Monsignor John Augustine Ryan (1869-1945): Economist, Theologian, Writer, Social Reformer

By: Michael Barga


Introduction:  Msgr. Ryan wrote a number of influential works including his Ph.D. dissertation A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects.” In 1909 he published A Programme of Social Reform by Legislation.” Other works included: “Distributive Justice” in 1916; “Bishops’ 1919 Plan for Social Reconstruction;” and “A Better Economic Order” in 1935.  In the 1920’s, Msgr. Ryan worked to have the 1919 bishops’ plan enacted throughout the country in addition to teaching at Catholic University.  His theological writings utilized natural law by highlighting man’s rational nature, and Ryan considered his thoughts an application of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. In 1933, Pope Pius XI named Ryan a domestic prelate, and he re-appeared in the public eye by giving the speech Roosevelt Safeguards America in 1936.  Ryan directed the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference from 1922-1940: and he also taught at the National Catholic School of Social Services. He is remembered by his nickname the “Right Reverend New Dealer.”

Education and Career: Born on May 25, 1869 to a large Irish family of Minnesota farmers, John A. Ryan chose to become a priest at age eighteen and attended nearby St. Paul’s Seminary.  From his childhood, he developed habits of hard work, blunt speech, and barnyard humor, and Ryan took these lessons with him to his priestly life.  His experience in the agricultural depression in the late 19th century led him to independently study economics, especially the writings of Professor Richard T. Ely.  Ryan had a strong desire for a life of teaching and scholarship, and he was sent to Catholic University for post-graduate study in moral theology after his ordination in 1898.  He continued to study economics informally, and in 1906 Ryan intertwined the subject with moral theology in a doctoral dissertation on “A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects.”

Fr. John A. Ryan (1865-1945)

One of Ryan’s inspirations, Richard Ely, recognized his dissertation as an authoritative moral and scientific analysis of the “living wage” concept introduced in Rerum Novarum. The concept of a living wage described the need for all those who work to receive a fair wage by their employer that would enable them to sustain themselves and their families.  Ely helped Ryan publish his dissertation under the title A Living Wage that was translated into multiple languages.  The dissertation contended that the right for a living wage was natural rather than positive, social, or legalistic.  A natural right exists from birth rather than being endowed as a share of social good by an authority like a positive right.

A natural right is grounded in the intrinsic worth of the human person that includes the ability to develop one’s personality.  Without a living wage, Ryan believed that people could not attain their natural end of human flourishing as God intended; they could not achieve the goods in accordance with human rational nature as established by God.  His moral theology was distinct in that it used the idea of “the rational nature of man” rather than more direct Biblical concepts.  Ryan had a strong emphasis on the examination of the human faculties to establish moral principles, and he believed it was an acknowledgement of human dignity in social ethics.  When people deprived others of a living wage, Ryan believed they took away the individual’s right to pursue self-perfection.  By associating a living wage with traditional natural rights, Ryan hoped to battle for “…a whole host of justice claims which went far beyond the claims traditionally articulated in the moral theology manuals.”1

After Ryan completed his dissertation, he returned to St. Paul’s seminary where he became the first professor to integrate economics in training men for the priesthood.  Many considered him a rare find in the field of ethics in that he was a competent economist and a Catholic who was willing to be specific in his vision for social reform.  In 1909, Ryan published “A Programme of Social Reform By Legislation which listed reforms that would put an end to the worst abuses in the American economy at that time: “…a legal minimum wage, an eight hour limit on the work day, protective legislation for women and children, protection for union picketing and boycotting, unemployment insurance, provision against accident, illness and old age, municipal housing, public ownership of utilities, public ownership of mines and forests, control of monopolies, and an income tax.”

While some accused him of being a socialist, he clashed sharply in debates with prominent socialist theorists on economic, as well as religious and philosophical grounds.  He contended that his approach found a middle ground between liberty and equality concerns in the economy and blended the need for social and individual welfare.  In 1915, he was transferred to a similar teaching position at Catholic University and wrote “Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth” in 1916.  The socialist accusations continued, and when one wealthy man was asked to donate money to Catholic University, he replied “I won’t give a cent so long as the University keeps that dashed Socialist, John Ryan.”2 On the other hand, the National Conference of Catholic Charities thought more highly of Ryan and asked him to become the editor of their new monthly publication of Catholic Charities Review in 1917.

