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Catholic Social Teaching, Matthew 25 and Land Reform: Blood in the Fields and In the Streets

 “In the eschatological parable of the sheep and the goats, Christ identifies so closely with the hunger, thirst, homelessness, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment of others that he takes on their afflictions and they become his own.” (Blood in the Fields, p. 206)

The demonstrations and protests of 2020 in response to the death of George Floyd and police brutality have uncovered what St. Oscar Romero in El Salvador described as the blood-soaked character of what can pass as “order.” Or what Emmanuel Mounier described as “established disorder.”

An analysis and understanding of the prophetic witness of Oscar Romero is very relevant to today’s crises in the United States.

When people have protested against injustice, whether in the United States, in El Salvador or throughout history, the protests have been described by some as a violent disruption of what was previously peaceful. But for many, many people that previous “order” was anything but peaceful. There has too often been an undercurrent of physical and economic violence, either by authorities or by more powerful citizens against the poor, against people of color.  Historically, expropriation of the land from small landowners has been one form of this violence and still contributes to the poverty of the landless.

An incisive and profound new book by Matthew Whelan, Blood in the Fields: Óscar Romero, Catholic Social Teaching, and Land Reform (Catholic University of America Press, 2020), demonstrates what happened in El Salvador when a peaceful movement flowered, seeking a more livable wage, better working conditions, and land reform – a sharing of the gifts that God has given for all. The movement was based in small Christian communities and the formation of solid faith leaders. My husband, Mark, and I participated in one of these groups in El Salvador in 1977.

Blood in the Fields is not only one of the most profound studies of the life, witness and martyrdom of a recently proclaimed saint, but the best study of Catholic Social Teaching that we have seen. It presents Catholic Social Teaching and the preferential option for the poor through the eyes, preaching, and writing of Oscar Romero, with his added dimension of the lens of Matthew 25 and an understanding of the question of the land at the heart of the conflict.

Whelan brings out the doctrinal roots of St. Oscar Romero’s prophetic response to the violence that erupted there against those involved in the movement. Countless Catholic catechists, labor leaders, teachers, sisters, priests, lay people were killed, as well as anyone who spoke up against the activities of the death squads sent to silence them. In the same way that the prophets and those who have defended the poor over many centuries were criticized, Romero was attacked. Attempts were made to destroy his reputation and undermine him as a Communist, as a subversive.

The violence ultimately led to the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero himself in 1980. The Archbishop who fearlessly defended the poor, the common good, and land reform was assassinated. As Romero had said in regard to agrarian reform, you can speak about many things in Latin America, propose all means of solutions in the fight for justice, “but when you touch the land, it calls forth its martyrs.”

Whelan emphasizes Romero’s thorough study of Catholic Social Doctrine from the prophets of Israel through the Fathers of the Church and Thomas Aquinas, through the encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI – and the Second Vatican Council and the conferences to implement the Council for Latin America, beginning with the one held in Medellin. This book will be important in the consideration of St. Oscar Romero as a Doctor of the Church

During Romero’s lifetime and in the following years, Catholic Social Teaching, and especially the preferential option for the poor which flowed from it, was perhaps misunderstood and frequently criticized by those in power.

Whelan explains Romero’s stance regarding the option for the poor and his response to his critics:

“Romero says the preferential option for the poor calls all Christians to assume the problems of the poor as if they were their own. In a world suffering from sin and violence, mercy’s work of feeding, slaking, welcoming, clothing, tending, and visiting illumines the mysterious contours of the common life God shares with humankind in Christ. Christ’s ongoing appeal for mercy among the afflicted is how he builds up in the world a merciful body in his image. This is the basis of Romero’s insistence that the preferential option for the poor does not foment class conflict, as his critics contend, but seeks to encounter and care for the Christ who is present in the midst of a violence that already exists and that excludes the many from what God has given for all.” (Blood in the Fields, p. 207)

No Longer Hidden, Then or Now

The danger of death at the hands of police for people of color in the United States was not as visible until ordinary people started filming incidents on their cell phones and making the photos available to the public. Now people can see in dramatic form what is happening in encounters with the police. The Black Lives Matter group had been demonstrating for some years but only recently with George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation have so many joined in demonstrations and protests against the injustices Black people face.

In El Salvador in the late 1970’s and in 1980, the interventions of Monseñor Oscar Romero were like the cameras of today in documenting violence and repression. As soon as he was notified that a person was dragged off the street by security forces by death squads, he immediately went on the Catholic radio station to announce where it had happened and to whom. By bringing these crimes of police and death squads into the light, he was able to save some people from death, but also risked his own death.

Which Is the Best-Kept Secret?

At the heart of injustice and inequality is the dispossession of land from the poor.

Whelan documents that land reform, a fair distribution of the land, has always been at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Some say that CST is the best-kept secret. If that is so, the land reform at its center has been even more invisible in the English-speaking world. Peter Maurin wanted to “make the encyclicals click” because most people did not read them. He also knew the importance of the land.

