Saving Monsignor Ryan

Refuting the Myths of Neoconservative Roman Catholic Economics

About Frank L. Cocozzelli

saving_monsignor_ryan_mainIn October 1936, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America took to the airwaves to defend the New Deal from scurrilous attacks made by another Catholic priest, the demagogic radio personality of the day, Father Charles Coughlin. Monsignor John A. Ryan’s speech was titled “Roosevelt Safeguards America.” In many ways, the radio volley between the two priests still reflects debates raging in the church and in American society today. Ryan’s explanation of the sources of support for Communist anti-clericalism in Spain that he outlined in his radio address remains important in light of the claims of a small group of contemporary neoconservative Roman Catholic intellectual leaders whose views have had a profound influence on the American Catholic Church, as well as broader American public discourse.

“The great tragedy of Spain,” Ryan declared, quoting fellow priest Wilfred Parsons, was that in the nineteenth century the working masses apostatized from the Church, as Pope Pius X once remarked. And, it is well to remember, it was poverty, destitution and injustice which made them apostatize. They got to hate the Church because they hated the friends of the Church, who exploited them and whom the Church did nothing to rebuke or correct.

The lesson of all this for us is that we should meet the evil of Communism not merely by denouncing it, and not at all by stigmatizing as communistic all fundamental reforms. We must attack the main causes of Communism. Among these are poverty, insecurity and inequitable distribution of wealth and income. Failure to remove these evils will do more to strengthen Communism than all the propaganda and all the “boring-in” methods of the organized Communist movement.

If, as Pope John Paul II declared, the Church has a “preferential option for the poor,” one would be pressed to find it expressed in the works of such contemporary “friends of the Church” as Michael Novak, George Weigel and other Roman Catholic neoconservatives. Indeed, they are prominent proponents of a buccaneer capitalism that exploits the poorest people of God – an idea profoundly at odds with Catholic social teaching for more than a century.

Many believe that neoconservatism is nothing more than a unilateral approach to United States foreign policy. But this is a dangerous misconception. Lost in the focus on a clique of Washington, D.C. militarists (as important as they are) is the role of the highly theocratic brand of neoconservatism. These “theocons” see their philosophy as a mechanism to transform the whole of society into one based upon a highly orthodox, traditionalist form of Roman Catholic morality, a fringe form resoundingly rejected by the vast majority of the Church’s American flock.

Much like its more secular variety, Roman Catholic neoconservatism bases its approach upon three pillars: nationalism (as opposed to patriotism), a national religious orthodoxy (as opposed to an overlapping moral consensus derived from a pluralistic society), and laissez-faire capitalism (as opposed to New Deal legacy capitalism).1 This is generally at odds with Roman Catholic theology. For example, the concept of nationalism is in direct conflict with the Vatican’s call for universalism (neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol – echoing Leo Strauss – bemoan this as “the end of politics”). This conflict comes into sharp relief when economics comes into play – it quickly becomes apparent that Catholic neocons are more “neocon” than “Catholic.”

In essence, Catholic neocons are attempting to subvert the Roman Catholic tradition of social justice in order to further a greater (and ultimately) nonreligious neoconservative agenda. As we shall see, their take on Catholicism, social justice, and economics is not only inaccurate, but engages in a quietly ruthless form of historical revisionism. I daresay that their revisionism is one of the more remarkable deviations not only from Roman Catholic teaching, but from basic standards of scholarship in recent American history.

The point of this rewriting of history is quite simple: Roman Catholicism has had a tradition of social justice consistent with the New Deal’s generally pro-worker approach, one that calls for the use of activist government to ensure economic equity. Catholic theocons such as Michael Novak are doing their best to efface that tradition.

The Whiggish Revisionism of Michael Novak

Many theocons deceptively use the term “liberal” to their advantage. They will point to continuous papal damnations of liberalism (Pope Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors immediately comes to mind) dating back to the French Revolution, charging the great philosophy with “nihilism” and “moral relativism,” and warning of its supposed “corrosive nature.”

