Marking the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical upholding the…
Incarnation and human scale
In mid-September, I attended a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in honor of the life and legacy of Wendell Berry, the farmer, poet, novelist and essayist (in descending order of the importance of his works). Mr. Berry, as he is known to both his acquaintances and those who, like myself, have long admired him from afar, is 85 years old, and he has lived all but a handful of those years on his farm in Henry County, Kentucky. The entire body of his intellectual work — poems, short stories, novels and essays — has been inspired and informed by his place on earth and the people (and animals) who dwell thereon.
Mr. Berry is not a Catholic, and there are many reasons why I doubt he will become one before he returns to the soil of his beloved Henry County. And the good folks who run the Front Porch Republic, the 10-year-old organization that sponsored the conference, aren’t all Catholic, either (though some are). Rather, they’re bound together by their support of localism, rootedness and a sense that small is beautiful in politics, economics and culture.
Several attendees, though, remarked on what they saw as the disproportionate presence of Catholics and Catholic ideas at the conference. Why, they asked me, would Catholics be so drawn to the work of Mr. Berry and the Front Porch Republic?
The answer lies in the Catholic understanding of the Incarnation, and all that flows from it. The only thing more wonderful than God’s creation of the world is the reality that he sent his only begotten Son to walk the earth as one of us.
When I was in college (and I imagine it’s still true today), the smartest dorm-dwelling atheists would argue that God’s use of very inefficient means of making his presence known is all the proof we need of his nonexistence. Surely, if God wanted all mankind to know the Good News, he could simply speak in a loud, booming voice to every man, woman and child on earth. Why start so small, with a carpenter’s son in a backwater of the Roman empire?
I remember responding at the time with some claptrap about how a God with a megaphone would make a mockery of free will, because we’d have to believe if we could hear his voice. That answer missed the mark, and not just because we all have a great capacity to doubt the blindingly obvious.
A more correct response, of course, would note that the sacrifice of Christ was necessary for our salvation, and no matter how convincing a disembodied voice might seem, it can’t stretch out its arms and die on the cross. But there’s more to the story than that: The Son of God became man so that we might know him in a way that mere intellectual knowledge can never approach. He was a person before his incarnation, but only once he was born of Mary could we have a personal relationship with him.
In a lunchtime conversation, Mr. Berry illustrated the inverse relationship between size and the kind of knowledge that comes from an intimate relationship with the person or thing that we know. He met a farmer who insisted that no one should milk more than 20 cows a day. If you milk 20 cows, he argued, you’ll see each one; if you milk more than 20, you won’t see any of them. A thousand-cow dairy may be more efficient in its production of milk, but for both the animals that support it and the men and women who work it, such an enterprise is also necessarily less humane.
The principle of subsidiarity — that everything should be handled at the lowest level possible — lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching. It’s what attracts Catholics who understand it to the work of localists like Mr. Berry and the Front Porch Republic. In order to accomplish anything, we must first realize that we can’t do everything. We’re called to make disciples of all nations, but the first step in doing so — and possibly the last — is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.