Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America, 1920-1960

Article excerpt

Saving the Heartland: Catholic Missionaries in Rural America, 1920-1960. By Jeffrey D. Marlett. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2002. Pp. xi, 233.$40.00.)

Jeffrey Marlett, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, offers a study of Catholic romantic agrarianism and of several of the movements, apostolates, and missionary endeavors that it fostered in rural America from the 1920's until the eve of the Second Vatican Council. In the course of four chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, he defends the thesis that rural idealism constituted an important aspect of the American Catholic experience of the mid-twentieth century, and that much of contemporary Catholicism in this country "preserves some link to the Catholic agrarian past" (p. 7).

The first chapter presents the framework of the "antiurban theology" within which the Catholic Rural Life movement was established. Concerns about the declining birthrate in the nation's cities in the 1920's convinced Father Edwin O'Hara and others that the future of the Catholic Church lay in rural growth, by means of natural and spiritual fertility, that is, in an increased birthrate and in conversions to the Faith in the nation's farm regions. According to the author, the underlying sentiment was well captured in the slogan,"Eden was a garden, Sodom was a city."

Marlett holds that in addition to O'Hara, Luigi Ligutti, and the National Catholic Rural life Conference (NCRLC, founded in 1923), individuals and groups as disparate as Frederick Kenkel and the Central Verein; Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement; the Grail organization; John LaFarge, S.J.; and Allen Tate saw in a rural-centered Christian social order a fulfillment of the papal social encyclicals, a spiritual and sociological antidote to modernism, and an economic remedy for the depression and the pernicious effects of urban industrialization.

Furthermore, the author highlights the connections between these movements and the Neo-Scholastic synthesis prevalent in Catholic intellectual circles and the Liturgical Movement, particularly as it was fostered by Martin Hellriegel and Vn-gil Michel, O.S.B. He also contends that despite these philosophical and theological links, much of Catholic agrarianism was profoundly American, largely comfortable with Thomas Jefferson's idealized vision of the family farmer and with various Protestant and secular agrarian movements. …