Saving Monsignor 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 (Ig Publishing, 2008). A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.
In October 1936, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America 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 John A. Ryan’s speech was titled "Roosevelt Safeguards America." In many ways, the radio volley between the two priests still reflects debates raging in the church and in American society today. Ryan’s explanation of the sources of support for Communist anti-clericalism in Spain that he outlined in his radio address 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, 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.
Many believe that neoconservatism is nothing more than a unilateral approach to United States foreign policy. But this is a dangerous misconception. Lost in the focus on a clique of Washington, D.C. militarists (as important as they are) is the role of the highly theocratic brand of neoconservatism. These "theocons" see their philosophy as a mechanism to transform the whole of society into one based upon a highly orthodox, traditionalist form of Roman Catholic morality, a fringe form resoundingly rejected by the vast majority of the Church’s American flock.
Much like its more secular variety, Roman Catholic neoconservatism bases its approach upon three pillars: nationalism (as opposed to patriotism), a national religious orthodoxy (as opposed to an overlapping moral consensus derived from a pluralistic society), and laissez-faire capitalism (as opposed to New Deal legacy capitalism). This is generally at odds with Roman Catholic theology. For example, the concept of nationalism is in direct conflict with the Vatican’s call for universalism (neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol – echoing Leo Strauss – bemoan this as “the end of politics”). 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. As we shall see, their take on Catholicism, social justice, and economics is not only inaccurate, but engages in a quietly ruthless form of historical revisionism. I daresay that their revisionism is one of the more remarkable deviations not only from Roman Catholic teaching, but from basic standards of scholarship in recent American history.
The point of this rewriting of history is quite simple: Roman Catholicism has had 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. Catholic theocons such as Michael Novak are doing their best to efface that tradition.
The Whiggish Revisionism of Michael Novak
Many theocons deceptively use the term “liberal” to their advantage. They will point to continuous papal damnations of liberalism (Pope Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors immediately comes to mind) dating back to the French Revolution, charging the great philosophy with “nihilism” and “moral relativism,” and warning of its supposed “corrosive nature.”
However, these papal denunciations are of a liberalism that has little to do with the liberalism of today. In fact, the pontiffs were condemning laissez-faire capitalism, which today has taken other names and forms. The “theoconic” economic model is arguably the successor to the very movement that the Church has repeatedly condemned – shaking off all the modern equitable improvements of the Progressive and urban liberal movements of the early 20th century – particularly those of the Protestant Social Gospel movement, the 1919 Program of Catholic Bishops, and the work of Monsignor Ryan. In essence, their goal is to return the Roman Catholic Church's economic stance to the 19th century when industrial capital was unchecked by the moral vision of the church and the practical power of the state acting on behalf of the citizens. One way they hope to accomplish this task is by having Roman Catholicism again refocus on personal virtues rather than virtues related to the broader economy.
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. Anyone who comes to Novak’s books on Catholic economic ethics, without knowing that he is a theorist of Roman Catholic neoconservatism, may be misled. Novak pays lip service to such concepts as labor laws, for example, 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's premier books on capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993), present a highly tortured version of the Roman Catholic concept of social justice. For the Catholic neocon, ethics are up to the individual and should not be incorporated into government action, but no one should be concerned because laissez-faire capitalism ensures liberty for all. Throughout The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak praises the virtues of “liberalism.” But when he does, he is actually referring to 19th century neoclassical liberalism, the variety that was yet to be humanized by either the Protestant Social Gospel movement or its Roman Catholic variation, Distributive Justice.
Rather than anything remotely like Roman Catholic social teaching on economics, Novak embraces the libertarian F.A. Hayek's (1899-1992) view of a very limited role for government. Like Hayek, Novak describes himself as a “Whig” on economics (referring to the British and American conservative parties that went extinct in the mid 19th century). 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, and often has, been used to domineer the many. Beyond that, Novak and “Whig-minded” others of the Catholic Right offer no mechanism for extending property ownership to the population at large.
Hayek advocated a laissez-faire approach to business, equating it with freedom and liberty. “The planning against which all our criticism is directed,” he wrote, “is solely the planning against competition.” In this, the Austrian-born economist feared that New Dealism in America, as well as the mixed center-Left economy advocated by Britain's Labour Party, would fall short of a promised “utopia” which in turn would cause unrest and ultimately a slide into strongman tyranny – “Caesarism” – that would refuse to give up the reins of elected power. History, of course, has proven him wrong. In Great Britain, Labor governments have peaceably handed off control to Tories as have liberal Democratic administrations to incoming Republican administrations in the United States.
Novak’s embrace of Hayek gives cover to those who invoke the free market to justify bad, even unconscionable, behavior. Contrary to Novak’s fear of collectivism or centralized state power, the real issue is arbitrary power – whether it is derived from the government or powerful economic interests. Arbitrary economic power can and often does cause hardship, denying the middle, working, and poor classes economic security in the form of a home and meaningful employment. It can also be closely linked to political persecution and governmental authoritarianism, as concentrated economic power comes to distort politics and government. A close corollary is that the lack of an activist government creates a power vacuum which powerful economic interests are ever-eager to occupy; the Hayek/Novak formulation fails to take this into account.
Theocons such as Michael Novak conveniently ignore Roman Catholic notions of distributive justice, the ethics about economics based in “natural law.” Rooted in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, natural law ethics are the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures. While theocons distort notions of natural law to justify their views on family planning, stem cell research, and LGBT rights, they ignore this field of ethics when it comes to the economy for good reason: it throws a monkey-wrench into their entire argument.
First consider this 2003 screed on progressive taxation by Novak:
Whatever one may think of Novak’s economic views, they are not rooted in natural law. His shrill ideology also avoids the facts of American history. Contrary to Novak’s slippery assertion above, for example, during the American Civil War our government instituted an income tax system as a means to finance the costs of the conflict. Obviously, the idea of an income tax “entered into the head” of Abraham Lincoln.
Contrast Novak with quotes from Ryan’s natural law ethics-based view which suggests that rather than opposing an income tax, Aquinas would probably have been for it:
As well as:
But Novak is not the only Roman Catholic neoconservative whose views on the New Deal run against the grain of Catholic teaching on economics. Consider rejected U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee and American Enterprise Institute Scholar Robert H. Bork (a convert to orthodox Catholicism in later life), who declared in his book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah:
Of course “the cards have been unfairly stacked.” But not in the way that Bork suggests. Before FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, both the middle class and working poor did not have safety nets such as Social Security or the National Labor Relations Board, unlike the very wealthy whose superfluous assets provided every possible cushion for the downturns in life. These are facts typically, and conveniently, left out of the writings of the theocons whose special pleadings for the wealthy are transparent to Roman Catholics well-grounded in the Church’s social justice tradition. What the New Deal provided was far more in line with Catholic teaching than any neocon’s sentiments for laissez-faire economics.
More on Whiggish Economics
“The trouble with capitalism is capitalists,” Herbert Hoover, (nobody’s socialist) once said, “They're too damn greedy.” But the claims of Novakian theocons not withstanding, an orthodox practice of religion does not necessarily inoculate one from the temptation of greedy business practices. A particularly good illustration is the business leadership of the late J. Peter Grace (1913-1995).
Grace, the CEO of W. R. Grace and Company, was constantly described as “devoutly Catholic.” He was both a Knight of Malta as well as a founding member of Legatus, an organization of Roman Catholic business leaders. On its web site, Legatus describes its mission as “To study, live and spread the Faith in our business, professional and personal lives.”
Under Grace’s leadership, the company improperly disposed of a highly toxic industrial solvent into the ground water of Woburn, Massachusetts. The substance, trichloroethylene, has been linked to an increase in local diagnoses of leukemia and cancer. The court battle over this incident was the subject of the best-selling book and film of the same name, A Civil Action. As Seattle Post Intelligencer reported, “Grace was indicted by the Department of Justice on two counts of lying to the EPA in 1982 about the amount of hazardous chemicals it used at its Woburn plant.”
And then there was W.R. Grace's role in asbestos dumping in Libby, Montana. In February 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a 10-count criminal indictment against seven senior current and former Grace officials. Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that the charges, “…alleged conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud for endangering the people of Libby by concealing well-documented hazards of the tremolite asbestos.” According to the indictment, as far back as the 1970s Grace and Company attempted to conceal information about the adverse health effects of the mining operation.
Consider as well the case of another Legatus cofounder Tom Monaghan, icon and financier of Catholic Right causes. After building his Domino’s Pizza empire, he sold it in 1998 to Bain Capital (an investment company co-founded by Mitt Romney) for a price in excess of one billion dollars. Monaghan has since been investing his fortune in conservative Roman Catholic causes such as the Thomas More Law Center, Ave Maria University, and the militant anti-abortion group Priests for Life, headed by Father Frank Pavone.
