Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Review of Flee to the Fields

by Dr. Peter Chojnowski

“So long as the legislative machine is controlled by and composed of the monopolists, all effort at restoring healthy economic life will fail.”

That quote is from Hilaire Belloc’s preface to Flee to Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement, a collection of 10 thought-provoking essays by leaders of the movement, first published during the Great Depression. The new edition by IHS Press features an introduction by Dr. Tobias Lanz, and is footnoted and enhanced with classic photos and illustrations.

The primary goal of the Catholic Land Movement was to provide skills, education, and financial aid to families committed to an integrally Catholic life and to producing food and primary goods for their own sustenance. Belloc speaks to the paradoxes and unresolved tensions that pervade this compilation of essays. He points out that a reinvigoration of society can only be realized if the power of the State is dedicated to the common good, rather than the private good of those who finance the rulers of the State.

Belloc also emphasizes a point that evades most contemporary political thinkers: The problem with our own times is that the State has been handed over to private interests. Thus it’s counter-intuitive to believe that those who have access to the halls of political power will ever countenance a situation that jeopardizes their monopoly on the nation’s resources.

Lanz compares the Catholic Land Movement to the American Southern Agrarians of the first half of the 20th century, whereas Fr. John McQuillan points out that it began with the full support of the British Catholic hierarchy in Glasgow, Scotland in 1929 (Fr. McQuillan became parish priest of the surrounding district). The Scottish Catholic Land Association was soon complemented by similar associations in the Midlands and the North and South of England. By 1934, significant numbers of young men, adopted by the respective Catholic Land Associations, were fully trained in every branch of farming.

In his essay, “The Rise and Fall of Industrialism,” Commander Herbert Shove grounds the ideology of British Agrarianism in a systematic analysis of British history, beginning with the Medievel feudal system and ending with the emergence of a fully industrial and monopolistic system in the 19th century. By the time Flee to the Fields was originally published, 80% of the population of Great Britain was crowded into urban areas, as was about 95% of the Catholic population.

Just as many American churchman in the 19th century had feared the assimilation of the Catholic population into Protestant groups, so too did the British Catholic elite fear that conditions of urban life would further a “contraceptive mentality” among Catholics. This was one of the main motivations behind the “Back to the Land” movement of the pre-World War II years.

Flee to the Fields presents a defense of the movement that had such prestigious backers as Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, and Fr. Vincent McNabb. It was the desire to see a reorientation of the Catholic soul toward life on the land that produced both the movement in Britain and Flee to the Fields, the manifesto of its intent. Essayist Fr. McNabb, among others, was convinced that without that movement, Catholic family life would be eroded and finally dislodged, due to the unnatural environment of the cities and the fact that in urban life a man’s work is in one place and his home and family in another. Hence, it was to the not-impossible dream of a free man on his own land, with family at hand, that Flee to the Fields was dedicated.

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