Saving Monsignor Ryan
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Aug 23, 2008 at 01:33:38 PM EST
The Catholic Right, Part Sixty-six
Michael Novak, George Weigel and other Catholic neoconservatives have been spinning a yarn for the last twenty-five years that their brand of laissez-faire capitalism is the brand sanctioned by the Vatican.  It has been around so long and become so ubiquitous and because it has been largely left unanswered, their narrative has almost become urban legend.

But there is an answer to this nonsense. The lifelong body of work of 20th century economist Monsignor John A. Ryan simultaneously refutes the mendacious claims of the Novakian theocons and makes a strong case for contemporary liberal economics.

Ryan's story and treatises help us reveal that these nefarious characters have hijacked Catholic theology in order to pursue a very non-religious economic agenda based upon an "I've got mine and the hell with you" attitude. Monsignor Ryan is the very tonic to help cure the plague of Catholic Right revisionist history.

Born of Irish immigrants in 1869 Minnesota, John A. Ryan was a champion of civil liberties and economic justice. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1898 he blended late Nineteenth Century Midwestern Progressive Populism with a burning sense of Neo-Thomist ethics. He wed theology to economics and 1906 published his first major economic work, A Living Wage, a treatise that defended the ownership of private property, but simultaneously "spurned overly acquisitive and unregulated free market capitalism as economically unhealthy and morally bankrupt."(i)  In 1915 Ryan attained a professorship at Catholic University where he taught until his retirement in 1939.  To the chagrin of today's Catholic Right, he was both an early board member of the ACLU as well being a close friend of the organization's founder, Roger Baldwin.

Yes, the ACLU. Not exactly the neocons' idea of fighting "moral relativism," eh?

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. With the coming of the New Deal he became a confident of FDR on economic matters, earning the moniker, "the Right Reverend New Dealer."

Unlike today's neoconservative Catholics who actively seek to replace a pluralistic notion of morality with one based upon traditionalist orthodox Catholicism, Ryan demonstrated how distributive justice ethics converged with American ideals rather than supplanting them.

"Theocracy is a thing of the past" Ryan wrote in 1894, "the Church must henceforth depend upon her own worth and her own intrinsic adaptability for her successes. How is she most likely to succeed? Why, by taking advantage of the permeating tonic of the age, by appreciating its aspirations, and by making these her own in so far as they are conductive to the glory of her Divine Master."

Monsignor Ryan would oppose artificial birth control, abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.  But unlike the theocons, he understood that opponents on biological issues 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.'"(iii)  

More important however than neocon selectiveness on the evolution of differing schools of natural law thought is their avoidance of  distributive justice something that Catholic neocons such as Michael Novak conveniently ignore. And they do so for good reason: it exposes the hypocrisy their entire argument.

Neoconservatives such as Michael Novak acknowledge that capitalism is a "for sinners" but fail to provide any remedy for the collateral effects of sinfulness resulting from human egotism. In doing so, they place too much faith in the self-correcting nature of the market.

The free market, just as with any other mechanism, is imperfect and thus prone to error. But the only corrective measure they acknowledge is loss of profit. They fail to acknowledge that the property concentrated in the hands of a powerful few can be 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, save becoming virtuous by practicing orthodox Catholicism.    

A particularly good example of how devout religiousness does not automatically translate into virtuous business leadership is the case of Tom Monaghan, icon and financial source of Catholic Right causes. Monaghan, though born a Catholic, sought out a more traditionalist form of the faith than most other Catholics. 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. The former pizza king has since been investing in orthodox Catholic causes such as the  Thomas More Law Center, his dream school -- Ave Maria University, and Frank Pavone's militantly anti-abortion Priests for Life.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Monaghan has thwarted attempts by university employees to unionize. When asked if he saw a contradiction in his efforts, 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.(iv)  Monaghan personifies the absurdity of Novak's contention that leaders of business and industry who become virtuous through faith require no oversight from government.

Saving a Legacy
Monsignor Ryan's role and legacy in American Catholicism matters. He was someone who grew up during the age of the Robber barons when the labor movement had little or no real bargaining power. Ryan was not a peripheral figure in American history. Instead, he was one of the central theorists on economics for the Catholic Bishops and arguably, contemporary liberalism. That is why Novak's avoidance of Ryan is so revealing.  Ryan's work exposes Novak as an ideologue whose economic views are far from Catholic to the point of fraudulence.

This omission leads Novak to another startling conclusion:  On page 247 of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Novak claims that third-way Catholic economics (a middle course between uncompromising varieties of Marxism and laissez-faire, anything goes capitalism) was never truly tried. However, there were several socialist-inspired concepts at heart of the New Deal (but clearly refined to save capitalism, not destroy it); they were very much the essence of Monsignor Ryan's economics. Third-way thinking, with its emphasis on contribution being reciprocal to receipt was one of the justifications for progressive taxation. And more importantly, because it was part and parcel of the New Deal its ideals were instrumental in creating the modern middle class.