In Latin America, theologians, and particularly Oscar Romero, did read the encyclicals. Whelan also read them and cites them on land reform. Whelan points out the lack of knowledge of and the lack of attention to the land reform embedded in the encyclicals:

“A growing number of scholars have appreciated Romero’s dependence on Catholic social teaching and its sources. Given the minimal attention devoted to Romero’s support for land reform or its sources, the failure to perceive his reliance on social teaching in arguing for a better distribution of land is unsurprising. Additionally, that this teaching even addresses land reform remains relatively unknown in English-language scholarship. The situation is different in Spanish- and Portuguese-language scholarship, where the topic has received much more extensive engagement.” (Whelan, note, p. 87)

Black Americans  and the Land

The question of ownership of the land is problematic not only in Latin America. A book by Pete Daniel from the University of North Carolina Press (2015) documents how the land was stolen from Black farmers in the United States. Entitled Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, the book goes beyond the title to show the history of planned transformation of American agriculture favoring agribusiness and technology against small farmers. Daniel shows how the African American farmers who, even after slavery had saved and somehow managed to buy land and have small farms where their families could live and sustain themselves, were denied any loans or other assistance which was provided to white farmers. Daniel’s research shows that when Black farmers registered to vote or joined the NAACP (a very mild organization by comparison to others that developed during the Civil Rights movement), they were systematically denied government loans or surplus commodities.

Did we all know that the United States Department of Agriculture discriminated against small farmers since the New Deal under Roosevelt? We are not aware of any major Catholic study that shows how USDA policies undermined the teaching and doctrine on the land in the encyclicals (except for the observations of a few distributists).

Reading Daniel’s book was a revelation on how the policies of the USDA and the politics involved with those policies changed even the definition of a farm and discriminated against all small farmers, but especially Black farmers.

Certain senators from the South personally vetoed loans for Black farmers,  but the policies of that whole government agency discriminated against them. According to Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who was chairman of the U S. Commission on Civil Rights, discrimination in USDA programs “constitute a clear violation of Federal law and policy.” Daniel comments that “Hesburgh admitted that the USDA ‘has shown an increasing awareness’ of discrimination but lamented that it had not taken action to address the problem.’ Indeed, the more the USDA studied the problem, the worse it became.” (Daniel, p. 192) Hesburgh said the USDA frequently broke the law!

A 1972 report from the USDA entitled, “New Directions for U.S. Agricultural Policy, “suggested changing the definition of ‘farm’ from an operation of ten acres selling $50 of products to an operation selling $5,000 or more. The committee not only defined small farmers out of agriculture but also denigrated farming as a way of life, seeing it instead as a business…. Since the larger operations accounted for 95 percent of cash receipts from farming, the committee recommended, they should receive USDA support. The others should wither away, the dispossessed farmers set adrift to find public work.” (Daniel, 244)

This approach contributed greatly to the demise of Black family farms and other family farms.

[We have to add here that the USDA is the same government agency that insists on detailed documentation of every bag of food that is given to the poor by the government through food banks. This policy helped to cause the long, long lines of cars of people waiting for food during the crisis of the Coronavirus, putting those who distributed the food at risk as well as those waiting who had to give their information to be written down.]

Stolen From People of Color

People of color have suffered dispossession of their land throughout the history of the United States. The Houston Institute for Culture has documented the theft of land from Mexican and Natives peoples with the conquest of much of Mexico. According to Richard D. Vogel, some of those regarded as heroes in Texas, formed campaigns to take the land from its owners. (Houston Institute for Culture: http://houstonculture.org/hispanic/conquest4.html)

In the process of taking the land, the experience and truth of life on the land was undermined. Vogel contends that not only was the land taken from those who were farming it, but “In addition to the overt wars against the Native Americans, the Anglo-Americans undermined Native culture by degrading the status of the land from being the foundation of the community to just another marketable commodity.”

Vogel cites a letter from Stephen F. Austin to his cousin linking not only theft of the land, but the determination to have slave labor to work the land:

“Stephen F. Austin, founder of the first Anglo-American colony in Texas, was well aware of the danger that the liberal Mexican republic presented to the U.S. empire of slavery. In a letter written to his cousin, Mary Austin Holley, on the eve of the Texas insurrection against Mexico, Austin confided his ambitions for the Mexican territory: ‘Texas must be a slave country. It is no longer a matter of doubt. The interest of Louisiana requires that it should be, a population of fanatical abolitionists in Texas would have a very pernicious and dangerous influence on the overgrown slave population of that state…. A great immigration from Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., each man with his rifle or musket, would be of great use to us — a very great use indeed…. To conclude — I wish a great immigration this fall and winter from Kentucky and Tennessee, everywhere, passports or no passports, anyhow.’” (from “Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People,”http://houstonculture.org/hispanic/conquest4.html).

