John A. Ryan was raised in a large Irish Catholic family. He was the first of eleven children born to William and Maria (Luby) Ryan in Vermillion, Minnesota, about 20 miles south of St. Paul, on May 25, 1869. Both his father and mother had immigrated from Ireland. He worked on the family farm and participated fully in the devout religious life established by his parents. After graduating from Christian Brothers School in 1887, John entered St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class at St. Thomas College in 1892. Ryan entered St. Paul Seminary in 1892, graduated in 1898, and received his holy orders from Archbishop John Ireland the same year. The young priest moved to the District of Columbia and began graduate studies at The Catholic University of America in 1898. He received his licentiate in theology in 1900 and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from CUA in 1906. Between 1902 and 1915 Ryan taught at St. Paul Seminary. In 1915 he returned to The Catholic University of America as a Professor of Political Science and in 1916 was made a Professor of Moral Theology as well. Ryan retired from teaching at CUA in 1939. He continued to teach occasionally at nearby Trinity College, which he had done since returning to the District of Columbia. Ryan was also the Director of the National Catholic Welfare Council’s Social Action Department during its first 25 years, from 1920 until his death in 1945. In 1933 the Catholic Church made Ryan a domestic prelate (Monsignor). Monsignor John A. Ryan died on September 16, 1945.
John A. Ryan was the foremost social justice advocate and theoretician in the Catholic Church during the first half in the 20th century. Ryan’s family life informed many of his views on politics and society. He learned first hand of the difficulties that farmers encountered and supported the populist movement as a young man. He also read and became aware from his Irish immigrant family about Irish nationalists like Ignatius Donnelly and supported the cause of Irish independence. In 1891, the year before Ryan entered St. Paul Seminary, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, a papal encyclical that encouraged Catholic social activism on behalf of industrial workers. Rerum Novarum served as religious support for the progressive politics and economic philosophy that Ryan embraced throughout his academic and religious life. From his first published article, “A Country Without Strikes,” in The Catholic World in 1900, until he died in 1945, Ryan focused most of his intellectual attention on economic and political issues. His licentiate dissertation, “Some Ethical Aspects of Speculation,” investigated the morality of speculation. His Ph.D. dissertation was an influential early economic and moral argument for minimum wage legislation. It was published as A Living Wage in 1906. In these early publications Ryan staked out an economic position that maintained the primacy of private property but spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt. He would argue this economic position for his entire life. He enjoyed thoughtful disagreement and never shied from an intellectual battle. For example, he engaged in a high profile ongoing debate on the merits of socialism with Socialist Party of America leader Morris Hillquit in Everybody’s Magazine in 1913-1914. The serious, popular, but also friendly debate was published in 1914 as Socialism: Promise Or Menace. (Although Ryan disagreed with Hillquit’s political philosophy, he later protested the illegal removal of Hillquit and other democratically elected socialists from the New York State Assembly during the anti-radical hysteria of the immediate post-WW I period.)
Ryan’s position as an economist and Catholic leader emerged more strongly after moving back to Washington, DC, and becoming a professor at CUA in 1915. He published another major monograph, Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth, in 1916. Based on his interpretation and understanding of Rerum Novarum and extensive study of several plans for the reconstruction of post war societies Ryan wrote the critically important Bishop’s Program of Social Reconstruction, issued by the National Catholic War Council in the name of American Bishops in 1919. The Bishop’s Program became the guiding force for the National Catholic Welfare Council’s Social Action Department and Catholic progressives in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the recommendations in the Bishop’s Program were enacted 15 years later during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The National Recovery Administration’s attempts to stabilize capitalism by organizing industrial output, wages, and providing some form of worker representation and collective bargaining were familiar to anyone who had read Ryan’s publications. Ryan’s closeness to FDR and the New Deal both personally and politically garnered him the nickname “Right Reverend New Dealer.” In 1937 FDR asked Ryan to be the first Catholic priest to provide the invocation at a presidential inauguration, an honor he performed a second time for FDR in 1945, not long before both men died.
Although primarily an intellectual, thinker, and author, Ryan used his writing, public speaking, and position as the Director of the Social Action Department to encourage political and economic changes he felt necessary for a more fair and egalitarian society. Ryan supported minimum wage and child labor legislation, even though the latter position made him powerful enemies from within the American Catholic Church. When Charles Coughlin turned viciously against FDR and the New Deal during the 1936 presidential campaign, encouraging Catholic voters to abandon FDR, Ryan countered with his most famous public moment, an overtly partisan political speech (“Roosevelt Safeguards America”) broadcast on national radio on October 8, 1936, urging Catholics to repudiate Coughlin and support the New Deal and Roosevelt. As his position as an economist with national stature and the premier Catholic social justice advocate solidified, Ryan’s impressive output of published works and speeches increased. During the last 15 years of his life, from the 1930 to 1945, Ryan stayed extremely busy giving speeches and writing articles, books, reviews, and commentaries. His published material sometimes included social issues, such as sterilization and birth control, that were important to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Ryan’s public positions on social issues led to clashes with New Deal allies who agreed with his economic positions. After a brief period of illness John A. Ryan died on September 16, 1945. At the time of his death Ryan was the most well known and influential social action advocate in the Catholic Church.
(From the Catholic University Archives)