Excerpt from Anna Keating, America Magazine, 1 Sept 2017
As recently as my grandparents’ generation, half of Americans owned small businesses or lived off the land
My husband and I own a small business, so I have a particular interest in Catholic social teaching and in distributist writers like G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Distributism is essentially the belief that productive private property should be well distributed rather than concentrated in a few hands or owned collectively. As Chesterton writes, the problem is not too many capitalists but too few. Societies are healthier when more people, so to speak, have skin in the game and when economics serve human relationships, not the other way around.
For Catholics, the family is the building block of society, and only if the cells are healthy will the organism flourish; thus the emphasis on family businesses and on working and living side by side. If we think of the work we spend the majority of our lives doing as merely a means to a wage, then we miss out on an important dimension of a fully human life: the need to make, to tend, to create, to foster relationships.
Distributist thinking seeks to unite what has been separated, labor and capital, through the ownership of small businesses and farms or through the ownership of tools and a trade or through participation in a guild, so that wealth is not consolidated in the hands of a few wealthy individuals (capitalism) or in the hands of the state (socialism). The life Berry has created and the views he espouses both are in line with this vision and can prove helpful to Catholics, serving as an antidote to the many ills of our time.
Some viewers might find Berry’s insistence that the “money economy is not the only economy” overly idealistic. I found it true. I have grown tired of a version of feminism that equates empowerment with anything that brings women money or power and that denigrates work that does not. Markets may not value my great grandmother’s quilt-making or my sister’s murals and gardening or the fact that my eldest sister has chosen to be a nurse practitioner in the poorest county in the state or anything that does not make sense from a purely economic point of view: having children, caring for an elderly family member, volunteering, caring for the earth. Yet, from a Catholic point of view, maximizing one’s profits can never be the only goal. Even those of us working in small businesses must ask not only, “What is good for me?” but also “What is good?”—even as we inevitably fall short. We must “practice resurrection.”
Despite his many awards and more than 40 published works, Wendell Berry is an author people either love or have never heard of. One of his primary subjects, the decimation (both social and environmental) of rural America, is not interesting, perhaps, to those who consider rural America “flyover country.” But now more than ever we need his prophetic voice to help us find our way back home.
Anna Keating co-owns and lives above Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio. She is a chaplain at Colorado College and the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts that Make Up a Catholic Life(Penguin Random House)
A Farmer’s Gift: An appreciation of Wendell Berry: Kyle T. Kramer