John A. Ryan (1869-1945), a Roman Catholic priest, was a leading advocate for economic and social reform in the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth-century. He taught at The Catholic University of America and worked closely with the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He served as the director of the Social Action Department, an arm of the NCWC.
In his book Social Reconstruction, published in 1920, Ryan presented an overview of the Roman Catholic Church’s position in relation to the political and economic spheres of the modern state with special attention to the United States of America. Ryan relied on the work of Leo XIII, especially his 1891 encyclical “On the Condition of Labor” and that pope’s 1901 encyclical “Christian Democracy.” Ryan also made frequent reference to the “Bishop’s Program for Social Reconstruction,” which was published in 1919. Ryan authored that document under the auspices of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Although written over ninety years ago, Ryan’s words resonate in the contemporary period.
Expounding upon Church teaching, Ryan acknowledged the delicate balance that must be maintained between the government and the individual in reforming economic conditions. He noted that it is better for individuals “to do things for themselves than to have things done for them by the State.” Nevertheless, when economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, it is appropriate for the state to intervene. Ryan was clear about the role of the state:
The teaching of the Church on the functions of the State is not the laissez-faire theory to which England and America have been so long accustomed. According to the Church’s teaching the State has something more to do than merely prevent fraud and violence, and maintain order generally. It has the general function of protecting and enforcing natural rights, and beyond that, of promoting in a general way the social welfare.
Ryan cited Pope Leo XIII to clarify the relative responsibility between the government and the individual: “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers or is threatened with mischief which can in no other way be met, it is the duty of the State to step in and deal with it.” Ryan and the bishops agreed that the state ought to enact a minimum wage law, to provide social insurance and public housing for the working class, and to establish a national employment service among a number of other initiatives. On the basis of this solid footing, individuals would be better equipped to “help themselves” and, in turn, to serve the common good.
The task of determining the proper role of the individual and the proper role of the government is a perennial task. As Ryan noted in 1920, “Naturally, the promotion of social welfare covers different fields at different times and places.” It remains in the first half of the twentieth-century as challenging as it was during Ryan’s time. In guiding our decision-making on these matters, Ryan provides a fairly straightforward benchmark:
God made the earth for all [people]. The primary destination and purpose of the goods of this world is to support human beings, to support human life, and that means the human life of all, because there is nothing in nature—or in revelation—to indicate that any class of persons has a prior claim over another class to the goods of this earth.
Catholic social teaching provides a general framework for decision-making but it is up to each individual and their particular communities and the entire community to assess whether and how the public weal serves each member, especially the most vulnerable, and to make sure that it does so.
Submitted: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies.