December 2011        

J. A. Ryan: Catholic socialist priest

In September 1922 the broadly based Labor Defense Council was established by the then illegal Communist Party of America to raise bail and legal defence funds for those arrested in the raid on the party’s 1922 convention. Tomás O’Flaherty, brother of the writer Liam O’Flaherty, was among those detained. The LDC also sought to raise public consciousness about free speech and rights of assembly.
     The parallel and similarly broad-based National Defense Committee dealt with social and economic policy development. Among the twenty-one members of the national committee were representatives of organised labour, such as Eugene Debs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn . . . and, surprisingly, a Catholic priest, Father John A. Ryan, director of the National Catholic Welfare Council in Washington.
     Why would a Catholic priest keep such company?
     Ryan’s childhood experience, growing up on a Minnesota farm where he was born in 1869 to Irish immigrant parents and seeing the hardships faced by farmers, stimulated an early interest in economic justice and in promoting social change. He was later to see his priestly vocation as teaching moral theology and economic justice to the American electorate and influencing Catholic voters and politicians.
     Ryan viewed the separation of religious thought from ethics as the root of the economic problems faced by the United States in the early half of the 20th century. Taking his cue not from Marx but from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, he held that all labourers had a right to adequate worldly goods for living in comfort and that the state was obliged to guarantee that right. He argued that Rerum Novarum converted the principle of a living wage “from an implicit to an explicit principle of Catholic ethics.”
     Ryan objected to the unfair distribution of the social product and stratagems that encouraged increased consumption through the stimulation of demand for luxury goods and services. He saw both of these as the flawed outcome of a historical separation between ethics and economic life. He based his own vision of economic progress on an equitable distribution of wealth, decreased working hours, and a guaranteed minimum wage.
     While upholding the primacy of private property, he condemned unregulated free-market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt. This latter view enabled him to make common cause with fellow-members of the National Defense Committee, whose similar positions were often based on radically different analyses of the capitalist order.
     Beyond writing political works, Ryan actively promoted the trade union movement, defending its cause to outside groups, addressing union meetings, and helping to write and to promote social legislation.
     Labelled by his enemies a socialist—a pejorative label in the United States of that era—he endorsed public housing, social security, unemployment insurance, and women’s rights in the work-place.
     Powerful conservative elements within the Catholic Church accused him of contradicting the church’s teachings. Yet he was recognised in his day as the principal Catholic spokesperson for social reform within the United States. He was the first Catholic priest to deliver the benediction at a presidential inauguration, that of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, who admired his writings. Indeed Ryan promoted social reforms that were incorporated in Roosevelt’s New Deal, which became the cornerstone of the modern welfare state.
     John A. Ryan died in 1945. This combative Irish-American priest pushed radical social reform in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, and he maintains a unique role in the history of the American Catholic tradition as a pioneer in the application of Catholic theology to questions of social justice in industrial society.
     Irish Roman Catholic Church, please copy!

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