But perhaps Novak's greatest omission is a discussion of what leads many to socialism: laissez-faire, buccaneer-style capitalism. When "the sinners" who engage in capitalism do so without any sense of responsibility towards others, without any sense of receipt based upon corresponding contribution, using their disproportionate economic power to threaten the economic security of those less powerful, that is when socialism in its less democratic forms becomes attractive to people. What Novak doesn't seem to get (or more probably does not want to get) is what Monsignor Ryan and other social justice Catholics have long understood: to be secure from financial catastrophe is freedom. Economic equity cannot be had on a purely voluntary basis: government needs some muscle to prevent and to punish bad behavior in the pursuit of wealth.

Novak, Weigel and most other neoconservatives - Catholic or otherwise - are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that 13th century scientific natural law conclusions cannot be uniformly applied to today's bioethical issues; and that similarly, Locke's and Adam Smith's ideas cannot be uniformly applied to twenty-first century realities.  The same principle applies to church documents such as Summa Theologica.  Perhaps Constitutional scholar Stephen Holmes put it best, "Modern liberalism is best understood as a rethinking of the principles of classical liberalism, an adaptation of these principles to a new social context where individual freedom is threatened in new ways."(v)

Monsignor Ryan understood that when religious hierarchies risk corruption when they are financially tied too closely to a wealthy elite: when only those of superfluous wealth have the ability to shape policy within historic religious institutions. When  any religious organization becomes a convenient tool of wealthy interests, it loses its credibility when offering social criticism.

America and Catholicism don't need any more Novaks channeling libertarians such as F.A. Hayek and politically aligning with the Religious Right.  Instead, it needs leaders who make the economic needs of the average worker - an equally and often far more important player in wealth creation than seven-figure CEOs and mega-stockholders - a top priority. Catholicism needs leaders like Monsignor John A. Ryan.

(i)  "About Monsignor John A, Ryan," University of St, Thomas, Minnesota, John A. Ryan Institute site page; Link:
(ii)   McShane, Joseph M., S.J., "Sufficiently Radical": Catholicism, Progressivism, and the Bishops' Program of 1919; page 30.
(iii) McGreevy, John T.  Catholicism and American Freedom: A History; W.W. Norton &Company, Inc., New York 2003, at page 259.
(iv) Susan Hansen, "Our Lady of Discord", New York Times, July 30, 2006. Link: 95B0C738FDDAE0894DE404482
(v) Holmes, Stephen, Passions & Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 1997, Page 239

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine   Part Forty   Part Forty-one   Part Forty-two   Part Forty-three   Part Forty-four   Part Forty-five   Part Forty-six   Part Forty-seven   Part Forty-eight   Part Forty-nine   Part Fifty   Part Fifty-one   Part Fifty-two   Part Fifty-three   Part Fifty-four   Part Fifty-five   Part Fifty-six   Part Fifty-seven   Part Fifty-eight   Part Fifty-nine   Part Sixty   Part Sixty-one   Part Sixty-two   Part Sixty-three   Part Sixty-four   Part Sixty-five

Forget Michael Novak, George Weigel and Robert Sirico: If you want to read a truer take on Catholic economic teachings, just click here.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Aug 23, 2008 at 01:34:54 PM EST

The self-anointed lay & clergy "leaders" would rather ignore the needs of the already born. Do Novak, Weigel & Company even realize what happened in Europe and Latin America when the church was too closely tied to the economic and social elites? Is he eager to see the same thing happen here? As a nation, we are already in the process of becoming something uglier than we've tried to be in the past few decades.

by khughes1963 on Sat Aug 23, 2008 at 08:32:33 PM EST

Much to applaud here, Frank, but you neglect Ryan's turn toward fascism in the late 1930s, when he became an outspoken defender of Franco.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Sun Aug 24, 2008 at 05:09:26 AM EST
If you read Ryan's speeches and writings during the 1930s, Ryan did not "turn towards fascism," as you put it. Yes, he did oppose the Republicans in Spain, he was always hostile towards Hitler, Nazism and Geman anti-Semitic policies. And in his 1936 speech, Roosevelt Safeguards America, Ryan strongly criticized the Spanish monarchists who he ultimately blamed for bringing about the economic conditions that helped set the stage for the Spanish Civil War.

Ryan's hostility towards the Republicans stemmed from the despicable actions of some of their number to the clergy, including the murder of priests and nuns (and while I believe the overall Republican cause was correct, there was no excuse for this brutality whatsoever; if anything, it was counterproductive). While the number of these incidents may not have been on par with Guernica-style bombing by the fascists, it arises out of the same hatred and brutality unleashed in war.

