The 1940's were an interesting time in the economic development of the western world. On the one hand, the end of World War II had brought us definitively into the modern era with full electrification of our cities, modern means of communication, the beginning of the consumerist era, and of course the inauguration of nuclear energy. On the other hand, many regions of Europe and North America were primarily rural and depended upon agriculture for their economic survival. In many places, horse-power was still being used into the 1940's and 50's. It was a period of transition, a brief crossroads between two epochs with all the questioning and uncertainty that comes with such times. In 1946, Pius XII gave an address at the Convention of the National Confederation of Farm Owner-Operators in Rome on the importance of agricultural activity in the economy, and of the dangers facing rural life as we transition into the modern world. These observations are even more pertinent now than when the Holy Father first spoke them almost seventy years ago.
The pope begins by contrasting a natural civilization rooted in close contact with nature with a false, "artificial civilization" that is built upon consumerism and manufactures that, while providing a certain degree of material comfort, impoverish man's life by divorcing him from the land. While there are many kinds of economic activity, agricultural activity has a sort of primacy because it most perfectly embodies an economy of production rather than an economy of consumption:
"It is actual contact, since your lives are lived in places still remote from the excesses of an artificial civilization. Under the sun of the Heavenly Father your lives are dedicated to bringing forth from the depths of the earth the abundant riches which His hand has hidden there for you. Your contact with Mother Earth has also a deep social significance, because your families are not merely consumer-communities but also and especially producer-communities" .
So while all authentic human labor is good inasmuch as labor constitutes a realization of the ones personhood (cf. Laborem Exercens, 6), agricultural work has a sort of primacy because in it is found the perfection of the ends of labor willed by God. A parallel can be found in the episcopate, which is the highest degree of Holy Orders because in it is found the fullness of the sacrament; similarly, agricultural work is the most perfect sort of labor. As he will say later, "the tiller of the soil still represents the natural order of things willed by God." Besides the productive nature of agriculture, Pius XII also cites the inherent family-centered nature of rural life:
"Your being so strongly rooted in the family constitutes the importance of your contribution to the correct development of the private and public order of society. You are called upon for this reason to perform an indispensable function as source and defense of a stainless moral and religious life. For the land is a kind of nursery which supplies men, sound in soul and body, for all occupations, for the Church, and for the State."
This life-style with all its virtues becomes pleasing to God when animated with a spirit of religious charity. Besides being pleasing to God, it also serves as an antidote against modern materialism:
"We must preserve the qualities of industriousness, simple and honest living, respect for authority, especially for parental authority, love of country, and loyalty to traditions which have proved a source of good throughout the centuries. We must preserve readiness to aid one another within the family circle and amongst families, from home to home. All of these qualities we must have animated with a true religious spirit, for without such a spirit these very virtues tend to degenerate into unbridled greed for profit."
Pius XII went on to speak of a certain "discouraging example" when nations begin to value the fastest growing economy with the maximum amount of profit as antithetical to the rural life. This is because the modern economy thrives on mechanization and industrialization, which necessarily implies the conversion of rural land to industrial and the transformation of farmer-family-producers to individual-wage earning-consumers. This drive to "grow the economy" erodes genuine agricultural enterprise for the sake of industry; meanwhile, foodstuffs are imported from overseas or from gargantuan agribusinesses that treat farming like manufacturing and further divorce man from nature. Facing this threat, Pius XII calls farmers to be faithful to their vocation and to strengthen their families against the temptations provided by the modern lifestyle.
Pius goes on to correct a common objection that such an emphasis on rural life is somehow antithetical to education. This goes back to an old prejudice of farmers as ignorant rustics. Pius strenuously objects to this stereotype:
"There is no more mistaken idea than the notion that the man who tills the soil does not need a serious and adequate education to enable him to perform the varied duties of the season in timely fashion."
