Since discovering the Distributist wisdom archived in this forum long before this new format, it’s been an uplifting source of social encouragement for me and thousands, perhaps millions of kindred spirits. Countless words have now, rightly, been devoted to deliberations over how best to bring this society to full expression. Implicit in all of those proposals is the stewardship component inherent to any Distributist ideal; but perhaps in only implicating such an important sentiment we’re taking for granted that which needs to remain foremost in our thinking. I’m not suggesting that stewardship has been overlooked in Distributist thought. Much has been offered in the various Distributist outlets from Fr. Vincent McNabb, for example, a staunch advocate for the centrality of stewardship; and Arthur Penty, too, one of the founding fathers of the Distributist movement wrote in Distributism: a Manifesto, that “a society is only in a stable and healthy condition when its manufactures rest on a foundation of agriculture and home-produced raw material, and its commerce on a foundation of native manufacturers.”1
There is no questioning Distributism’s sensitivity to the reality that all wealth is derived from creation, that which God made from nothing, so a distributive society will inescapably be co-creative too, a society that readily assists God in finishing that creation that He started through “tilling,” “keeping” (Gen 2:15), and loving the earth that provides all wealth. Failure to recognize the material social dependence of humanity on the rest of creation would ultimately undermine Distributism’s social applicability to human behavior, as it would any competing “-ism.” Focusing on co-creation simply centers distributive society on that which it is dependent and must not overlook; but it yields an additional benefit in enhancing distributive awareness of the connection between co-creation and salvation as well, as obviously is magisterially desired.
According to the church, earth was created by God to provide for us, all of us—those living here in the past, now, andin the future. We are responsible for Earth’s condition, because God granted us dominion over his creation, his gift. Dominion, though, is a privilege that is ours only so long as we assume and fulfill the co-creational duty attached to it. God expects us to control how we use earth, but “dominion” is not the same as “domination.”
Humanity, in its modern zeal for material wealth accumulation, has expended relatively little effort in fully understanding how we are part of nature; and because of our ecological ignorance, we don’t really know what natural impact we’re making, and are apparently loathe to find out, or accept what we do find out. Modern liberal society, especially, but a substantial segment of Catholic society too, is somehow convinced that whatever affect we have on earth, it must be relatively benign—the grass is still green, the soil is still brown, the sky is still blue, what’s the problem? If we are to be creation’s steward, as “dominion-atively” directed, then we must remedy this attitudinal oversight by adopting the co-creational attitude as we are magisterially implored.
Co-creation, though explicit in several magisterial works, is not a well-known element of Catholic social thought, but most directly addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains that “to human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of ‘subduing’ the earth and having dominion over it. God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers and their sufferings. They then fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom (CCC 307, emphasis added) … creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in state vice) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it” (CCC 302, emphasis added).2
John Paul II then further complements his Catechism statements in Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) when he writes that “the word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation”.3
That co-creation has some consequence in salvation is alluded to by the church’s Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in their publication, Toward a Better Distribution of Land, which states that earth despoliation “should be seen as a sign of man’s disobedience to God’s command to act as guardian and wise administrator of creation. Such sinful disobedience has a very high price, for it causes a particularly shameful lack of human solidarity, striking the weakest and future generations.”4
Okay, so how do we do this? How do we co-create? Fortunately, the Catechism again assures us that, “with creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at everymoment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end,” (CCC 301) ostensibly through acts of love and showers of grace. Love is the real co-creational force, and love can only pervade over all creation (earth) and perpetuate through the whole of time through giving. The Catechism adds its confirmation of this sentiment when it says, “God who created man out of love also calls him to love the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love. Since God created him man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s eyes. And this love which God blesses is intended to be fruitful and to be realized in the common work of watching over creation” (emphasis added, CCC 1604).
The work of co-creation consists of loving. But loving sounds easier than it is: loving is more than a thought, it is an action…loving must be done to be real. God’s creation, though, is purposely structured for love to cycle throughout. In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II explains how love works in the world.5 His “Cycle of Love” model (my reference not his) is relevant to our development as co-creators, so it’s worthwhile to summarize. God made humanity in his image, after his likeness; “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). Since love must be givento flourish, there are separate beings—complementary beings—one to give, and one to receive and give back. In creation, male and female are those complementary beings, each with a particular role in the Cycle of Love. God is the First Giver, the Father. In creation, between creatures (which includes more than just you and me, earth is a creature, too), the male plays the role of first giver—the initiator of the Cycle, the initializer of the force. The female, then, is the receiver, but also has the special responsibility of giving back to complete the cycle. Love perpetuates through repeated receiving and giving back ad infinitum. When love is not given back, by either party, then it stops and must be re-initiated. Thus, is what John Paul II calls the “ethos” of creation, contained within the “unity of the two,” and the same as the “ethos of the Gospel and of Redemption” (MD 48).
The whole of our co-creative work consists of loving: loving God, loving each other, and loving earth. Without all of these cycles of love running concurrently, co-creation is un-doable, and, thus, the charge of dominion neglected or even rejected. Loving God and loving each other, though, are not the sides of this “Love Triangle” in most urgent need of an awareness upgrade. We understand these from early in our lives, we are liturgically and catechetically reminded of these, and even though we fail regularly we continue to work at these more directly. It’s the third side of the Triangle—loving earth as co-creator—that we need to remember, emphasize, and include in our christian work more explicitly. The Catechism provides an initial nudge down this road, and also demonstrates that co-creational loving is a kind of work, when it explains that “human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat.’ Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish” (emphasis added, CCC 2427).
In keeping with this model, as co-creators our work consists of loving, which is to say, of receiving that which was given by God, then giving it back in all its original goodness made even more precious by our seeing to it that through our dominion vigil it had not diminished in quality or condition; that we had not tarnished through our use of it, that which was made good, that it not only was still good, but was actually perfected through our love of it. Only such a return gift can truly glorify God as, the church explains, is our duty. Leo XIII put it this way in Rerum Novarum: “it is of no importance how much we have or lack, only how we use the things which are called good.”6 Paul VI weighs in on the glorification issue as well, in Gaudier et Spes, when he says that “man was created ‘to the image of God,’ is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.”7 The Catechism (CCC 353) puts it yet another way, that “God willed the diversity of his creatures and their own particular goodness, their interdependence and their order. He destined all material creatures for the good of the human race. Man, and through him all creation, is destined for the glory of God.”
For co-creation to be truly redemptive and the responsibility of dominion fulfilled, John Paul II confirms that we must love creation, and to that end, perhaps Distributist society would be well served to institute a creational consecration requirement, so that we who live in such a society venerate the gift that provides, and treat it with only the utmost respect. So that the many entrusted with a small piece of that created property are driven in its use by the motivation to glorify he who made it.
- Arthur Penty, “Distributism: A Manifesto,” in Distributist Perspectives, Volume I, Essays on the Economics of Justice and Charity, ed. J. Forrest Sharpe (Norfolk, VA: IHS Press, 2004), 86-110.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco : Ignatius Press, 1994).
- Pope John Paul II,On Human Work (Laborem Exercens, 1981), 57.
- Toward a Better Distribution of Land: the Challenge of Agrarian Reform, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (Nov. 23, 1997), 12.
- Pope John Paul II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem): Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, Aug. 15, 1988).
- Pope Leo XIII, (Rerum Novarum) On the Condition of the Working Classes (1891), 9.
- Pope Paul VI, (Gaudium et Spes) Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965), 13.