Restoration of Rights

A recent Supreme Court decision on a case of who has jurisdiction over trials of Native Americans is a striking example of how land reform can restore some rights. The court ruled in 2020 that a large part of the land of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation and that the reservation land still belongs to Native Americans because of a treaty in 1866. As Julian Brave commented, “The state of Oklahoma has no jurisdiction on Indian land. Tribes can prosecute most crimes involving Native Americans in their own courts.”  Brave noted that “The Muscogee Creek became involved with McGirt’s litigation because it had broad implications for their treaty rights, sovereignty, and jurisdiction. Tangentially, the case also involved the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes, all relocated on the Trail of Tears from what is now the American South to eastern Oklahoma.” (“The McGirt Case is a Historic Win for Tribes,” The Atlantic, July 12, 2020)

The Land, Even Today, and Your Pension Funds

The expropriation of the land from small farmers, indigenous people, is again an international practice in a new colonialism or even feudalism, as corporations and pension funds purchase the arable land in the global South and participate in the destruction of rain forests there for profitable agribusiness.  Feudalism because those whose land is stolen from them end up working for the new landowners at below subsistence wages.

It may be a surprise to some of the professors whose retirement funds are administered by TIAA-CREF to know that this pension fund giant has been linked at least since 2012 to continuing massive land grabs and environmental destruction in Brazil and Guatemala. TIAA-CREF has spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring farmlands through oligarchs and local businessmen who had used violence and fraud to displace small farmers and take their land.

TIAA and other pension funds are also using complex company structures that have the effect of evading local laws restricting foreign investments in farmland. (https://maryknollogc.org/article/brazil-tiaa-cref-and-land-grabbing and https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/view/25846-guatemala-a-state-of-land-grabs)

by Daniel Erlander

The Common Good and the Universal Destination of Goods

The teaching of the Church from the earliest times on the universal destination of goods and on the common good are contested by secular, what might even be called warped, theories of the common good. These competing theories of economics and power even influence Christians. They misappropriate the language of the teaching on the common good and endorse a very different reality – from utilitarian, neoliberal/neoconservative and totalitarian philosophies.

According to Whelan, those who held all the land and money in El Salvador not only saw Archbishop Romero and those who worked for more equality as a threat to their wealth, but they actually believed that they instead (the oligarchy) were the saviors of the country, and that only by maintaining their holdings and power and seeking the assistance of countries like the United States could the country be saved against those masses of desperately poor, landless people.

As in Romero’s case, those who speak for nonviolence and defend the poor do not receive universal support from the society in which they live and may not even be supported by everyone in the Church. Even fellow Bishops in El Salvador who were close to the rich and powerful tried to present Archbishop Romero as an outlier. They had perhaps not made such a thorough study of social doctrine as had Monseñor Romero.

A better, more true understanding of the common good and the universal destination of goods can be the basis for a more equal, just society, where there are not so many hungry, poor, landless, people and countless prisoners and immigrants detained in for-profit prisons.

Not Only a List of Principles

For those involved with Works of Mercy, the poor, and efforts against injustice, it is sometimes difficult to relate to a list of seven principles promulgated regarding Catholic Social Teaching. The list was obviously developed with the best of intentions. However, when well-meaning people ask, “Do you know the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching?”, the realities on the ground seem not to be touched.

The list seems vague and these principles are often touted by people whose lives perhaps unwittingly support an economic system in direct contrast to Catholic Social Teaching. (As we at CJD have heard of these principles from some of the 1%).

Somehow the emphasis on the ownership of the land from so many encyclicals and the Vatican statement on Land Reform (“Towards a Better Distribution of Land: the Challenge of Agrarian Reform”) are omitted from the list. (The USCCB website does recommend a reading of the encyclicals to complement the list of principles, an excellent beginning.)

The Social Question and Transformation in Christ

The social encyclicals of many Popes and the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas brought forward by Romero are not vague. The teachings of the prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church are not vague. The teaching of Oscar Romero is not vague.

Whelan’s book goes beyond a list of principles of CST to a comprehensive study of the implications of what Oscar Romero simply called “the Doctrine of the Church.” Unbridled capitalism with inherent inequalities and the theft of the land does not meet the requirements of the Gospel of Jesus or the Doctrine of the Church.

Adding the dimension of Matthew 25:31-46 to the preferential option for the poor takes the discussion beyond boilerplate advertisements for global capitalism to another plane – where the divine can intercede and transform our realities as we look into the face of the poor. Frank Pasquale recently reviewed Thomas Pikkety’s book, Capital or Ideology. In his review in Commonweal, which he entitled “Socialism or Feudalism,” Pasquale said: “The critical question now for those alarmed by hyper capitalism’s massive inequalities is how to rally public support for a more egalitarian social order. Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked, ‘We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.'”

As Pope Francis recently said, “The early pages of the Bible give much evidence of how sin and violence spread among human beings, but there also are accounts of people capable of praying to God with sincerity, capable of writing the destiny of humanity in a different say.”

Perhaps the way of transformation of our world can be to follow Peter Maurin’s maxim of performing the Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice, meeting Jesus in the poor. And restoring some of their land.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XL, No. 3, July-September 2010.