During a recent rural ministry course taught in partnership with a diocesan seminary, I faced a question by one of the seminarians who skeptically asked why the Church had “bought into the fad of the food movement.” His assumption was that the Church had little to say about the ethics of food, and the insinuation is that the Church should stick to its primary mission, the salvation of souls (or at least a course on rural ministry should stick to spiritual concerns). There were several students nodding their heads in agreement.
Then there was the time I came across an article in the respected journal National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly entitled, Christians and the New Food Movement. In this article (Fall 2011 issue), the author made a questionable argument about why Christians should be on their guard against the infiltrators of the new food movement who are seeking to co-opt the Christian faith. The author even accused National Catholic Rural Life Conference of abandoning its roots of evangelism and religious education by getting involved in agricultural and environmental concerns as if the two—the spiritual and secular—should not intertwine.
What these two examples have in common is a misunderstanding of the role of the faith in the world. This misunderstanding manifests itself in various ways. For some, faith is a personal matter and not to be mixed with worldly matters. Faith should be reserved for the pews in a house of worship. For others the notion of separation of Church and State means Christians have no business imposing their faith views or values in secular affairs, especially in public policy debates. Still others think the Church solely has expertise in spiritual matters, but not in secular matters. Therefore the Church should not be involved in secular debates. Our lives are so compartmentalized that our spiritual and secular lives are like silos separated to prevent contamination.
But the Church views the Christian’s calling very differently and challenges this false mindset, developing a body of doctrine—social teaching—that seeks to proclaim the Gospel and make it present in today’s society. The Church is engaged in the matters of this world and provides Christians guidance on how to contribute to the common good in society. This body of doctrine is both a tremendous gift and a tremendous responsibility for Christians. We are called to be salt and light in the world and committed to contributing to the common good within society. This responsibility includes concerns surrounding food.
We believe food is unique. Food sustains life itself; it is not just another product. Providing food for all is a Gospel imperative, not just another policy choice. Eating is a moral act because it is a human act, and human acts can be morally evaluated. But food and agriculture production are abstract concepts for many of us. For most Catholics—and our nation in general—agriculture is a distant reality, little seen and less understood. For most of us food comes from the grocery store or fast food restaurant. We have become disconnected from how our food is produced. This disconnection results in putting trust in a food system that provides food for us. But this fact does not negate our responsibility as Christians to consider some important ethical questions: How can hunger in the human family be overcome? How can we ensure a safe, affordable, and sustainable food supply? How can we ensure that farmworkers and owners of small farms, in the Unites States and around the world, live and work with dignity? How can land, water, and other elements of God’s creation be preserved, protected, and used well in the service of the common good? How can rural communities in our country and around the world survive and thrive?
Almost ten years ago, the Catholic Bishops of the United States reflected on these ethical questions and wrote a letter to Catholics in the United States to challenge our lack of awareness of food, farming and farmworker related issues through the lens of Catholic social doctrine. Food and agriculture are inextricably linked and the increasing concentration at every level of agriculture and growing globalization mean that fewer people are making decisions that affect far more people than at any time in history. Because of the corrupting influence of injustice - that is, of sin - the Church cannot remain indifferent to food and agriculture matters.
As Christians we all have a role to play in contributing to the common good in our society. As eaters and citizens we have the power to make our voices heard in our grocery stores and local communities and to our local government representatives. Food and agriculture issues are not irrelevant to our faith. Our faith becomes irrelevant to a lost and needy world when we ignore the ethical questions of our time.
(Photo used by permission of Food Alliance.)
 For I Was Hungry & You Gave Me Food, Catholic Reflections on Food, Farming, and Farmworkers. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC. 2003. Paragraph I. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1749.
 For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food; Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. 2003; paragraph II.
 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC. 2004. n. 71.
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