Distributive Justice makes a number of arguments that socialists would dislike, especially that individuals have a natural right to land ownership and are justified in collecting interest from others.  Simultaneously, capitalists were offended by Ryan’s assertions that there should be a “legal limitation of fortunes3 and moral imperative for individuals to redistribute superfluous wealth.  Ryan reinforced his beliefs on wages including the right to adequate prices in ensuring an equitable minimum standard of living.  Still, Ryan was a realist in his beliefs who recognized the difficulty in his recommended changes and the need for the guiding principles of “efforts, sacrifices, productivity, scarcity, and human welfare” 3 to remain in the economy.

Ryan’s realism is evident in his dissertation where part three attempted to calculate empirically the value of a just family wage.  After discussing a number of economic studies that were used to describe cost of living at that time, Ryan concluded that the annual living wage for a family of seven was $600 in 1906.  In Distributive Justice, Ryan discussed a minimum wage law to enforce the moral imperative for a family living wage and its implications to the worker and employer’s freedom to create their own contract.  Ryan felt that an objective analysis of the current system of wages showed the principle of economic expediency was used to decide worker’s wages when it should be a rule of equal gains decided by individual net advantage as follows:

“The good received by the employer when diminished by or weighted against the amount that he pays in wages should be equal to the good received by the laborer when diminished by or weighted against the inconvenience that he undergoes through the expenditure of his time and energy.” 3

Ryan’s next scholarly production came as the director of the Social Action Department, a part of the newly formed National Catholic War Council.  “The Bishops’ 1919 Plan for Social Reconstruction” described various issues of justice related to workers with special attention to transition from wartime to peacetime.  Ryan, as expected, used secular economists and real figures in his analysis, especially when he describes why wages should not be reduced just because the war is over.  Ryan called for women who had supported the war efforts through work in factories to continue their employment and WWI Veterans to be provided agricultural or industrial work by the government in the same way.  One key point was the role of “social insurance” provided to the worker primarily by industry but also through temporary or small amounts given by the State.  Ryan felt that there was much unnecessary suffering that could be alleviated through industry-funded services to their workers.  While Ryan explicitly listed the problems with socialism, he also felt that government played a strong role in ensuring economic justice in the United States.  Most Catholic leaders felt the proposal was too radical and expanded government involvement in ways incompatible with Capitalism.

Ryan was a lifelong advocate for social and individual welfare

Child labor is briefly covered in the Bishops’ plan, and Ryan proposed taxing the practice out of existence since bans on child labor had been ruled unconstitutional in the early 1920’s.  The Archbishop of Boston, William Henry Cardinal O’ Connell, had consistently and openly campaigned against the measure to eliminate child labor.  Archbishop O’ Connell had pastors in every parish of his Boston Archdiocese read a statement reflecting his views.  In response, the Social Action Department tried to organize supporters.  An article Ryan wrote on the evils of child labor became widespread through the efforts of the American Federation of Labor but Catholics voted four to one against the measure in the final 1924 referendum.

The 1920’s were an era very different than the progressive-minded period before WWI.  The concern for child labor had diminished as most of the U.S. prospered, and reform became connected with Communism and increased controversy.  Ryan had never been afraid of controversy and considered it cowardly inaction to be over-concerned about misunderstandings of his views or intent.  When five rightfully seated socialists were thrown out of the New York State Legislature in 1920, Ryan wrote a letter in his outrage.  In 1922, he wrote letters, alongside a variety of groups and individuals for the release of those imprisoned for espionage during WWI.  In 1925, Ryan did not hesitate to call for the end of war debts and reparations owed to the U.S. by the European Allies of WWI.  He believed it to be proper practice of international charity and good policy to ease the related economic pressure placed by the European Allies on a struggling Germany.