However, these papal denunciations are of a liberalism that has little to do with the liberalism of today. In fact, the pontiffs were condemning laissez-faire capitalism, which today has taken other names and forms. The “theoconic” economic model is arguably the successor to the very movement that the Church has repeatedly condemned – shaking off all the modern equitable improvements of the Progressive and urban liberal movements of the early 20th century – particularly those of the Protestant Social Gospel movement, the 1919 Program of Catholic Bishops, and the work of Monsignor Ryan. In essence, their goal is to return the Roman Catholic Church’s economic stance to the 19th century when industrial capital was unchecked by the moral vision of the church and the practical power of the state acting on behalf of the citizens. One way they hope to accomplish this task is by having Roman Catholicism again refocus on personal virtues rather than virtues related to the broader economy.

At the forefront of the revisionist movement is Michael Novak, the former Christian Socialist turned Catholic theocon, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Anyone who comes to Novak’s books on Catholic economic ethics, without knowing that he is a theorist of Roman Catholic neoconservatism, may be misled. Novak pays lip service to such concepts as labor laws, for example, but when the rubber meets the road, he excuses the sins of the rich and powerful at the expense of the common man and woman.

Novak’s premier books on capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993), present a highly tortured version of the Roman Catholic concept of social justice. For the Catholic neocon, ethics are up to the individual and should not be incorporated into government action, but no one should be concerned because laissez-faire capitalism ensures liberty for all. Throughout The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak praises the virtues of “liberalism.” But when he does, he is actually referring to 19th century neoclassical liberalism, the variety that was yet to be humanized by either the Protestant Social Gospel movement or its Roman Catholic variation, Distributive Justice.

Rather than anything remotely like Roman Catholic social teaching on economics, Novak embraces the libertarian F.A. Hayek’s (1899-1992) view of a very limited role for government.2 Like Hayek, Novak describes himself as a “Whig” on economics (referring to the British and American conservative parties that went extinct in the mid 19th century). Government’s only concern, he believes, should be the rule of law, letting a “free market” correct itself when recessions and depressions occur. Hayek and Novak believe that the only appropriate corrective measure in the marketplace is loss of profit. They fail to acknowledge that property concentrated in the hands of a powerful few can, and often has, been used to domineer the many. Beyond that, Novak and “Whig-minded” others of the Catholic Right offer no mechanism for extending property ownership to the population at large.

Hayek advocated a laissez-faire approach to business, equating it with freedom and liberty. “The planning against which all our criticism is directed,” he wrote, “is solely the planning against competition.” In this, the Austrian-born economist feared that New Dealism in America, as well as the mixed center-Left economy advocated by Britain’s Labour Party, would fall short of a promised “utopia” which in turn would cause unrest and ultimately a slide into strongman tyranny – “Caesarism” – that would refuse to give up the reins of elected power. History, of course, has proven him wrong. In Great Britain, Labor governments have peaceably handed off control to Tories as have liberal Democratic administrations to incoming Republican administrations in the United States.

Novak’s embrace of Hayek gives cover to those who invoke the free market to justify bad, even unconscionable, behavior. Contrary to Novak’s fear of collectivism or centralized state power, the real issue is arbitrary power – whether it is derived from the government or powerful economic interests. Arbitrary economic power can and often does cause hardship, denying the middle, working, and poor classes economic security in the form of a home and meaningful employment. It can also be closely linked to political persecution and governmental authoritarianism, as concentrated economic power comes to distort politics and government. A close corollary is that the lack of an activist government creates a power vacuum which powerful economic interests are ever-eager to occupy; the Hayek/Novak formulation fails to take this into account.

Theocons such as Michael Novak conveniently ignore Roman Catholic notions of distributive justice, the ethics about economics based in “natural law.” Rooted in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, natural law ethics are the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures. While theocons distort notions of natural law to justify their views on family planning, stem cell research, and LGBT rights, they ignore this field of ethics when it comes to the economy for good reason: it throws a monkey-wrench into their entire argument.3

First consider this 2003 screed on progressive taxation by Novak:

From President Jefferson to President Theodore Roosevelt there was no income tax in America, and it never entered into the heads of the Democratic or any other party that a limited government should confiscate money from some Americans on the pretext of giving it to others. Nor that in so doing government should pry relentlessly into every item of income.4

Whatever one may think of Novak’s economic views, they are not rooted in natural law. His shrill ideology also avoids the facts of American history. Contrary to Novak’s slippery assertion above, for example, during the American Civil War our government instituted an income tax system as a means to finance the costs of the conflict. Obviously, the idea of an income tax “entered into the head” of Abraham Lincoln.

