John A. Ryan (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

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.” 

The challenge for the church was to champion the cause of the poor without endangering the common good

Recognizing that this is minimal support, he said anything less is not a living wage in big cities. It was probably a living wage in the South, possibly in moderate-sized cities elsewhere, but certainly not in the largest cities. In the 1920 revision of his work, he wrote, “It is evident that a very large proportion of males are receiving less than a Living Wage, and one-half of female workers are receiving less than a Living Wage.” Ryan concluded that while an industrial union by itself cannot obtain a living wage for the underpaid, it will accomplish more than all other efforts laborers can put together. The nation has both the right and duty to compel all employers to pay a living wage. Union organization is the only form of self-help that promises general results.


Even more ahead of his time, the priest examined social changes taking place in the workplace. He wanted women to stay home, remaining in the “separate sphere” of caring for the family. Yet he was emphatic in 1906 that women who are forced to provide their own sustenance “have a right to a Living Wage.” Later studies confirm his awareness of the changes that were taking place in society.

Alice Kessler-Harris has written that many nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates “believed that expanding the practical rights of women within the family would meet the demands of fairness more readily than throwing them into the labor market.” Ryan, however, looking at the realities of struggling families, saw women who never married, were deserted, or were widowed and left without resources. A 1910 Senate study found that 40 percent of women workers earned under $6 a week, and concluded: “These women did not work for self-fulfillment; they worked because they had to.”

From 1895 to 1905, women accounted for 25 percent of the industrial workforce; 11 percent were heads of families; and 16 percent were sole providers. A third of wage-earning urban women lived independently, while 75 percent of those living at home supported other family members. Aware of such societal changes, Ryan concluded that women who are forced to provide their own sustenance—doing the same work with the same degree of efficiency as men—“have a the same remuneration as their male fellow workers.”

This was not the first call for equal pay for women but it laid the foundation for legislation. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention called for equal remuneration for equal work. In 1878, the Knights of Labor advocated for it, and later the AFL joined in the call for an end to discriminatory pay. But the real purpose of the male-dominated unions was often to deprive women of jobs. To the union leaders, equal compensation meant that employers would replace male workers with women.

In 1909, in proposing “A Programme of Social Reform by Legislation,” Ryan advanced a social and economic vision more comprehensive than that of the Protestant progressives. His ideas shaped the Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction in 1919, and became the kernel of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. The Bishops’ Program was more widely known than any other proposal for postwar social reconstruction. Like other progressive ideas, the principles he advocated were for wage-earners first—legal minimum wage; the eight-hour work day; protective legislation for women and children; legislative protection for peaceful picketing and boycotting; unemployment insurance; employment bureaus; provision against accident, illness and old age; and municipal housing. The priest-economist then added other proposals aimed at consumers—public ownership of utilities, public ownership of mines and forests, control of monopolies, progressive income and inheritance taxes, taxation of future increase in land values, and prohibition of speculation on stock and commodity exchanges. Ryan argued that natural law set the state as the superior instrument for such comprehensive social reform in promoting the general welfare. Nearly all the proposals eventually became law, providing a system of social ethics that was both very Catholic and very American.

As the idea of social reconstruction spread, the National Catholic Welfare Council recognized that it needed to step forward in social action. It became a counterpart to the Protestant Federal Council of Churches and the Jewish Welfare Board. Ryan’s proposals anticipated the social legislation of the New Deal a decade later. He was setting the church on the side of “economic democracy”—immediate reforms through legislation, within a reasonable time, and a guide to future developments. The immediate reforms would actualize the family living wage, while the fundamental reforms would enable the majority of workers to become partial owners of the instruments of production.


Despite being criticized as a socialist, Ryan moved forward. In contrast to other church leaders, he collaborated with many advocacy organizations on human rights, consumer protections, child labor laws, and world peace. In the “Red Decade” of the 1920s, he joined in the move to free political prisoners and vigorously protested every phase of the hunt for subversives. In the 1930s, with the rise of fascism and Nazism, he wrote that “the present restriction of immigration is definitely unjustified and immoral.”

As a thinker, writer, teacher, collaborator, and practical activist, Ryan knew he represented a broad constituency. Favoring liberal causes that he wanted Catholics to be part of, he saw how he could introduce a wide array of groups to the church’s social teachings. However, he drew a line when there was a fundamental difference in values, such as with Planned Parenthood over birth control and abortion, although I suspect he would have worked with Mary Calderone of the Sexuality Information and Education Council, who reached out to priests in the 1950s.

In 1930—forty years after Rerum novarum—Pius XI issued Quadragesimo anno, which called for wage earners to become “sharers in ownership or management the profits received.” Under the New Deal, all the measures in the 1919 Bishops’ Program were adopted in whole or in part. Ryan had been just a few decades ahead of his time.

Through the years, Fr. Ryan rankled many but also inculcated hundreds of priests, nuns, and lay leaders in the new social teaching. He appeared on an array of platforms, wrote in a wide range of publications, and served in many formal and informal positions. In addition to laying the foundation for the New Deal with his ideas, he became part of the implementation of the revolution in social and economic justice. In 1939, on Ryan’s seventieth birthday, President Roosevelt paid tribute to the pioneering priest, noting, “With voice and pen, you have pleaded the cause of social justice and the right of the individual to happiness through economic security, a living wage, and an opportunity to share in the things that enrich and ennoble human life.”

Upon his passing on September 16, 1945, millions in the United States and elsewhere mourned the creative moral theologian, who excelled in combining economics and ethics into social justice. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, said that Fr. Ryan “never lost the opportunity to raise his voice in defense of labor’s rights or in the furtherance of economic security and social justice in America.” Ryan’s biographer concludes that he was the most learned American Catholic moral theologian on social problems, with his clarity, precision, and accuracy, through many writings and lectures. While he helped create the social mood and the social program that the New Deal embraced, his “greatest service was in acclimating that program to Catholic Americans.”

In our nation’s debate on health care and other social issues, we should mark the words Ryan spoke in a 1943 radio address when he was seventy-four years old. Referring to the millions of low-income people who could not afford health insurance, he stated, “Social justice and the common good demand that this evil be corrected by a system of public compulsory health insurance.”

John Ryan drew from deep roots of social justice, the words of a remarkable pope, and opportunities provided by farsighted bishops. Recognizing the importance of broadening his own education, developing social reform efforts in practical, humane ways, and following a deep commitment to democratic values, he brought together the institutional structure and evolving teachings of the church. He created an enduring framework, which included the important principle that “equally competent workers should be rewarded equally.”

Arthur S. Meyers is the retired director of Russell Library in Middletown, Connecticut, and author of Democracy in the Making: The Open Forum Lecture Movement.

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Published in the July 6, 2018 issue: View Contents
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