the following remarks were offered by one of our theology professors, karl cooper, at a recent conference on wendell berry.
pope leo xiii’s encyclical rerum novarum (1891) inaugurated the modern economic age and placed the catholic church right in the middle of it. the church’s answer to the industrial revolution, rerum novarum describes two worlds, the present world characterized by a yoke almost of slavery laid by a few rich upon the masses of non-owning workers, and the future world, just around the corner, in which prudence and thrift practiced by any worker will yield personal wealth sufficient to allow men to work on what belongs to them, to love the land cultivated by their own hands, and to reap not only food but some measure of abundance for themselves and their dependents. the latin title of the encyclical is not often translated, possibly because of caution; some blander title such as “on the condition of the working classes” is generally used instead of the true title: the revolution. leo, and the church speaking through him and for over a hundred years through his successors, offers nothing less.
leo sagely points out that any beneficial revolution must be a restoration, a regeneration springing from a recall to our origins, a return to those principles which brought society itself into being. and indeed leo reaches back to the creation of human beings and their original dominion over the earth to ground the principles of the new society: the primacy of the family, the right of private property, and the responsibility of every human being to care for the welfare of each other human being. these principles have been reiterated frequently by the church, and have come to be identified as pillars of her social teaching. alongside those pillars is a principle which is perhaps less vivid, being more abstract, but which is nonetheless essential, and dear to leo’s heart as well as to the heart of his successors. this is the principle of subsidiarity.
rather than spell it out in its abstract universality, leo illustrates this principle by key examples which illustrate its importance. one example is the priority of the family to the state, since the family was founded by god earlier than the state, and is therefore one of the sources of our regeneration. indeed leo argues for the priority of the individual to the state on the same basis; and for the freedom of private associations from interference by the state, since such private associations result from the action of individuals exercising their primordial dignity. the underlying principle is that smaller units of organization are more conducive to both liberty and responsibility than larger ones.
this principle intensively animates wendell berry’s hopeful vision of the restoration of human happiness (the art of the commonplace, 2003). the family can enjoy, understand, and more effectively bring to fruition the land and its gifts than any corporation or government agency. the individual is the one called to experience the fundamental joy and solemn obligation of touching property with love and receiving its fruit with gratitude. the joy and gratitude do not stop with the individual, but ripple out in widening circles of friendship, beginning with those relationships which are most natural and ancient: first the marriage; then the family; then the local community formed by friendships and mutually beneficial sharing of work and its fruits.
the question which agitates me in 2020, whether i am reading leo or berry, is this one: how do we get from where we are to where we clearly would prefer to be? the prevalence of the modern state and the modern impersonal corporation in all of our daily activities makes recovery of small-scale love, labor, and responsibility difficult to imagine. i would like to trade my remunerative labor in a large corporation for fruitful labor on my own property with my own family; but planting crops in my back yard is more likely to lead to frustration and poverty than a calm and fruitful life for me and my family.
i am operating under a system i did not design, but certainly have helped to maintain, a system in which individuals specialize. i try to find out what i am good at, and i find out by seeing what will yield enough fruits to provide for myself and my family. this is a kind of capitalism heavily overridden by the corporation, the university, and the state; i rarely participate in an actual market-based offering of my skills and potential to the most beneficial bidder. rather i try to find a slot in an organization where i can be comfortable, be productive, and be recognized; success and failure are signaled in a wide variety of ways including but certainly not limited to my weekly paycheck; but i do not try to provide everything my family needs by my own hands, any more than i try to exercise every innate human talent i possess. only by focusing on what i can do well, and what (equally importantly) is valued by those who produce paychecks, have i been able to balance my responsibilities with my opportunities. and the kind of locally-based liberty, responsibility, and solidarity described by leo and by berry are far from my daily experience.
specializing is a way to focus my responsibilities and opportunities in a way that is good for me and my family. it has a way, though, of de-localizing my relationships; none of my neighbors on the street where i live know or care anything about what my company does, and i am similarly disconnected with the work they do, for the most part. it is this specialization, i think, that has resulted in the global agribusiness that berry dislikes. is there a way around it?
i don’t think that the answer is for each of us to start a subsistence farm in our yard, or to buy such a farm, and try to make a go of it. as far back as noah, when the promise of seedtime and harvest was renewed and the human project was restarted with a small extended family, planting and reaping were specialized: noah planted a vineyard. when my own ancestors came to this country, subsistence farming was a small part of their plan, and was only temporary; they had plans to trap for furs and harvest timber for industrial use back in england in order to turn their community into a beneficial project for themselves and those who had financed them.
but corporations could be much smaller, and i could take a more significant personal risk by investing in the company for which i work. there would be many compensatory rewards for the risk i would take (and for the probably smaller paycheck a smaller company could afford to pay me): i would understand and care more about the work my company was doing, and would have both more responsibility and more influence over the direction of our impact on those around us.
there are movements afoot in our nation today to try to break up some of the largest and most irresponsible corporations, movements that find bipartisan support. and there are suggestions in recent supreme court cases that the vast regulatory power of the federal government may not actually be constitutional. in the end, however, it will be individual decisions by individual people and families that will shift the focus of our culture from mass-produced mass-market options to locally crafted and locally enjoyed goods, both tangible and intangible. our involvement with small schools and small colleges is part of such a trend. so is home-schooling and the family barbecue. in these and in a host of other ways, we can daily experience what proverbs 18:19 tells us and pope leo quotes: “a brother that is helped by his brother, is like a strong city.”
editor’s note: with its new greenhouse, the college is now enjoying the experience of applied subsidiarity by tilling its own fields.
karl cooper teaches theology at magdalen college of the liberal arts.