Contrast Novak with quotes from Ryan’s natural law ethics-based view which suggests that rather than opposing an income tax, Aquinas would probably have been for it:

The principle that ownership is stewardship, that the man who possesses superfluous goods must regard himself as a trustee for the needy, is fundamental and all-pervasive in the teaching of Christianity. No more clear or concise statement of it has ever been given than that of St. Thomas Aquinas: “As regards the power of acquiring and dispensing material goods, man may lawfully possess them as his own; as regards their use, however, a man ought not to look upon them as his own, but as common, so that he may readily minister to the needs of others.”5

As well as:

The great systematiser of theology in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, who is universally recognized as the most authoritative private teacher in the Church, stated the obligation of distribution in less extreme and more scientific terms: “According to the order of nature instituted by Divine Providence, the goods of the earth are designed to supply the needs of men. The division of goods and their appropriation through human law do not thwart this purpose. Therefore, the goods which a man has in superfluity are due by the natural law to the sustenance of the poor.”6

But Novak is not the only Roman Catholic neoconservative whose views on the New Deal run against the grain of Catholic teaching on economics. Consider rejected U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee and American Enterprise Institute Scholar Robert H. Bork (a convert to orthodox Catholicism in later life), who declared in his book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah:

The great political upsurge of equality occurred with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal…. The message was that inequality must be cured by government. No other institution is sufficiently comprehensive in its jurisdiction to undertake this task which means egalitarian passion must always lead to greater centralized power and coercion. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society carried forward what Roosevelt and Truman had begun and accomplished the most thorough-going redistribution of wealth and status in the name of equality that the country ever experienced. …The fact is that antihierarchical, egalitarian sentiments were on the rise in political movements, whose tendencies were, therefore, collectivism and centralization, with a concomitant decline in the freedoms of business organizations, private associations, families, and individuals.

Of course “the cards have been unfairly stacked.” But not in the way that Bork suggests. Before FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, both the middle class and working poor did not have safety nets such as Social Security or the National Labor Relations Board, unlike the very wealthy whose superfluous assets provided every possible cushion for the downturns in life. These are facts typically, and conveniently, left out of the writings of the theocons whose special pleadings for the wealthy are transparent to Roman Catholics well-grounded in the Church’s social justice tradition. What the New Deal provided was far more in line with Catholic teaching than any neocon’s sentiments for laissez-faire economics.

More on Whiggish Economics

“The trouble with capitalism is capitalists,” Herbert Hoover, (nobody’s socialist) once said, “They’re too damn greedy.” But the claims of Novakian theocons not withstanding, an orthodox practice of religion does not necessarily inoculate one from the temptation of greedy business practices. A particularly good illustration is the business leadership of the late J. Peter Grace (1913-1995).

Grace, the CEO of W. R. Grace and Company, was constantly described as “devoutly Catholic.” He was both a Knight of Malta as well as a founding member of Legatus, an organization of Roman Catholic business leaders. On its web site, Legatus describes its mission as “To study, live and spread the Faith in our business, professional and personal lives.”

Under Grace’s leadership, the company improperly disposed of a highly toxic industrial solvent into the ground water of Woburn, Massachusetts. The substance, trichloroethylene, has been linked to an increase in local diagnoses of leukemia and cancer. The court battle over this incident was the subject of the best-selling book and film of the same name, A Civil Action. As Seattle Post Intelligencer reported, “Grace was indicted by the Department of Justice on two counts of lying to the EPA in 1982 about the amount of hazardous chemicals it used at its Woburn plant.”7

And then there was W.R. Grace’s role in asbestos dumping in Libby, Montana. In February 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a 10-count criminal indictment against seven senior current and former Grace officials. Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that the charges, “…alleged conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud for endangering the people of Libby by concealing well-documented hazards of the tremolite asbestos.”8 According to the indictment, as far back as the 1970s Grace and Company attempted to conceal information about the adverse health effects of the mining operation.

Consider as well the case of another Legatus cofounder Tom Monaghan, icon and financier of Catholic Right causes. After building his Domino’s Pizza empire, he sold it in 1998 to Bain Capital (an investment company co-founded by Mitt Romney) for a price in excess of one billion dollars. Monaghan has since been investing his fortune in conservative Roman Catholic causes such as the Thomas More Law Center, Ave Maria University, and the militant anti-abortion group Priests for Life, headed by Father Frank Pavone.

Monaghan has thwarted attempts by Ave Maria University employees to unionize. When asked if he saw a contradiction in his actions, since unionization is supported by the Catholic Church, Monaghan replied, “I think that [the church] hierarchy doesn’t know as much about those things as they do about their theology.”9 Monaghan’s personalized and paternalistic control of the university singlehandedly exposes the absurdity of Novak’s contention that if business leaders merely become virtuous through faith, then government oversight of industry becomes unnecessary.

In his 1990 publication, Towards a Theology of the Corporation, Novak expounds on why he believes theology is central to modern business ethics: “Finally, since most Americans are remarkably religious (and since most are of Jewish or Christian background), a truly realistic business ethic should have a theological dimension.” Several lines later, he adds, “Thus, a theological investigation of the weaknesses and strengths of a capitalist system or a business corporation supplies a necessary bit of realism. A business ethic without a theology is doomed to being a thin sort of gruel, minimalist and unsatisfying to most religious persons.”10

“A necessary bit of realism,” indeed! Novak and his cohorts acknowledge that capitalism is “for sinners” and as noted above, fail to provide any remedy for the collateral damage. Their theoconic remedy is to make society as a whole more virtuous, largely as an outgrowth of individual virtue, and little or no government is required. George Weigel, one of Novak’s fellow theocons, elaborated in a 1996 interview:

In Centesimus Annus, the pope writes that the temptation of wealthy societies (or developing societies, for that matter) is to confuse “having more” with “being more.” Spend an hour looking at ads on prime-time television, and you’ll see that temptation is omnipresent in America.

Capitalist economies only work when a critical mass of people are possessed by certain habits of the mind and heart (what some of us used to call “virtues”): self-command, the capacity for prudent risk-taking, the ability to form cooperative working relationships, and the willingness to defer gratification. Corporations need to be very careful that, in their marketing and advertising, they don’t promote attitudes and counter-values that will, eventually, cause the market system to implode. “Just do it” is bad morals and bad economics.11

Contemporary liberals understand that the federal government, one representative of the people, needs enough muscle in order to deal with the excesses of centralized economic power of trusts, monopolies, and polluters. A government built upon liberal democratic principles is the greatest deterrent to the centralized power of a plutocracy.

Roman Catholic natural law principles of distributive justice are integral to contemporary liberal economic thought, as we’ll see below. Even John Locke’s notion of natural law in Two Treatises of Government thwarts the theocons’ anything goes, free market opposition to economic justice:

It will, perhaps, be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns or other fruits of the earth, etc., makes a right to them, then any one may engross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of Nature that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. “God has given us all things richly.” Is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration? But how far has He given it us – “to enjoy”? As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others.”12

If anything were ever a tip-off that theocons are using orthodoxy to conceal an inequitable economic system, this is it. They ignore arguments of natural law related to redistribution when it suits them.

It is important for both Roman Catholics and non-Catholics to be able to rebut the theocons and describe the profound theoconic deviation from Catholic teaching on economics, their outrageous historical revisionism, and their misplaced loyalty to economic elites. A key to our rebuttal is, as we shall see, the story of Monsignor Ryan.

A Brief Overview of Catholic Economics

So what are basic notions of Catholic social justice and how have they been applied to contemporary economics in the United States?

