Life of Msgr. John A. Ryan holds key social justice lessons 150 years after his birth

| Jonathan Liedl | June 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

From left, Msgr. John A. Ryan, second f rom left, at his 70th testimonial dinner with Associate Justices of the Supreme Court Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William Douglas May 25, 1939. COURTESY THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC HISTORY RESEARCH CENTER AND THE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES (ACUA), THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, WASHINGTON, D.C.

For Catholics weary of the state of politics in 2019 — especially false dichotomies between social justice and pro-life advocacy — here’s a possibly overlooked source for fresh inspiration: Msgr. John A. Ryan, the prominent early 20th century theologian and social reformer, who was born 150 years ago in Minnesota.

“(Msgr.) Ryan was a moral theologian who attended to economics but he never lost his perspective on the family, on the larger questions of the moral life or on the transcendent destiny of human persons,” said Robert Kennedy, a professor in Catholic Studies and co-founder of the John A. Ryan Institute for Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Regarded as one of the most influential American Catholics of the first half of the 20th century,
Msgr. Ryan is most known for his application of Catholic social principles to the economic concerns of his day, such as workers’ wages, labor representation and child labor policies.

But the Catholic priest was also one of the American Church’s most forceful public advocates against artificial birth control, and he was a fierce opponent of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Msgr. Ryan saw both economic injustice and self-centered sexual practices as threats to “right living” and the integrity of the family, a kind of consistency that made him hard to pigeonhole ideologically even in his own day.

“He’s tough to categorize — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Maria Mazzenga, curator of the American Catholic History Collection at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where an inventory of Ryan’s works is maintained.

Minnesota roots

Though Msgr. Ryan made his biggest contributions on the East Coast, Mazzenga said he cannot be understood apart from his Minnesota roots, which had an “outsized influence” on his theological and economic outlook.

A portrait of Msgr. John A. Ryan, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and prominent social justice advocate. May 25 marked the 150th anniversary of his birth. COURTESY THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC HISTORY RESEARCH CENTER AND THE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES (ACUA), THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, WASHINGTON, D.C.

Msgr. Ryan’s concern for the plight of the working class can be traced back to Rich Valley, near Vermillion, where he was born in 1869 and grew up on a small farm. He was the oldest of 11, whose parents were Irish immigrants who’d lived through the mid-19th century potato famine. His father was a subscriber to a populist publication, “The Irish World and the American Industrial Liberator,” and one of young Msgr. Ryan’s childhood heroes was Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota politician who ran as the Populist Party’s candidate for president in 1892.

Msgr. Ryan’s outlook was also molded by the Catholic education he received. After graduating in 1888 from Cretin High School in St. Paul, a precursor to today’s Cretin-Derham Hall, Msgr. Ryan entered seminary formation. When The St. Paul Seminary opened in 1894, he was one of its first students, and he was trained in the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Msgr. Ryan was particularly impacted by reading Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“Of new things”), which used Thomistic principles to address challenges related to business and labor. In his autobiography, the priest recalled that reading the encyclical inspired him to dedicate his life to the integration of Catholic social principles with the economic challenges facing American workers of his day.

After being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1898 by Archbishop John Ireland, Msgr. Ryan studied for four years at The Catholic University of America. He’d later return to CUA in 1915, but as a professor, after having served on the faculty of The St. Paul Seminary for more than a decade.

National impact

According to Kennedy at UST, Msgr. Ryan was “a pioneer in the practical integration of moral theology with economics and politics.” He was the first doctoral student in theology at CUA to focus his dissertation on economics and theology. That work was eventually published in 1906 as “A Living Wage,” in which Msgr. Ryan combined economic analysis of family income needs (which he estimated at about $600 a year at that time) with Catholic moral teaching to ground calls for a national minimum wage.

Although mischaracterized by some as a “socialist,” the priest was a strong believer in the ability of private property ownership to promote liberty and equality.

“His ideas really do come out of ‘Rerum Novarum,’ where we see a strong condemnation of socialism with a consideration of the ways government might work on behalf of the impoverished,” Mazzenga said.

When the U.S. bishops sought to lay out moral principles that could guide America’s post-World
War I reconstruction, they turned to Msgr. Ryan to draft the document in 1919. The result, which some argue helped to shape President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, included many of Msgr. Ryan’s recommendations, from stronger child labor laws to the encouragement of cooperatives owned and managed by consumers. Msgr. Ryan was also a founding director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which is today the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Msgr. Ryan’s views were by no means universally accepted by Catholics of his time. Father Virgil Michael, a Benedictine of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, for instance, criticized Msgr. Ryan for moving too quickly to state-implemented solutions to economic injustices. Another priest disparaged him as “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” highlighting Msgr. Ryan’s close ties to President Roosevelt, whom
Msgr. Ryan advised and for whom he offered the benediction at the president’s 1937 inauguration.

But the moniker stuck, and it even became the title of the authoritative biography on Msgr. Ryan. “That’s what he was,” said Arthur Meyers, an independent scholar in Connecticut who studies Msgr. Ryan. “He was part of that revolution.”

Continuing legacy

Msgr. Ryan died in 1945 in St. Paul, but his impact can still be felt, and not just through the economic reforms he helped to advance.

The John A. Ryan Institute at St. Thomas, which was renamed after the Minnesota priest in 1996, takes its inspiration not so much from the specific policy work for which Msgr. Ryan advocated, but rather from his example of practically applying Catholic social teaching to economic concerns.

“We have a tendency in Catholic [theology], especially Catholic social teaching, to get generic theories and principles, but what do they really mean?” said Michael Naughton, director of UST’s Center for Catholic Studies and co-founder with Kennedy of the Ryan Institute. “He translated it, he operationalized Catholic social teaching.”

Today, under the leadership of Msgr. Martin Schlag, the Center applies the same approach primarily to questions of business, a topic in which Naughton believes Msgr. Ryan would be deeply interested if he were alive today.

Both Kennedy and Naughton have their criticisms of some of Msgr. Ryan’s prudential policy recommendations. Kennedy suggested that the priest had a tendency “to bend the ‘flexible’ Catholic tradition to conform to his progressive leanings.” Nonetheless, both recognize him as an impactful social reformer who drew his convictions and his motivation from his Catholic faith — something Catholics in the public square today would do well to imitate.

“I think he’s a towering figure whom we should be proud to claim,” Naughton said. “Holding up and rediscovering his vision is very important.”

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