Skip to main content

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

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.

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:


(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

Originally posted to Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 11:17 AM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Don’t Be Fooled By Imitators! (13+ / 0-)

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

  •  The Trouble with Ryan (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Over on Talk 2 Action, I suggested that Frank -- whose work I have tremendous respect for -- has erred on one important point, which was Ryan's support for fascism in the late 1930s. Frank disputed that assertion. Here's my source:

    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 (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

    by Ishmael on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 12:26:20 PM PDT

    •  An Unfair Extreme Comparison (0+ / 0-)

      You can't compare David Irving to Ryan. A priest who would have been himself shot by the Republicans compared to a Holocaust denier? Sorry Jeff, that is absurd. It is just plain nuts and is all too typical of the scorched-earth reasoning too many of us on the Left readily resort to.

      And as I said earlier, Ryan's hostility towards the Republicans stemmed from the despicable actions of some Republicans 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. A lot of otherwise liberal American Catholics took the same position as Ryan.

      By your reasoning, should we condemn everything FDR did because of how badly he treated Japanese-Americans during WWII or because he tried to pack the Supreme Court? I think not. What is required is a little perspective here.

      •  That's a false analogy (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I specifically said we should NOT condemn everything Ryan did. That, in fact, we should praise his progressive positions -- but without ignoring his brutally wrong ones. Doing so is hagiography, and while hagiography has a role in the Church, it doesn't in political discourse.

        To blame the "Stalinists" -- that is, communists -- for Ryan's support for Franco is, I'm afraid, the exact same tact some American fascists, such as Merwin Hart, used for supporting Hitler. Relax; I'm not equating you to Hart, Frank. I'm a fan of your work. But the reality of the Spanish Civil War is that the communists were on the right side and Franco was on the wrong side. I've met quite a few of those old communists -- there was nothing unfortunate about their courage and clear thinking, and not one of them ever laid a finger on a priest.

        What I said -- and I'll say it again -- is that you can't propose that we celebrate Ryan without acknowledging this very black mark on his record. He was not a casual supporter of Franco; he was a very public figure, who spoke out publicly for Franco in 1939, at a time when Franco was busy killing thousands of political dissidents, having successfully replaced a democracy with a military dictatorship by inventing the modern concept of total war. Franco is indefensible. Ryan was wrong, and by being wrong he lent support to the American policy -- J. Edgar Hoover's -- of actually arresting those Americans who went to fight fascism in Spain. Hoover called them "premature anti-fascists."

        Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

        by Ishmael on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 01:41:01 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Ideal Versus the Actual (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          snakelass, Ice Blue, esquimaux

          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.

          •  You're ignoring the argument (0+ / 0-)

            I haven't once asked for the perfect liberal or suggested that Ryan's support for Spanish fascism invalidates all his ideas. Not once, Frank, and I'm beginning to wonder about your honesty in argument, here. In each comment, I've said, explicitly, that we can and should remember and praise his progressive ideals. But we should also remember the ugly side.

            As for the folks above: Yes, they did all of these things. And these things should be remembered. The point I made is that you wrote an all positive portrait of Ryan. When I pointed out some less than positive facts -- support for a fascist regime is a bit more than a "clunker" -- you responded first by telling me I was wrong, and then twice by radically distorting my argument to defend your man. You don't seem interested in wrestling with the complexity of history; rather, it seems, it's you who's looking for ideals.

            As a lefty, btw, the last thing I'm looking for is a "perfect liberal." I think I've a pretty good track record as a writer who doesn't believe in a perfect anything.

            Real history is always more powerful than political puffery. You want me to take Ryan seriously? Then do so yourself and stop accusing me of absolutism.

            Author of THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, Spring 08)

            by Ishmael on Wed Aug 27, 2008 at 11:48:20 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  No Jeff, You''re Ignoring What I'm Saying (0+ / 0-)

              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 laser-beam focus on this one of very few blemishes on his career was.

  •  Religion varies! (4+ / 0-)

    Just when i get so frustrated with religion, someone like Frank reminds me of the great good individuals of faith are capable of.

  •  An outstanding diary about a hijacked church (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    snakelass, paul2port, DWG

    It's usually a great surprise to those who aren't Catholic how really extreme the Monohan-Scalia sect of the Church is. In fact, there have been times when some Vatican officials have suggested they may be heritics.

    But unlike many groups and many Churches, Catholics have almost no history of activism within the Church.  Until the laity speak with their checkbooks asking the heirarchy to clarify the gospel, it won't happen.

  •  Great stuff! Let's see more. (3+ / 0-)

    The Roman Catholic Church in America has a long and admirable history of progressive social activism, though at times this strain of faith has struggled against a reactionary Vatican. The vibrant Catholic Workers movement of the Depression era was a wonderful grassroots progressive corrective to corporate power. Dorothy Day by all rights should be sainted, but she remains blackballed by the Church because she had an abortion.

    The sad reality is that today's Church has been hijacked not just by lay Conservatives like Monaghan; the rot has spread from the top down. John Paul II had a morbid, pathological fear of disorder and Communism. As a result he ruthlessly supressed genuine progressive movements in the Church from Latin American liberation theology to womens rights groups. He installed hundreds of reactionary Bishops with utterly inadequate intellectual or managerial skills to ensure a loyal Church. Now Benedict is reinforcing and extending this policy, working diligently to "purify" the Church, enforcing a rigid obedience to an orthodoxy that is grotesquely hostile to progressive social themes. Instead it's all abortion all the time, eyes on heaven not the earth.

  •  Well done, Frank (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    snakelass, Frank Cocozzelli

    There was, and is a strong Fascist element within the Church hierarchy. Perhaps, as one of my acquaintances argues, the Church had to choose between two evils and jumped in on the side of the Fascists instead of the Communists.

    However, I find it very disconcerting as I know you do, that Opus Dei is strong and growing stronger in today's Church. Escriva's views are pretty clear from the letter below. Obviously J2P2 and Ratzinger didn't think his Fascist sympathies weren't enough to deter Escriva's rapid elevation to sainthood. I deeply regret their choice when there are more worthy candidates especially Bishop Oscar Romero.

    From the Opus Dei Awarness Network:

    To his Excellency Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Head of State of Spain

    Your Excellency:

    I wish to add my sincerest personal congratulation to the many you have received on the occasion of the promulgation of the Fundamental Principles.

    My forced absence from our homeland in service of God and souls, far from weakening my love for Spain, has, if it were possible, increased it. From the perspective of the eternal city of Rome, I have been able to see better than ever the beauty of that especially beloved daughter of the church which is my homeland, which the Lord has so often used as an instrument for the defense and propagation of the holy, Catholic faith in the world.

    Although alien to any political activity, I cannot help but rejoice as a priest and Spaniard that the Chief of State’s authoritative voice should proclaim that, “The Spanish nation considers it a badge of honor to accept the law of God according to the one and true doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church, inseparable faith of the national conscience which will inspire its legislation.” It is in fidelity to our people’s Catholic tradition that the best guarantee of success in acts of government, the certainty of a just and lasting peace within the national community, as well as the divine blessing for those holding positions of authority, will always be found.

    I ask God our Lord to bestow upon your Excellency with every sort felicity and impart abundant grace to carry out the grave mission entrusted to you.

    Please accept, Excellency, the expression of my deepest personal esteem and be assured of my prayers for all your family.

    Most devotedly yours in the Lord,
    Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer
    Rome, May 23, 1958

    Even today Catholic clergy sometimes long for the political power the Church once possessed. Ryan's argument that theocracy is a thing of the past doesn't seem to have convinced his colleagues.

    Thanks again for another great diary.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site