Ryan acknowledged the importance of prudence, but some of his controversy came from his belief in example.  In his involvement with secular groups, Ryan felt he was testifying to an aspect of Rerum Novarum’s vision that most American Catholics ignored.  He stood alongside secular groups as an encouragement to other Catholics; in fact, Ryan felt Catholics were missing an opportunity in their hesitation to join groups.  Early in his career he joined “the Minnesota Child Labor Committee, the National Consumers’ League, the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (the present National Conference of Social Work), and, after the World War, the Joint Amnesty Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council for the Prevention of War, and the Public Ownership League of America.”2 These organizations were happy to have him as a connection to Catholicism, and Ryan also hoped to use positions of influence to encourage the integration of Catholic ideas in the secular world.

As the 1920’s continued, Ryan never gave up his defense of labor, condemnation of the Red Scare, or position in the Social Action Department despite the criticism he received.  He continued his work in the classroom, although students openly acknowledged that he was not a lively professor.  The beginning of the depression in 1929, Pius XI’s encyclical on social reconstruction, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and the promotion of Ryan to domestic prelate, a higher ecclesiastical rank, solidified Ryan’s career and gave him a more dynamic role.  Throughout the depression, Ryan presented his analysis of the U.S. economy that eventually was developed into “A Better Economic Order,” a book published in 1935. Ryan called for drastic measures that “exercised… a tremendous influence on the Roosevelt Administration.”2 He believed that the role of government needed for these drastic measures was in line with democracy and freedom, and his defense of the New Deal and President Roosevelt was steadfast.

Ryan’s speech on October 8, 1936 took a stand against those who called Roosevelt a fascist and communist, including fellow Catholic priest Fr. Coughlin, well-known to radio listeners

Ryan continued to argue from theological, economic, and encyclical grounds for Roosevelt that climaxed in his speech, Roosevelt Safeguards America, given at the Democratic National Committee in October 1936. For over two decades, Ryan had simultaneously called for reform while denying Socialism, and he contended that Roosevelt was closer to a papist than a Communist.  He decreed the communist or fascist danger was nothing compared to the threat of economic injustices in America, and Ryan called for working Americans to lend their support to Roosevelt.  The speech was widely publicized and widely criticized.

In 1940, Ryan wrote his last major work, a new edition of “The Church and the Social Order,” which was released through the NCWC.  At about this time, Ryan’s physical health began to decline, and he retired from the position of director.  Just a year before, a celebration had been organized for his seventieth birthday in Washington, D.C.:

“Six hundred people from all walks of life appeared at the Willard Hotel in Washington.  Felix Frankfurter, now Justice Frankfurter, an old friend, was there with Justice Black, a new friend, and together they brought along Justice William O. Douglas.  Secretary Francis Perkins, a close friend and sympathetic colleague, appeared for the administration and for herself.  The university was represented by the new rector, Monsignor Joseph M. Corrigan, and the NCWC by its general secretary, Monsignor Michael J. Ready.  More than a score of congressmen were present.  From all the professions, especially those connected with social welfare, came enthusiastic admirers, as well as critics who recognized a great life even when they did not altogether approve of it.  Father Lawrence and Maurice came on from St. Paul to share in the testimonial to their brother.”4

Associate Justices of the Supreme Court Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William O. Douglas (left to right) with Monsignor John A. Ryan (second from the left) at his 70th birthday testimonial dinner (May 25, 1939)

The celebration came with mixed emotions, as he had reached mandatory retirement age and could no longer continue work as a member of Catholic University’s faculty.  Father Lauerman, director of the National Catholic School of Social Service where Ryan had also taught for years, offered him a room where his close friend and long-time NCWC worker Fr. McGowan resided.  He continued working at NCWC, calling for the preparation of post-war aid to Europe, and giving radio speeches.  After recovering from a hospitalization in the summer of 1944, Ryan gave an enthusiastic benediction at the inauguration for Roosevelt in 1945.  He returned to St. Paul that spring and spent most of his time writing about the recently deceased Roosevelt.  Once this final task was complete, he passed his own final days in the comfort of St. Paul’s and even took a trip to his childhood home.  Monsignor Ryan died on September 16, 1945.