Monaghan has thwarted attempts by Ave Maria University employees to unionize. When asked if he saw a contradiction in his actions, since unionization is supported by the Catholic Church, Monaghan replied, “I think that [the church] hierarchy doesn't know as much about those things as they do about their theology.” Monaghan’s personalized and paternalistic control of the university singlehandedly exposes the absurdity of Novak’s contention that if business leaders merely become virtuous through faith, then government oversight of industry becomes unnecessary.
In his 1990 publication, Towards a Theology of the Corporation, Novak expounds on why he believes theology is central to modern business ethics: “Finally, since most Americans are remarkably religious (and since most are of Jewish or Christian background), a truly realistic business ethic should have a theological dimension.” Several lines later, he adds, “Thus, a theological investigation of the weaknesses and strengths of a capitalist system or a business corporation supplies a necessary bit of realism. A business ethic without a theology is doomed to being a thin sort of gruel, minimalist and unsatisfying to most religious persons.”
“A necessary bit of realism,” indeed! Novak and his cohorts acknowledge that capitalism is “for sinners” and as noted above, fail to provide any remedy for the collateral damage. Their theoconic remedy is to make society as a whole more virtuous, largely as an outgrowth of individual virtue, and little or no government is required. George Weigel, one of Novak’s fellow theocons, elaborated in a 1996 interview:
Contemporary liberals understand that the federal government, one representative of the people, needs enough muscle in order to deal with the excesses of centralized economic power of trusts, monopolies, and polluters. A government built upon liberal democratic principles is the greatest deterrent to the centralized power of a plutocracy.
Roman Catholic natural law principles of distributive justice are integral to contemporary liberal economic thought, as we’ll see below. Even John Locke’s notion of natural law in Two Treatises of Government thwarts the theocons’ anything goes, free market opposition to economic justice:
If anything were ever a tip-off that theocons are using orthodoxy to conceal an inequitable economic system, this is it. They ignore arguments of natural law related to redistribution when it suits them.
It is important for both Roman Catholics and non-Catholics to be able to rebut the theocons and describe the profound theoconic deviation from Catholic teaching on economics, their outrageous historical revisionism, and their misplaced loyalty to economic elites. A key to our rebuttal is, as we shall see, the story of Monsignor Ryan.
A Brief Overview of Catholic Economics
So what are basic notions of Catholic social justice and how have they been applied to contemporary economics in the United States?
Modern Catholic social justice economics begins with Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891 and was 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 – the minimum salary necessary for workers to support their family – 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 that first appeared in mid-nineteenth century Italy and reinterpreted the foundational thinker of Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas defines distributive justice as follows:
Aquinas addresses something the Roman Catholic neoconservatives conspicuously do not: a duty to distribute with provision to the poorest of society. Theocons such as George Weigel may well point to Aquinas’s talk about inequality, but Aquinas is talking about unequal reward based upon corresponding contribution with an eye towards a minimum requirement of distribution to the most vulnerable, not distribution based upon power. Clearly, Aquinas’s teachings are far closer to the New Deal vision of redistribution and regulated capitalism than that of the Hayek-influenced theocons.
Neo-Thomism is far more flexible than traditional natural law thinking based on Thomas Aquinas. It embraces the spirit of his writings instead of focusing on the letter of the great theologian’s works. Methodology trumps static conclusions and equities are more freely allowed to rectify absurd conclusions. It was an important first step in acknowledging the role of historical consciousness in applying classical ethical teachings to contemporary issues. This difference in outlook explains why a traditionalist-minded Catholic would read Rerum Novarum and only see it as a condemnation of Socialism while a Neo-Thomist will clearly see Leo's call for bettering the economic conditions of the working class through organized labor and legislative action.
Neo-Thomism acknowledges that Aquinas viewed the world through a thirteenth century lens, and that he would undoubtedly see things differently 800 years later in light of the tremendous advances in science, our understanding of history, and so much more. Beyond addressing the need to reconcile Church teachings with the ideas of Hegel, Kant, and liberalism while addressing contemporary issues, Neo-Thomism is a huge step closer to Aristotle's methodology (Aquinas based his natural law ethics on the works of Aristotle filtered through Maimonides, as well as the works of Cicero) than the static dogmatism of Vatican traditionalists. Neo-Thomism more closely follows the Classical Greek philosopher’s admonition that everything that has changed is changing.