This leads Pius into an interesting observation that, while toil is an aspect of Original Sin, labor itself was not an effect of sin. In other words, labor was originally willed by God as part of His plan for man's life on this earth; Original Sin did not introduce labor into the world, but made it more burdensome. This means that while agricultural life represents a sort of perfection of labor, it itself is not yet perfect. Like the rest of the world, it is wounded and in need of restoration. This provides the justification for true progress in the rural life - it is the reason why, though Pius insists on the centrality of rural life, he does not adopt a Luddite-Amish rejection of any labor-saving machines or processes:
"The earth is a huge wounded creature; she is ill. Bending over her, not as a slave over the clod, but as the physician over a prostrate sufferer, the tiller lovingly showers on her his care. But love, for all that it is so necessary, is not enough. To know nature, to know, so to speak, the temperament of one's own piece of land, sometimes so different from that of the very next plot; to be able to discover the germs that spoil it, the rodents that would burrow beneath it, the worms that would eat its fruits, the weeds that would infest its crops; to determine what elements it lacks and to choose the successive plantings that will enrich it even while it rests—these and so many other things require wide and varied knowledge and information."
If mechanical and chemical advances are permissible (so long as the earth is not exploited and the family structure of the work is unimpaired), then there is certainly no reason why political progress in the use of land is not also recognizable. In one of the greatest passages of the address, Pius XII contrasts the vices and political corruption that is rampant in cities with the simple rusticity of farm life and urges man's economic arrangement to respect the needs of man above the love of money. This passage is worth citing in its entirety:
"Modern cities, with their constant growth and great concentration of inhabitants, are the typical product of the control wielded over economic life and the very life of man by the interests of large capital. As Our glorious Predecessor, Pius XI, has so effectively shown in his Encyclical, "Quadragesimo Anno," it happens too often that human needs do not, in accordance with their natural and objective importance, rule economic life and the use of capital. On the contrary, capital and its desire for gain determine what the needs of man should be and to what extent they are to be satisfied. Therefore, it is not human labor in the service of the common welfare that attracts capital to it and presses it into its service. Rather, capital tosses labor and man himself here and there like a ball in a game. If the inhabitant of the city suffers from this unnatural state of affairs, so much the more is it contrary to the very essence of the farmer's life. Notwithstanding all his difficulties, the tiller of the soil still represents the natural order of things willed by God. The farmer knows that man, by his labor, is to control material things; that material things are not to control man."
Pius will go on to list several sorts of abuses that can arise when the economic inversion described above occurs: capital flees to cities, land is monopolized, food is imported from abroad while rural land is idle and people go hungry. The pope of course encourages sound legislation and responsible policy at the State level, but he says that farmers will have greater help from their own cooperative organizations:
"But your principal help must came from yourselves, from your cooperative unions, especially from your credit unions. Perhaps, then, the recovery of the whole economy may come from the field of agriculture."
If the farmers are able to maintain their lifestyle and utilize their cooperative structures to retain their privileges against an ever encroaching consumerism backed by big government and big finance, farmers can most perfectly embody the Catholic concept of labor and be the agents of an authentic renewal of labor and economy in the modern world:
"And finally a word about labor. You tillers of the soil form within your families a community of labor. You and your fellow-members and associates also form another community of labor. Finally, you desire to form with all the other occupational groups a great community of labor. This is in keeping with what has been ordained by God and nature. This is the true Catholic concept of labor. Work unites all men in common service to the needs of the people and in a unified effort towards perfection of self in honor of the Creator and Redeemer. In any case, remain firm in regarding your labor from the point of view of its essential value. You and your families are contributing to the public welfare; such labor protects your fundamental right to an income sufficient to maintain you in accordance with your dignity and cultural needs as men. It implies also your recognition of the necessity of uniting with all other occupational groups who labor for the various needs of society. Your labor therefore, embodies your support of the principles of social peace."
Over half a century later, the march of consumerism has progressed beyond what Pius XII ever could have imagined, and the need for a productive economy grounded in the family and imbued with a religious spirit is greater than ever. The excesses of our materialist society do not render Pius XII's words irrelevant, but instead throw his vision into greater relief against the modern nightmare of a consumer-centered, mass produced culture divorced from the earth and contrary to the order willed by God. A restoration of rural life is needed more desperately now than in 1946.
Stimulated by authentic principles of Catholic teaching, rural life can still serve as the catalyst to restore our society.
 All citations from Pope Pius XII's address On Rural Life to the National Confederation of Farm Owner-Operators, given in Rome on November 15, 1946 and available online at https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/POPRURAL.HTM.