Ryan saw himself as someone interested in Catholic social teaching according to right reason and informed by economic knowledge.  He felt that learning right principles created a moral obligation for a person to speak out in an objective way without regard for praise and blame.  In Ryan’s mind, this vocal yet objective stand was necessary since truth and justice were the goals of social reform.  He believed that future Catholics would accept his ideas without fear for their reputation, and Ryan saw himself as neither radical nor conservative.  William Hard, a free-lance journalist writing in Metropolitan, described Ryan as “…bringing medieval darkness to illumine modernity with its light.”4 His death drew a response from people of all professions including the next generation of NCWC labor priests like Monsignor Higgins.  While his defense of Roosevelt was recognized as his most significant contribution of the time and is still indicated by his well-known nickname “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” many have also emphasized Ryan’s long-term contribution to Catholic thought.   Mainly, John A. Ryan exemplified and explained the social and economic thought of the progressive encyclicals in his time for the next generation of American Catholics.


1. Gaillardetz, Richard R.  “John A. Ryan: An Early Revisionist?”  The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall, 1990), p. 107-122.

2.  Abell, Aaron I.  Ryan: An Historical Appreciation.  The Review of Politics, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1946), pp. 128-134.

3.  Ryan, John A.  Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and A Living Wage.  Ed. Harlan R. Beckley, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

4.  Broderick, Francis L.  Right Reverend New Dealer.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1963.

5. The Archives of the Catholic University of America, Cancel War Debts and Reparations by John A. Ryan.

Photo Sources:

Ryan in Early Years- Courtesy of The Archives of the Catholic University of America

Ryan in Later Years – Courtesy of The Archives of the Catholic University of America

Cover of Roosevelt Safeguards – Courtesy of The Archives of the Catholic University of America

Birthday Dinner with Supreme Court Justices – Courtesy of The Archives of the Catholic University of America

For More Information: Visit the American Catholic History Classroom online at, contact the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at or Phone: 202-319-5065, or see Francis L. Broderick’s book Right Reverend New Dealer.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Monsignor John Augustine Ryan (1869-1945): Economist, theologian, writer, social reformer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from from


15 Responses to Ryan, Monsignor John A.

  1. thomas says:

    I was raised Catholic through High School, taught a social gospel by the Sisters of Notre Dame, an order that had served in Germany & Belgium. They were kicked out of Germany when the Kaiser banned religious teachers in public schools. The nuns were kind and caring, and I have nothing but praise for the excellent education I had in Catholic School. I rejected all of the ridiculous nonsense that is not true to Jesus message of Love in the New Testament, the only message. No hatred or fear of others. All humans are sinners. God hating gays was the most ridiculous tenet of all. So, I left the church.

    This priest seems to have been a hero and a saint of the working people. Bravo, Father Ryan. I anticipate a major upheaval with Pope Frances leading the Catholic Church. He is true to the social gospel of Jesus. He will surprise many. Pope Benedict knew he was unsuited to remain in the Vatican. We now may have a Pope who will focus on equality and social justice and love – rather than vestments and pomp and circumstances

  2. Judith says:

    Msgr. John Ryan was my great uncle. I grew up hearing family tales of him and his progressive positions. He is truly an inspiration and should be better known than he is. Thank you for this article. I will share it with my family. I visited a Ryan cousin in Templemore, Co. Tipperary, Ireland a few years ago. He told me that Msgr. Ryan had been consulted by the framers of the Irish Constitution. I have never been able to verify this.

    • jhansan says:

      Ms. Judith: If you or any of your family have photos or images reflecting Msgr. Ryan please consider sending them to me and, if appropriate, I will post them on the entry. Regards, Jack Hansan

      • jhansan says:

        Ms. Judith: I just received the comment below re: Msgr. John Ryan from a Mr. Dennis Craddick and he asked me to forward his comments to you.
        Regards, Jack Hansan

        Dennis A. Craddick

        I also am related to Fr. Ryan. To me he was a saint. The things he did for the working class and poor people can never be surpassed. It scares me to think what will be there for my grandchildren in the next 10 to 20 years. Jobs, wages, medical expenses, insurance, forclosures, are the common words now a days. Bring the jobs back to the U.S. I would like Judith who posted in Sept. of this year to see this message if you can forward it please. I have some things to share with her on the Ryan family and Fr. John. He visited my Ggrandfather in Rockford, IL. in June, 1903 . The article says he was a quest of the Patrick Craddick family and attended the Seminary in St. Paul.
        Thank You
        Dennis Craddick