Much of the historical Protestant-Catholic tension within liberalism arises from divergent notions of freedom. Mainstream Protestants emphasize the freedom of the individual coupled with a faith in the basic goodness of mankind. They initially also embraced a more Darwinist economic liberalism of the nineteenth century: classical liberalism (now known as economic libertarianism). The Roman Catholic concept of freedom had less to do with the individual and is focused more communally – with an emphasis upon order and general obedience to higher religious authorities.
Nineteenth century Catholicism feared that the Protestant emphasis on the individual's freedom would lead to disobedience and societal disorder – a belief still common among Roman Catholic traditionalists, but rejected by many mainstream American Catholics (as we shall see below, many of today’s traditionalist Catholics now tend to worry more about societal disorder where biological issues are concerned, but become diametrically unconcerned on economic issues). At the time, the Vatican was concerned that excessive individualism would result in deplorable living conditions for the working class. But it must be remembered that the Church’s criticism was aimed at nineteenth century classical liberal, laissez-faire economics – not the economics of New Deal liberalism and its legacy.
On the heels of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York State Assembly Majority Leader Al Smith and New York State Senator Robert Wagner, Sr. along with other Roman Catholic elected officials (mostly in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest) began paying long overdue attention to the needs of the worker-class. While this shift in constituency priorities may have come from the moral outrage of seeing 148 mostly Italian and Jewish garment workers either burn or jump to their deaths, a political calculation was involved: Tammany Hall and other Democratic Party machines quickly understood that political power lay with working class immigrants, not the corporate class. Real advances in public health, child labor laws, and workers’ rights soon followed.
This is where Roman Catholicism has had one of its greatest influences on modern liberalism: a deeply ingrained sense of community, and the idea that activist government could advance the nation's general welfare. This Catholic notion that we are still mutually and communally responsible for each other helped transform nineteenth century economic liberalism into the more compassionate twentieth century liberalism which would ultimately define the New Deal and its succeeding variants.
The Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction
The next 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 – ghostwritten 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 – yet unlike previous Catholic distributist ideas advocating by such thinkers as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day, it embraced government programs as the means for achieving these goals.
Ryan, a key theorist of Roman Catholic approaches to economics and social justice, is an often-overlooked hero of twentieth century economic liberalism. Born to Irish immigrants in 1869 Minnesota, John Ryan 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 late nineteenth century Midwestern Progressive Populism with a burning sense of 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, but simultaneously “spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt.” In 1915 Ryan attained a professorship at Catholic University where he taught until his retirement in 1939. To the chagrin of today's Roman Catholic Right, he was both an early board member of the ACLU as well as being a close friend of the organization's founder, Roger Baldwin.
If he were alive today Monsignor Ryan, like many of today’s theocons, would oppose artificial birth control, abortion rights, and embryonic stem cell research. But unlike today’s strident Roman Catholic Right, he understood that opponents on such matters could be strong allies on economic issues. As the Notre Dame historian John T. McGreevy noted, “The civil liberties lawyer Morris Ernst, before challenging the 1935 congressional testimony of Father John A. Ryan on contraception carefully announced, ‘(O)n many battle fronts in the fight for freedom of the press, for labor, and so forth, I have fought side by side with Father Ryan.’”
In 1916, he published the first of several editions of his magnum opus, Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth. Drawing upon Aristotelian notions of natural law ethics, he 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.
Ryan and the Bishops were not afraid of crediting Fabian socialists with ideas that could be used to make capitalism fair and more meritorious. This stands in contrast to the unthinking rejection of any and all ideas derived from socialism by today’s theocons whose fundamentalist-like faith in market capitalism smacks of idolatry to mainstream Roman Catholics.
At the heart of Rerum Novarum (as well as its encyclical restatement in 1931, Quadragesimo Anno) and The Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction is a form of natural law ethics: the rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures. Echoing the teachings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, both works emphasized the merits of moderation. These statements did not condemn ownership’s right to take a profit from its business endeavors; rather they required that a proper portion of earnings to be justly distributed to their workers in proportion to their contribution and adjusted to allow that worker to support a family.
“Humanity is instilled with intelligence with which to make rational choices,” The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “but its reason is bound by what one ‘ought’ to do – every being has its telos or end to fulfill and it is not for humanity to interfere.”
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. Most importantly for purposes of this essay, 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 – and the resources of their wealthy patrons – 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. How irresistibly convenient for these neocons and their wealthy benefactors.
There is an important corollary here that is integral to the Church’s capacity to advance fundamental notions of distributive justice, one fully understood by Ryan. 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.
When Ryan's Catholic View Strayed Rightward
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