Modern Catholic social justice economics begins with Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891 and was subtitled, The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. In it, Leo severely condemned unrestrained libertarian capitalism, while maintaining the Church’s opposition to communism and support of private property ownership. Key progressive components included a living wage – the minimum salary necessary for workers to support their family – and the right of labor to organize unions.

While Leo’s encyclical is clearly based upon natural law principles, they are Neo-Thomistic natural law principles, based on a school of Roman Catholic thought that first appeared in mid-nineteenth century Italy and reinterpreted the foundational thinker of Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas defines distributive justice as follows:

…in distributive justice something is given to a private individual, in so far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part, and in a quantity that is proportionate to the importance of the position of that part in respect of the whole. Consequently in distributive justice a person receives all the more of the common goods, according as he holds a more prominent position in the community. This prominence in an aristocratic community is gauged according to virtue, in an oligarchy according to wealth, in a democracy according to liberty, and in various ways according to various forms of community. Hence in distributive justice the mean is observed, not according to equality between thing and thing, but according to proportion between things and persons: in such a way that even as one person surpasses another, so that which is given to one person surpasses that which is allotted to another..13

Aquinas addresses something the Roman Catholic neoconservatives conspicuously do not: a duty to distribute with provision to the poorest of society. Theocons such as George Weigel may well point to Aquinas’s talk about inequality, but Aquinas is talking about unequal reward based upon corresponding contribution with an eye towards a minimum requirement of distribution to the most vulnerable, not distribution based upon power. Clearly, Aquinas’s teachings are far closer to the New Deal vision of redistribution and regulated capitalism than that of the Hayek-influenced theocons.

Neo-Thomism is far more flexible than traditional natural law thinking based on Thomas Aquinas. It embraces the spirit of his writings instead of focusing on the letter of the great theologian’s works. Methodology trumps static conclusions and equities are more freely allowed to rectify absurd conclusions. It was an important first step in acknowledging the role of historical consciousness in applying classical ethical teachings to contemporary issues. This difference in outlook explains why a traditionalist-minded Catholic would read Rerum Novarum and only see it as a condemnation of Socialism while a Neo-Thomist will clearly see Leo’s call for bettering the economic conditions of the working class through organized labor and legislative action.

Neo-Thomism acknowledges that Aquinas viewed the world through a thirteenth century lens, and that he would undoubtedly see things differently 800 years later in light of the tremendous advances in science, our understanding of history, and so much more. Beyond addressing the need to reconcile Church teachings with the ideas of Hegel, Kant, and liberalism while addressing contemporary issues, Neo-Thomism is a huge step closer to Aristotle’s methodology (Aquinas based his natural law ethics on the works of Aristotle filtered through Maimonides, as well as the works of Cicero) than the static dogmatism of Vatican traditionalists. Neo-Thomism more closely follows the Classical Greek philosopher’s admonition that everything that has changed is changing.

Much of the historical Protestant-Catholic tension within liberalism arises from divergent notions of freedom. Mainstream Protestants emphasize the freedom of the individual coupled with a faith in the basic goodness of mankind. They initially also embraced a more Darwinist economic liberalism of the nineteenth century: classical liberalism (now known as economic libertarianism). The Roman Catholic concept of freedom had less to do with the individual and is focused more communally – with an emphasis upon order and general obedience to higher religious authorities.

Nineteenth century Catholicism feared that the Protestant emphasis on the individual’s freedom would lead to disobedience and societal disorder – a belief still common among Roman Catholic traditionalists, but rejected by many mainstream American Catholics (as we shall see below, many of today’s traditionalist Catholics now tend to worry more about societal disorder where biological issues are concerned, but become diametrically unconcerned on economic issues). At the time, the Vatican was concerned that excessive individualism would result in deplorable living conditions for the working class. But it must be remembered that the Church’s criticism was aimed at nineteenth century classical liberal, laissez-faire economics – not the economics of New Deal liberalism and its legacy.

