Blunt, practical, far-sighted, courageous, widely read, boring teacher to some, ACLU board member in the 1920s, Commonweal writer, labeled a socialist and later “Right Reverend New Dealer,” collaborating across religious lines but always working within the Catholic Church—John Augustine Ryan was a priest both ahead of his time and for today.
His goal was democracy, capitalism, and strong unions. In 1906, he wrote, “To compel a man to work for less than a Living Wage is as truly an act of injustice as to pick his pocket [and] an attack upon his life.” While he wanted women out of the male workplace, he concluded that those who are forced to provide their own sustenance “have a right to a Living Wage.” In a 1943 radio broadcast, he said of the low-income millions who could not afford health insurance: “Social justice and the common good demand that this evil be corrected by...compulsory public health insurance.”
Ryan was born in Minnesota in 1869 into a devout Irish Catholic farming family. His parents had been shaped by harsh circumstances in Ireland and hard work in their new land. His father was a member of the activist National Farmers’ Alliance and a subscriber to the Irish world and American industrial liberator, which was proudly “on the workers’ side.” Ignatius Donnelly, a neighbor and the Populist candidate for president in 1892, had a lasting influence on his economic views. From this background, Ryan began to recognize political action as a means of securing economic justice.
In his personal journal, he wrote this would be a golden opportunity for the church if “she can but accommodate herself to the exigencies of the hour.” He said, “Men will cry for bread, for a chance to live, for a new industrial system, for a revolution of existing conditions.” He mourned the Populist defeat in 1892, and asked, “When will the eyes of the masses be opened?”
In the nineteenth century, with a growing awareness of injustice in the industrializing workplace, Archbishop John Ireland of Saint Paul stepped forward boldly in support of the Knights of Labor, the first national labor union. His call for “days of action” for social justice was heard clearly. Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore warned that the church faced disaster unless it became a “church of the people.” The leaders wanted Catholic immigrants to become fully American, rather than “strangers in a strange land.” The 1877 Great Railway Strike, the most violent labor turmoil of the period, gave workers class consciousness on a national scale but hit the largely working-class Catholic population especially hard.
The challenge for the church was to champion the cause of the poor without endangering the common good. It had to oppose socialism but not ignore the call for social reform. In Italy, the bishop of Perugia, Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci (later Pope Leo XIII), hoped to find a remedy for socio-economic problems, and found inspiration in the natural-law philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. He would become the first pope to seek a comprehensive program of economic and social reform, convinced that the Holy See had to speak out on problems of the day.
Leo formulated a “truly Christian remedy” to the wretchedness of the poor. In 1891, drawing from Aquinas, he issued the ground-breaking encyclical Rerum novarum, or “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” In his compelling words, “working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” The rich “have been able to lay upon the teeming masses...a yoke little better than...slavery itself.”
While workers and employers should be free to make agreements, Leo said remuneration must be enough to support the wage earner in “reasonable and frugal comfort.” Workers have to be given a chance, through a just wage, to lift themselves into the ranks of the owners of property. When a “class suffers...the public authority must step in to deal with it.”
Leo endorsed “just wages, decent working conditions,” and insisted that the most important way forward is “workingmen’s unions.” It was a pragmatic counter to socialism that protected the dignity of laborers while respecting private property.
Rerum novarum was a document on which a whole social program could be based. It became the bedrock in shaping John Ryan’s half-century-long commitment. In 1898, he was sent to the Catholic University of America to study moral theology. He brought together an awareness of agrarian problems with his new understanding of the industrial economy. He quoted Archbishop Ireland on the working class: “Until their material condition is improved, it is futile to speak to them of supernatural life and duties.”
To implement the encyclical on a practical basis, Ryan read widely, especially Richard Ely’s program of social reform. Bringing together the ethical and scientific aspects of economics, the priest concluded that laissez-faire was “un-Christian and unjust.” He now found his advocacy of government intervention confirmed by the “Pontiff of the Workingmen.” Only “those who know the condition of American Catholic social thought before 1890 can understand how and why Leo’s teaching on the state seemed almost revolutionary.”
Affiliating with others, both within and outside the church, Ryan led the American church’s move into the twentieth century. The key document was his 1906 dissertation, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects, published by Macmillan. It became a central element in the religious foundation of Progressivism—a year before Walter Rauschenbusch’s landmark Christianity and the Social Crisis.
John Ryan never forgot that, as a priest, his business was the salvation of souls. This is why laborers had to make a decent living for their families. While teaching and writing on moral theology and economics, he drew up a minimum-wage bill in Minnesota. Although the first try failed, a revised version passed in 1913, followed by similar bills in eight other states. Ireland believed that as long as Ryan was prudent, the priest could “stand upon every platform, and mingle with every assembly.”
Ryan also forged an alliance with a primarily non-Catholic group of professional men, whose purpose was “free discussion of social, economic and political issues.” This local effort paralleled the Open Forum movement, which began in Boston as Ford Hall Forum in 1908 and spread across the nation. The priest’s outreach resulted in his being selected as an early (and frequent) speaker, writing later that he had never experienced “an hour of such...stimulating intellectual combat as the question-period which followed my lecture.” He engaged in such exchanges, in a variety of forums, for decades.
Ryan initially called for a living wage for male workers only, as the main family providers, in order to achieve “normal self-development.” In the ideal situation, the mother would not work, children would stay in school until they were at least sixteen, and the family would sustain itself until the end of the father’s working life. But a family also has mental and spiritual needs, he wrote, the satisfaction of which is essential to “right living.” These include some amusement and recreation, primary-school education, periodicals and other literature in the home, and organization memberships, such as labor unions. He looked at actual costs for food, rent, and other needs, and concluded that the “irreducible minimum” for a typical city family (two parents and four to five children) required an annual wage of $600. For the 1920 edition of his book, the minimum needed had risen to $1,500 ($19,500 in 2018). While costs would vary at different times and areas, the data showed that a very large proportion of adult males and half of female workers were not receiving this minimum, which was essential for “right living.”