of human participation in natural systems.
In the Church’s case, its insistence on the procreative-unitive wholeness of sex has led many to believe that it considers sex valid only when it results in procreation. But since the Church’s position stems from her view of nature, it has not failed to notice that human fertility is naturally expressed in the monthly cycles of a woman’s body, alternating fertile with infertile periods. Most of the time (about three weeks per month) women are naturally incapable of conceiving. Sex by its nature is sometimes fertile, sometimes not, and on this fact are based all the methods advocated by Catholics as “Natural Family Planning” (NFP). These methods allow couples to regulate births not by physical or chemicals barriers, but through abstinence during the woman’s fertile periods. Even the old, unsophisticated "rhythm method" was based on this natural pattern; the big difference with more modern methods is that they involve careful charting of the unique patterns of individual women, and thereby provide much more accurate knowledge of the timing of fertile and infertile periods. Modern NFP methods, advocates point out, are virtually as effective for avoiding pregnancy as condoms or the Pill, with no side effects and no cost.
That the Church approves of NFP reveals how thoroughly its stance is based on respect for nature. By the Church’s standard, a couple is wrong to avoid conception by using the Pill, but justified in avoiding conception by using NFP. Why? There’s no difference in intention, but there’s a world of difference in how the couple approaches the natural system of their own fertility. With contraception, technology is used to prevent conception even during naturally fertile periods -- that is, those times when procreation is the natural outcome of sex. With NFP, conception is avoided by not having sex during the fertile period -- that is, by working within the natural pattern. Both involve human calculation, but one seeks to impose an external structure on the natural system, even to, in a sense, erase the natural system, while the other strives to conform human purposes to the natural system’s inherent logic.
Farming as husbandry
The word "organic" to many people means "grown without pesticides," and in fact, now that agribusiness has realized that it can make money with the word, there are indeed many "organic" farming operations that practice what amounts to little more than industrial agriculture minus some of the pesticides. But for our purposes, the kind of organic farming to consider is the older, more comprehensive approach envisioned by Rodale and Howard and still practiced by many small-scale farmers throughout the country and the world. The small or traditional organic approach involves much more than not using pesticides; its aim is to model itself on the ways of the supreme farmer. The farm is understood as an ecosystem and planted, in imitation of the biodiversity of nature, with a wide variety of crops, carefully rotated. As in natural systems, this diversity is the primary method of deterring pests and disease. Fertility is as much as possible maintained through the biological resources of the farm itself, processed through the Wheel of Life in an active, living soil. The soil is preserved and replenished as it is in a wild system: with cover-cropping, fallow periods, nitrogen-fixing legumes, compost and animal manures, and careful guarding against erosion. In many ways today’s organic farm will resemble and learn from traditional farms of the past, but it will also be shaped by the insights of modern science -- particularly those of ecology. Traditional tools will be used, but so will innovative technologies, as long as they function to enhance, rather than subvert, the agricultural ecosystem. As John Paul II said of NFP, “In practicing natural methods, science must always be joined with self-control.”
Two groups, objecting to modern technologies, appealing to natural law, offer alternatives that, through cooperation with nature, promote health and community -- and yet they are typically considered opponents. This perceived division stems largely from a notion that is very commonly held, unfortunately even by many Catholics and organic advocates, although it stands against their overall philosophies: the notion that there is a kind of moral barrier between the human body and the rest of Creation, the idea that the "nature" of the body and the "nature" of the land are so radically different that they call for entirely divergent kinds of moral concern. Too often this type of thinking affects those who otherwise stand for natural law. The NFP advocate is passionate about maintaining a cooperative relationship to the nature of her body, but has little interest in the natural sources of that body’s food, and may even seek to undermine the natural systems of her garden with Round-up and Miracle Gro. The organic farmer takes pains to preserve the natural fertility of the soil, but his own body’s fertility he deposits in latex and sends to the landfill. They agree that the body and the land are somehow isolated; to the one they grant all the care and respect demanded by natural law, while the other they relegate to thoughtless use.
But the perspective of natural law does not support this view; the connections between the body and the land are real and unavoidable. Our ancestors were aware of these connections and enshrined them in language, in those words that still bind together sex and agriculture: seed, fertility, fruit, husbandry. “No matter how urban our life,” says Berry in The Unsettling of America (1986), “our bodies live by farming; we came from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.” Likewise the Catechism affirms that in sexuality, “man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed” (2337). We are bound to the land and to one another by the reproduction of farming and the reproduction of sex, and it ought not surprise us, as Berry puts it, “that there should be some profound resemblance between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth.” The industrial mind that has given us "birth control" has also given us "pest control." The way of healing, connection and responsibility can be discovered only by the mind informed by natural law, the mind that, as Berry says, “prefers the Creation itself to the powers and quantities to which it can be reduced.”
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