On the heels of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York State Assembly Majority Leader Al Smith and New York State Senator Robert Wagner, Sr. along with other Roman Catholic elected officials (mostly in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest) began paying long overdue attention to the needs of the worker-class. While this shift in constituency priorities may have come from the moral outrage of seeing 148 mostly Italian and Jewish garment workers either burn or jump to their deaths, a political calculation was involved: Tammany Hall and other Democratic Party machines quickly understood that political power lay with working class immigrants, not the corporate class. Real advances in public health, child labor laws, and workers’ rights soon followed.

This is where Roman Catholicism has had one of its greatest influences on modern liberalism: a deeply ingrained sense of community, and the idea that activist government could advance the nation’s general welfare. This Catholic notion that we are still mutually and communally responsible for each other helped transform nineteenth century economic liberalism into the more compassionate twentieth century liberalism which would ultimately define the New Deal and its succeeding variants.14

The Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction

The next major step in Roman Catholic social justice teaching in the United States came in 1919 with the release of The Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction – ghostwritten by Monsignor John A. Ryan. The program, Ryan wrote, “…was issued in response to the general need which men felt after the war for programs for the reconstruction of social regions.” It called for the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining and for retirement insurance – yet unlike previous Catholic distributist ideas advocating by such thinkers as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day, it embraced government programs as the means for achieving these goals.

Ryan, a key theorist of Roman Catholic approaches to economics and social justice, is an often-overlooked hero of twentieth century economic liberalism. Born to Irish immigrants in 1869 Minnesota, John Ryan grew up during the age of robber barons and a labor movement with little or no real bargaining power. Ryan was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1898. In the course of his career, he blended late nineteenth century Midwestern Progressive Populism with a burning sense of Neo-Thomist ethics, and became a champion of civil liberties and economic justice. He wed theology to economics and in 1906 published his first major economic treatise, A Living Wage, that defended the ownership of private property, but simultaneously “spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt.”15 In 1915 Ryan attained a professorship at Catholic University where he taught until his retirement in 1939. To the chagrin of today’s Roman Catholic Right, he was both an early board member of the ACLU as well as being a close friend of the organization’s founder, Roger Baldwin.16

If he were alive today Monsignor Ryan, like many of today’s theocons, would oppose artificial birth control, abortion rights, and embryonic stem cell research. But unlike today’s strident Roman Catholic Right, he understood that opponents on such matters could be strong allies on economic issues. As the Notre Dame historian John T. McGreevy noted, “The civil liberties lawyer Morris Ernst, before challenging the 1935 congressional testimony of Father John A. Ryan on contraception carefully announced, ‘(O)n many battle fronts in the fight for freedom of the press, for labor, and so forth, I have fought side by side with Father Ryan.’”17

In 1916, he published the first of several editions of his magnum opus, Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth. Drawing upon Aristotelian notions of natural law ethics, he outlined a very contemporary liberal concept of the just distribution of profit in relation to contribution, merit, and special talents. He later became a confidant of FDR, earning the moniker, “the Right Reverend New Dealer.”

His Bishops’ Program of 1919 called for a living wage as well as retirement insurance – a forerunner of what in 1935 was to become Social Security.

Ryan and the Bishops were not afraid of crediting Fabian socialists with ideas that could be used to make capitalism fair and more meritorious. This stands in contrast to the unthinking rejection of any and all ideas derived from socialism by today’s theocons whose fundamentalist-like faith in market capitalism smacks of idolatry to mainstream Roman Catholics.

At the heart of Rerum Novarum (as well as its encyclical restatement in 1931, Quadragesimo Anno) and The Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction is a form of natural law ethics: the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures. Echoing the teachings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, both works emphasized the merits of moderation. These statements did not condemn ownership’s right to take a profit from its business endeavors; rather they required that a proper portion of earnings to be justly distributed to their workers in proportion to their contribution and adjusted to allow that worker to support a family.

“Humanity is instilled with intelligence with which to make rational choices,” The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “but its reason is bound by what one ‘ought’ to do – every being has its telos or end to fulfill and it is not for humanity to interfere.”

Rerum Novarum as well as the Program of the American Bishops say that the telos for the worker to fulfill is to be allowed to live a reasonable life. That means earning an income that would allow for the purchase of a home, food and clothing for his family. In other words, the worker who contributes to profit is to be rewarded with a dignified wage.

