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Apostolic Farming: Healing the Earth.



WRITTEN BY Catherine De Hueck Doherty

PUBLISHED BY: Madonna House Pubns; 2nd ed. edition, 1991

ISBN: 978-0-921-44003-1 Softcover, pp.96 price: $6.95 CDN

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The permaculture of David Holmgren and the principles of apostolic farming outlined in Catherine Doherty's book seem to have much in common. However, the way people execute these principles are as vastly different as their reasons for living them.

According to David Holmgren, who helped coin the term permaculture in the 1970s, the practice of permaculture rests on the ethical principles of care for the earth and care for people. This seems similar to Catherine Doherty's views in Apostolic Farming. Holmgren says we should care for the forests, the soil, the water, and ourselves, our families and the community, all of which Doherty writes about in Apostolic Farming.

The difference arises due to their perspective on the value of each human being. Holmgren argues that fossil fuels and industry have caused an unnatural growth in the human population, producing the modern society. He believes that the current situation is unsustainable and that there will be a return in a few generations to the systems design principles observed in nature and pre-industrial societies. The current situation is, according to him, an "environmental crisis [that is] real, and of a magnitude that will certainly transform modern global industrial society beyond recognition." (1) He thinks the world's population will be threatened, and that the depletion of fossil fuel will bring about a return to "renewable energy and resources." (2)

Catherine Doherty, on the other hand, states as a principle that caring for the earth is based on theological insight. She states that the fundamental meaning of creation is as a gift, as the Genesis accounts demonstrates Dougherty argues that each person is a unique gift from God, and that from this, the earth itself is a unique gift from God, not to be grasped at or rejected, but to be accepted with humility and gratitude and to be cared for. (3)

For Dougherty, it all comes down to love. We are called to exist in a reciprocal relationship of the gift of love in all creation, whether it is the people around us or the earth itself. We must not grasp, attempting to see how much we can get out of others. Her view of the apostolic farmer is someone who accepts the earths abundance, and, in doing so, recognises his own responsibility to care for it. He does not seek to trade a future on the land for increased productivity by pumping the land full of chemicals, the farmer nurtures the land so it remains healthy. (4)

Doherty sees in farming the Fatherhood of God. Man is a protector and provider, and by farming he truly feeds his family and all of us. For Doherty, this is why farming is linked to the agape, the love feast of the Mass: liturgical worship and food always go together. (5) It is through the reciprocal relationship of love that unity is developed. Dougherty ironically notes that there is little unity to be found in the world today, with the advent of technology and faster than ever means of global communication. Furthermore, the world, particularly our cities, are marred with an incredible loneliness that leads to disunity, hatred and violence. It is the farm where man can touch the earth, reverence it, grow food from it, leading to a unity with God. For in the beginning, in Genesis, he said:

"Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Take dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Behold I have given you every living plant--yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast on the earth, everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food."

Farming unites people, food is grown and all of our labour is shared as we exchange the fruit of our work for food. Dougherty argues that when someone gives a basket of food that he has grown with his own hands to someone, his work, sweat, and tears have gone into it and it is really a part of him. Similarly, and not limited to food alone, when someone gives anything from among their talents, they are really giving a part of themselves, and Christian unity, which comes from caring for others, is the fruit of such gifts. (6)

In Apostolic Farming, Doherty says that we must give back to the land what we take out. Today, the land is often pushed for higher productivity like a factory--sometimes beyond its own health. There is pressure to stress the land rather than investing labour into maintaining it.

The earth does things in its own time. Doherty tells of her family farm in pre-communist Russia: how in her great-great-grandfather's day a large part of their land was very sick and could not be healed in a hurry. The soil needed rest, so the land was planted with trees, and then recleared by Doherty's grandfather when his first son was six years old. Her father remembers the men felling the trees and in her own time that land was their best soil. (7)

If man is to care for the earth he must own private property upon which he can impress his personality, as stated in Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. When a man owns the land, as opposed to it being government owned, the stability and assurance for the future allows him to invest in the land, to care for it in the long term, and ultimately he, as an owner, is the best person for this, because unlike the fickle whims of changing governments, he knows his land like nobody else does. (8) Moreover, this right to private property is important for the family, the basic unit of society. For this reason, people should see property ownership as something to strive for, and it is unjust for government policy to impede this process. The conditions that Leo XIII lays out in his encyclical are necessary for the family to live the way Doherty speaks of, whether on a farm or not, caring for people, a care grounded in a belief in a loving God who commanded that men love each other and care for the earth as stewards. (9)

This is the difference in the permaculture movement, the underlying anti-life population control component, manifest in the third Ethical Principle that Holmgren puts forward, called "Fair Share". The aim of this is to "set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute the surplus." (10) He speaks of negative feedback loops acting as a break that stops the system from falling into scarcity and instability as the result of overuse: (12)

"Organisms and individuals also adapt to the negative feedback from large-scale systems of nature and community by developing self-regulation to pre-empt and avoid the harsher consequences of external negative feedback [...] Traditional societies recognised that the effects of external negative feedback controls were often slow to emerge." (12)

Holmgren wants self-regulation of populations, saying that it is better to self-regulate because the world is incapable of supporting the "exploding" human population. This is pure Malthusian propaganda. (13) Malthus argued that in man's savage state the brutal deaths caused by "war, infanticide, famine, disease [and] murder of the aged"--which in Holmgren's terminology are called negative feedback loops, kept humanity from overpopulation. Holmgren worries that the lives of the "sickly", "feeble" and "deformed" are now preserved by the modern medical technologies and philanthropy made possible by unprecedented wealth. (14)

Holmgren believes in a sudden and harsh reappearance of these "natural checks", and so we ought to set limits to reproduction (read, kill other people), self-regulating the human population (read, other people) before WE feel the effects of the external negative feedback.

In pointing out these vicious underpinnings to permaculture, the aim

is not to see only the negative, but also to recognise the good, and there is much good in permaculture. The principle of caring for the earth is a good one, and there is also much to be said for the practical implementation of many of its practical methods. Without God, humanity faces a great weight of responsibility, the good of our children, their children, and their children's children, and it is the fear of this responsibility that causes environmentalists to lose their nerve and opt for the simplistic solution of killing the vulnerable.

Doherty lived out her apostolic farming principals because she recognised the earth as gift and creation and heard God's call to faithful stewardship. She did not lose her nerve, and she showed far more courage in her life than modern environmentalists seem to be able to muster.


(1, 2, 10, 11, 12): David Holmgren, "The Essence of Permaculture: A Summary of Permaculture Concepts and Principles taken from Permaculture Pathways and Principles Beyond Sustainability.

(3, 4, 5, 6, 7): Doherty, Catherine, Apostolic Farming. Combermere, Ontario: Madonna House Publications, 2008.

(8, 9): Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.

(13, 14): Jane Carey. The Racial Imperatives of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years, Women's History Review, 21, no. 5(2012): 733-752.

Jessma Nash writes from Australia
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Author:Nash, Jessma
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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