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Issue Date:  October 12, 2007

From the Editors' Desk

The essential Catholic 'stuff'

One of the attractions Catholicism holds for those teetering on leaving or maybe investigating joining the community, I’m convinced, is what I like to call Catholic “stuff.”

Sacramental theologians and liturgists would have more elegant ways of talking about it. I’m not referring to the campy old stuff experiencing a revival in some corners -- the capa magnas (long capes) that stretch a half a block behind the wearer or the canopies or the “liturgically correct” colored shoes and socks.

The stuff I refer to is not the stuff of royalty, but the stuff -- the bread and the wine (and not grape juice) and the dirt and the fire and the water -- common to us all and that we talk so much about.

It is wonderfully human that we so regularly refer in our liturgies to nourishment, to who grows the food and prepares it. Phrases such as “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. All that keeps us, despite distractions to the contrary, grounded, if you will, close to the earth and the essentials of life.

It makes sense, then, that our thoughts can never be too far from those who don’t have enough to eat. That’s also essential Catholic stuff.

~ ~ ~

It is certainly a large part of the reason we jumped at the suggestion of Tom Fox, former NCR editor and publisher, to dig into this week’s cover story about international food aid and the changing landscape of what has become a complex, multibillion-dollar industry.

Indeed, it is no longer sufficient to simply have a generous heart. How food is delivered and why -- and whether it should be food or cash -- are issues that have become as important as delivering the food itself.

The significance of those issues and how they are addressed can’t be overstated, not when 18,000 children around the world die every day from hunger and one in seven people in the world is hungry.

The instinct, of course, is to say get the food to them as quickly as possible so no one else starves. There’s enough to go around.

In some cases that makes sense to stave off immediate starvation. Over the longer term, however, direct food aid may actually be a burden to the recipients, swamping local markets and agriculture and creating persistent problems rather than solving them.

The power of agribusiness, shipping companies and other interests involved in food distribution can be seen in the failure of the Bush administration to persuade Congress to convert just 25 percent of the $1.2 billion annual food-aid allotment to cash donations. The cash would allow countries to, essentially, buy locally, boosting local and regional economies and encouraging local agriculture.

The current Farm Bill, which contains the funding for food aid, is under consideration in Congress. Whether or not such discussions as Fox outlines in the piece will have any effect on this year’s deliberations, the questions are unlikely to fade anytime soon. We’ll be doing more reporting on the issue in the months ahead.

~ ~ ~

If you are one of those who have a bittersweet affection for changing seasons, as I have, and for the differently slanted light and evidence all around of either slow decline or newly budding life, then there’s a treat in store for you on Page 18. I say bittersweet because it is sometimes a regret to leave a summer or a beautiful autumn behind, or it can be pure exhilaration to know that the worst of winter’s grip is loosening. If you want some words to put with the moods you may be feeling as the leaves begin to turn or if you’re in one of those places that stays pretty much the same and you miss the musty perfume of leaf decay or the heft of a pumpkin, settle in with a glass of cider and Christopher de Vinck’s essay.

-- Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large and news director. Sr. Rita Larivee, publisher and editor in chief, is on vacation. She will return next week.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2007

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