Saving Monsignor Ryan

Monsignor Ryan’s role and legacy in U.S. Roman Catholicism matters for many reasons. Most importantly for purposes of this essay, he is the central figure in the development of modern American Catholicism’s approach to economics and a profound influence on FDR and the development of the New Deal – making him an important figure not only in Roman Catholic but in American history.

It seems to be essential to the project to which Novak et al have devoted their lives – and the resources of their wealthy patrons – to erode Ryan’s influence and ideas in the American Church. One of their main methods is, as major Roman Catholic authors, to elide him from history. After all, a Catholic Church that advocates for the economic interests of the poor, working, and middle classes can threaten the unfettered practice of buccaneer capitalism. They therefore shift the focus to the micro issues of personal economic evils and away from systemic causes of economic evils. How irresistibly convenient for these neocons and their wealthy benefactors.

There is an important corollary here that is integral to the Church’s capacity to advance fundamental notions of distributive justice, one fully understood by Ryan. When only those of superfluous wealth have the ability to shape policy within historic religious institutions, eventually their economic self-interest will have a corrupting effect; religious organizations lose their independence and their ability to offer social criticism, and their history and theologies are rewritten for them.

American Roman Catholicism doesn’t need any more Novaks channeling Hayek and politically aligning with the Religious Right. It needs thinkers, writers and leaders who advocate for the average worker – an equally and often far more important player in wealth creation than seven-figure CEOs and mega-stockholders. It needs leaders like Monsignor John A. Ryan.

saving_monsignor_ryan_bottomWhen Ryan’s Catholic View Strayed Rightward

Monsignor Ryan’s name almost always generates apoplexy in conservative discourse, especially Roman Catholic Right discourse. A Catholic paleoconservative writer for the blog “Culture Wars” excoriated Ryan because he “…continued to serve on the ACLU board with the Communists” while the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg recently cited Ryan’s economic teachings as proof of “liberal fascism.”

But although Monsignor Ryan was instrumental in shaping New Deal economics and championing free speech, like a hero of any political or religious stripe, he was not flawless.

Historian John McGreevy documents in his book Catholicism And American Freedom (throughout the chapter entitled “The Social Question”) how Ryan campaigned against birth control, even going as far as describing couples who practiced it as engaging in “a love of material goods and a self-indulgence.” In fact, after economics, it was one of his primary concerns.

Another shortcoming was his attitude towards the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

By and large, Ryan was an opponent of fascism. As early as the 1920s he wrote several articles attacking Mussolini’s concept of the individual existing for the benefit of the state. And he consistently condemned Hitler, particularly in regard to his antisemitic policies (In the run-up to the U.S. entry into World War II, Ryan openly campaigned to end restrictions on neutrality that prevented providing arms to the Allies). However, on Franco and Spain, Ryan got it wrong.

According to a New York Times article published July 14, 1939, “Asks Public to Act on Neutrality Act,” subtitled “Mgr. Ryan hits Nazi Ideal; Assails Totalitarian States but Defends Franco,” while speaking at the University of Virginia on the need to loosen the restrictions that denied sending weapons to France and Great Britain, both on the verge of war with Nazi Germany, Ryan failed to make a serious connection between Nazi fascism and Franco’s Falange. Reporter Winifred Mallon noted, “the Monsignor said… he favored the Franco regime because the government it replaced had been ‘Communist controlled, and not a true democracy.’” Clearly, history records that the Loyalist regime assumed power through democratic elections.

If Ryan was anti-Nazi and anti-fascist, which he was, then what explains his apparent sympathy for Franco? Most likely, the Monsignor viewed the situation in Spain through the lens of attacks on the Church. There is the infamous photograph of Loyalist soldiers firing in execution fashion at a statue of Jesus – an image that must have chilled many a Roman Catholic. As a priest he was obviously appalled at some in the Republican forces who were executing approximately 7,000 priests and nuns (it should also be pointed out that Nationalist forces executed at least sixteen priests, not to mention incidents such as the Guernica air raid).17

It is also worth noting that Ryan never again publicly defended Franco after June 1939.

