Saving Monsignor Ryan

Dec 17, 2010Frank L. Cocozzelli

In god we trustRefuting the myths of neoconservative Roman Catholic economics.

In October 1936, Roman Catholic priest and professor of moral theology Monsignor John A. Ryan 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 Ryan's speech was titled "Roosevelt Safeguards America." Many years later, the radio volley between the two priests still reflects debates raging in the church and in American society today. Ryan's economic interpretation 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.

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, Robert P. George, 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.

Much like its more secular variety, Roman Catholic neoconservatism bases its approach upon three pillars: nationalism, a national religious orthodoxy, and laissez-faire capitalism. The concept of nationalism is in direct conflict with the Vatican's call for universalism. 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. Their take on Catholicism, social justice, and economics is not only inaccurate, but engages in a quietly ruthless form of historical revisionism. Roman Catholicism has 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. But Catholic theocons such as Michael Novak are doing their best to efface that tradition.

Michael Novak's Whiggish Revisionism

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. Novak may pay lip service to such concepts as labor laws, 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 embraces the libertarian Hayek's view of a very limited role for government. Like Hayek, Novak describes himself as a "Whig" on economics. 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 be used to domineer the many.

A Brief Overview of Catholic Economics

But Catholicism has a long tradition of siding with workers. Modern Catholic social justice economics begins with "Rerum Novarum (Of New Things)," issued by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891 and 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 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 reinterpreted by foundational thinker Thomas Aquinas. Neo-Thomism is far more flexible than traditional natural law thinking. It embraces the spirit of Aquinas' writings instead of focusing on the letter of his works and acknowledges that he viewed the world through a thirteenth century lens, and he would undoubtedly see things differently 800 years later.

Aquinas addresses something the Roman Catholic neoconservatives conspicuously do not -- a duty to distribute with provision to the poorest of society, i.e., distributive justice:

...in distributive justice something is given to a private individual, in so far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part ...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... 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.

At the time of Rerum Novarum's release, the Vatican was concerned that excessive individualism would result in deplorable living conditions for the working class. The Church's criticism was aimed at nineteenth century classical liberal, laissez-faire economics -- not the economics of New Deal liberalism and its legacy.

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The Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction

A 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," ghost-written 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, but unlike previous Catholic distributionist ideas, it embraced government programs as the means for achieving these goals.

Ryan is an often-overlooked hero of twentieth century economic liberalism. Born to Irish immigrants in 1869 Minnesota, he 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 Midwestern progressive populism with 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, yet "spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt."

Ryan's magnum opus, "Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth," 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.

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. 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 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.

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.

Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism. **A longer version of this post originally appeared on Public Eye Magazine.

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