Principles for a Farm Bill
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
October 2001

The tragic events of September 11 seemed to have put many public policy issues on hold. This is proper. However, there are many issues and proposals that our nation and state need to address. Perhaps the new-found unity our country is witnessing can help us tackle these difficult tasks with greater success.

One such issue that needs resolution is the construction of a new federal farm bill. Agricultural policy is complicated and there are many competing agendas among those that seek to influence the new legislation. How do we, as Catholics, judge the various proposals for a new farm bill?

First, we must begin as Catholics. Our position on agricultural legislation must flow from our faith as Catholics, not our alliances as members of the Farmers Union, the Farm Bureau, the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. As committed Catholic Christians, we really have no other choice. The Catholic bishops and the Holy Father have repeatedly stated that agricultural policies, because they affect the economy, families, the environment, and families, are moral issues. As Catholics, we must measure any farm bill proposal according to Catholic social teaching.

What are those teachings? In their 1998 statement on rural issues, Bishop James Sullivan and Bishop Paul Zipfel identified important principles for a just system of agriculture. They are:

The Need to Respect the Life and Dignity of the Human Person

Public and social policies must put the human person first. Society cannot consider farmers and ranchers expendable in the name of “progress” or “efficiency.”

The Common Good

We must work to preserve family farms and ranches because they provide one of the best guarantees of a healthy community.

The Integrity of Creation

Ranchers and farmers should exercise responsible stewardship of creation. Agriculture and economic policies must support them in the exercise of this responsibility and not promote exhaustion of the earth’s resources.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The goods of creation are meant for all, throughout generations. Excess profits in agribusiness, especially at the expense of the laborer, violate principles of justice. Policies should foster wide distribution of ownership in agriculture rather than concentration, whether in land, animals, technology, seed, genetic make-up, processing, or production. Moreover, social and economic policies must provide just compensation to ranchers and farmers for their labor.


Human dignity requires that persons and communities should possess the ability to exercise responsible self-governance. Subsidiarity means that while larger governments and businesses have a role and sometimes a duty to involve themselves in local affairs, they should give deference and due respect to local communities and families.

Option for the Poor

We should judge policies concerning rural life according to how they affect the least among us -- those with less power and influence, the most vulnerable, and the marginalized. A strong case exists that the “poor” today includes rural communities; not because they are among the economic poor -- although this is increasingly true -- but because they are among the least powerful and their way of life is marginalized, ignored, or forgotten.

These principles are a good place to start. For a copy of the bishops’ statement contact the North Dakota Catholic Conference office at 1-888-419-1237. The statement is also on-line at: The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has more information on a Catholic response to the new farm bill at