A Timeline of Key Roman Catholic Economic Justice Pronouncements

  • 1891: Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII, subtitled, The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. It condemned unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, maintaining the Church’s opposition to communism and support of private property ownership. Key progressive components included a living wage and the right for labor to organize.
  • 1906: A Living Wage – Monsignor John A. Ryan publishes his first major work that defended the ownership of private property, but simultaneously “spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt.”
  • 1919: The Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction – ghost-written by Monsignor John A. Ryan for the U.S. Catholic bishops. The document called for the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining and, as a forerunner of Social Security, retirement insurance.
  • 1931: Quadragesimo Anno – A papal encyclical literally meaning “in the fortieth year” (to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Rerum novarum). Restating the message of Rerum novarum while pointing out workers’ rights’ progress that had been made in the last forty years, the document raised concerns for other issues that had appeared since 1891, including the effects of more complex industrialization upon class divisions.
  • 1991: Centesimus Annus – A papal encyclical literally meaning “in the hundredth year” (to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum) that revisits Catholic social justice teachings on economics. Pope John Paul II added to the discussion the role of creativity of entrepreneurs and Third World debt.

  1. See Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism; The Autobiography of an Idea, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999), 365.
  2. While Novak briefly touches upon Hayek in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), he leans heavily upon the Austrian-born economist in other works. For example, in Towards a Theology of the Corporation (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981,) pp. 15-16, footnote 22, he cites Hayek’s 1954 work, Capitalism and the Historians, specifically when he claims, “Given the anticapitalist bias of the Roman Catholic Church, of major American and Protestant theologians of the century, and of the Pronouncements of Protestant churches, church leaders are susceptible to systematic misconceptions about the nature of democratic capitalism.” In The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (New York: Free Press, 1993) pp. 64-67, Novak, while seemingly critical of Hayek’s skepticism about the concept of social justice, echoes him by declaring that social justice is often improperly thought of as a being guided by the state. Novak attempts to redefine social justice as a matter of personal virtue, giving religious faith a role in making citizens virtuous. Ironically, Novak repeatedly says he admires the personal ethics of Hayek who was an agnostic. Ironic because Novak the theocon says only a society that follows orthodox religion can produce virtuous citizens.
  3. For a full discussion of their distortions of natural law, see my “How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death,” The Public Eye, Summer 2008.
  4. Michael Novak, “The Liberal Game Made Obvious.” The National Review Online, September 30, 2003.
  5. John A. Ryan, Distributive Justice, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), p.304. Ryan is citing Aquinas’s magnum opus on natural law, Summa Theologica, 2a. 2ae., q. 66, a. 3.
  6. Ryan, p. 306
  7. “The History of W.R. Grace & Co.,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, November 18, 1999.
  8. Andrew Schneider, “W.R. Grace to Pay Record Superfund Fine,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, March 12, 2008.
  9. Susan Hansen, “Our Lady of Discord”, New York Times, July 30, 2006.
  10. Michael Novak, Toward a Theology of the Corporation, (Washington, D.C., AEI Press, 1990), 4.
  11. George Weigel Interview, “Faith Essential Ingredient of Democratic Capitalism,” Religion & Liberty, March & April 1996, 6: 2.
  12. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 117.
  13. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, “Question 61: The Parts of Justice, Article 2.
  14. John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 151. McGreevy notes, “To their surprise, Catholics also found an unexpected champion. Just before the 1932 election the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Roosevelt, sent a giddy tremor through Catholic circles by quoting Quadragesimo Anno before a large Detroit crowd. The encyclical, Roosevelt explained, was ‘just as radical as I am’ and ‘one of the greatest documents of modern times.” See also Harold Meyerson, “God and the New Deal,” The American Prospect, November 21, 2004.
  15. “About Monsignor John A, Ryan,” University of St, Thomas, Minnesota, John A. Ryan Institute site page.
  16. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., “Sufficiently Radical”: Catholicism, Progressivism, and the Bishops’ Program of 1919 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 30.
  17. McGreevy, 259.

Frank L. Cocozzelli is a regular contributor to, and president of the Institute for Progressive Christianity.