  3. Tony says:

    I learned a great deal about Catholic teaching on the political order from reading Ryan. However, his specifically labor / economic theses are debatably not always, or not readily, conformable to Catholic teaching on subsidiarity. At the least, whether his theses are so conformable is controversial. The above article would be better by showing in a paragraph or two just where the controversy existed. For example, calling a living wage a “natural” right is logically problematic when it rests on a supposition that the worker first be granted a job, and no potential employer has a “natural obligation” to arrange his affairs so as to employ anyone at all, and especially not to employ any specific person. If the potential employer looks at the prospect of employing a person, considers that in doing so he would end up having to pay out $600 dollars per year in wages (this is Ryan’s estimate of a “living wage” back in 1906) when he anticipates grossing only $500 per year from the added labor, he may decide to forego the prospect altogether and not hire the worker. Or as an alternative, he may say to the worker “I don’t anticipate grossing more than $500 as the result of your labor, so if you want me to create this job at all, I will pay you $450 and anticipate taking $50 for myself (if I succeed in grossing more than $450), and IF IT SO HAPPENS that I gross more than $500 from your labor we will split the excess in the proportion 4/5 (employee) to 1/5 (employer).” Such a contract offer cannot possibly be contrary to any theoretical “natural right” to a living wage, even though neither party actually anticipates the worker receiving Ryan’s estimated living wage to start.

    The point is, no truly Catholic theory of the “living wage” can be discussed independently of the issue of the total amount of gain in new wealth the employer anticipates to accrue from the labor to be provided. In addition, the discussion of a “family living wage” cannot be complete without a discussion of the obligation of the laborer to (a) attempt to gain the working skills adequate to his family’s needs, and (b) limit his family size to a rational estimation of his ability to provide for them in a fair marketplace.

    • jhansan says:

      Tony: Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am not in a position to take issue with anything you said; however, I do believe our nation would be better off today if a Catholic clergyman would take the leadership in proposing recommendations such as Msgr. Ryan made in 1909 advocating for — “…a legal minimum wage, an eight hour limit on the work day, protective legislation for women and children, protection for union picketing and boycotting, unemployment insurance, provision against accident, illness and old age, municipal housing, public ownership of utilities, public ownership of mines and forests, control of monopolies, and an income tax.” Sincerely, John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

  4. […] in the early 20th century. Those are the titles of two essays/books written by Catholic priest, John A. Ryan, who was considered to be the foremost social justice advocate of his day. Yes, for many of us […]

  5. Dennis A. Craddick says:

    I also am related to Fr. Ryan. To me he was a saint. The things he did for the working class and poor people can never be surpassed. It scares me to think what will be there for my grandchildren in the next 10 to 20 years. Jobs, wages, medical expenses, insurance, forclosures, are the common words now a days. Bring the jobs back to the U.S. I would like Judith who posted in Sept. of this year to see this message if you can forward it please. I have some things to share with her on the Ryan family and Fr. John. He visited my Ggrandfather in Rockford, IL. in June, 1903 . The article says he was a quest of the Patrick Craddick family and attended the Seminary in St. Paul.
    Thank You
    Dennis Craddick

    • jhansan says:

      Mr. Craddick: Thank you for the comment. I will forward your comments to Judith. You will be able to see your comments on the Msgr. Ryan page.

      Regards, Jack Hansan

  6. […] I might add, American Catholicism’s <a href=”>Msgr. John A. […]

  7. […] And I might add, American Catholicism’s Msgr. John A. Ryan. […]

  8. DNC Convention Takes Religion Back For America « CauseHub says:

    […] like Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Catholic Worker movement leaders such as Dorothy Day and Fr. John Ryan likewise drew on progressive values rooted in the Christian gospels that promoted solidarity with […]

  9. Kathy Wood says:

    My Aunt apparently had an Ethics class eoth him at Catholic University. She sketched a picture of him. The back says” Monsignor John A. Ryan. The right reverend New Dealer. Drawn during Ethic Class at C.U. 1942. Would love to share her sketch with any family members. She was an great artist.

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