Unfortunately, there were some hardcore-Stalinists within the Republican ranks whose actions probably cost them support among Catholics who would have otherwise would have supported their cause.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Aug 24, 2008 at 10:30:31 AM EST
Parent a good article about Ryan and his ant-fascism:

And by the way, I apologize for not thanking you earlier for your otherwise kind words about the piece.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Aug 24, 2008 at 02:34:23 PM EST

On July 14, 1939, in an article subtitled "Mgr. Ryan hits Nazi Ideal; Assails Totalitarian States but Defends Franco," Winifred Mallon reported that Ryan, responding to a speech by a prominent rabbi urging the U.S. to reconsider the Neutrality Act, agreed with the rabbi that Germany was a totalitarian state but went out of his to defend Franco. "the Monsignor said... that he favored the Franco regime because the government it replaced had been 'Communist controlled, and not a true democracy."

Ryan went on to say, "Only those who profess religion... have a logical ground for maintaining individual rights."

The government Franco overthrew wasn't "Communist controlled"; but Communists did participate democratically in the government. It was as democratic as any government in Europe at that time. Franco's regime was an open, vigorous, explicitly fascistic rejection of democracy. Once Franco began the war, defenders of the Republic committed atrocities, although not on any scale at all comparable to Franco's Hitler-backed forces. The Spanish Church openly sided with Franco; indeed, many priests took to their bell towers to act as snipers. Many Catholics in America, meanwhile, vigorously opposed Franco; but not Ryan.

To say that we should give Ryan a pass because the defenders of the Republic committed atrocities is to say that we should give David Irving, the British Holocaust denier a pass because the Allies committed atrocities (which they did.)

Ryan backed a fascist government that overthrew a democracy, murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, and continued to torture and silence critics right up into the 1970s, long after Europe's other fascist regimes were history.

We can and should give Ryan credit for his progressive ideas; but we should never erase his support for a murderous, fascist regime.

Especially not now, when rehabilitation of Franco has become a right wing project -- pursued, I should point out, by avoiding the topic of Franco's crimes by pointing to the crimes of a ragtag army that was on the defensive, and then obliterated.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 03:23:17 PM EST

Jeff, you are focusing upon one incident in the man's entire legacy. With that said;

--Didn't Lincoln at one time want to send African-Americans back to Africa, a ridiculous idea? And yet he saved the Union and ended slavery.

--Didn't Truman write some nasty things in his diary about Jews, but then recognized Israel, not to mention desegregate the military?

--Didn't RFK once work for Joe McCarthy, but then go on to be a liberal icon?

--Didn't FDR wrongly intern Japanese-Americans, yet we still recognize him as perhaps our greatest president?

Jeff, you're never going to get the perfect liberal. All you can ask  for is that when he or she pulls a clunker it's an aberation of his or her works.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 07:48:02 PM EST

I've said several times now, here and on Kos, that one shouldn't throw out Ryan's achievements with his failures. And yet, rather than wrestle with complexity, you keep insisting that I'm demanding purity. That's a disingenuous argument.

Moreover, supporting a fascist regime -- even as Americans are being prosecuted for opposing it -- is a hell of a lot more than a clunker, just as the great FDR's Japanese internment camps were more than a clunker. They were a terrible crime.

We can't take the measure of these figures unless we deal with them honestly.

And we sure as hell can't expect the Right to take our history seriously if we don't ourselves.

Last and least: The last thing in the world I'd want is a perfect liberal. I'll take a shady leftist over a perfect liberal any day.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Thu Aug 28, 2008 at 02:54:20 AM EST

I never said "to give Ryan a pass," as you put it. Yes, Ryan was wrong here, but you're making him sound as if he was a bleeding brown shirt which he clearly was not. His response came primarily out of atrocities committed upon priests and nuns, simple as that. At the same time, he openly despised Hitler.

Was Ryan wrong? On this issue, yeah, he was. And he was also wrong about fighting birth control. But you simply refuse to look inside him to see what made him take that extreme position, as puzzling as it was. How else do you explain a man who was otherwise an anti-fascist and openly defended the rights of Socialists during the Palmer Raids?

Beyond that, this was an economic piece, an introduction to Ryan. While your point was not a distraction from these points, the harshness and your laser-beam focus on this one of very few blemishes on his career was.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Aug 28, 2008 at 07:25:53 AM EST

Do you have a full citation and maybe a link for the article you mention?

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 09:24:58 PM EST
How much fuller can you get than the paper, the date, the author, and the hed? That's a full citation. No, there's no link -- I had to do research to find this. But anyone with Proquest's database of the historical NYT can find it. If you don't have it, local university libraries will.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Thu Aug 28, 2008 at 02:50:37 AM EST

Apologies if I didn't make that clear -- it was in the NYT. Date above. Search John A. Ryan in the historical NY times historical database on Proquest and you'll find it. I stumbled upon it while researching Manfred Zapp,the Nazi spy.
Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, May 20)
by Jeff Sharlet on Thu Aug 28, 2008 at 02:56:13 AM EST

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