John A. Ryan, Virgil Michel, and the problem of clerical politics.

Author:Schmiesing, Kevin

Debate about the proper role of clergy in the wielding of temporal power has been characteristic of Christianity since its early centuries. It was the medieval popes, after all, that Lord Acton had in mind when he penned his famous dictum, "Power tends to corrupt." The historical record of deplorable acts by clerical magistrates to which Acton alluded was one factor leading to the formation of a consensus in Catholic thought and practice, by the middle of the twentieth century, that the holding of positions of temporal power by priests should be discouraged.

This consensus was not absolute, however, since even among those who shared its presupposition against priestly participation in government, nuances of difference remained. The debate concerning proper priestly conduct with respect to politics has, therefore, continued. (1) Should priests be free to state their opinions on particular political candidates or issues? How closely can a priest be associated with political figures? These questions are complicated by legal issues regarding church-state separation in the United States, as, for example, the issue of churches' tax-exempt status.

While the problem of clergy in politics is one that touches all denominations (and most religions), the theology of the Catholic priesthood--and the popular views that have grown up around it--give the problem a slightly different cast among Catholics. (2) The Catholic view of the priest and his public role is reflected in canon law. The Revised Code of 1983 is clear: "Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power." Later, the code states: "Clerics are not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of labor unions unless the need to protect the rights of the Church or to promote the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority." (3)

These canons reflect the consensus concerning priestly participation in politics. Two points are clear. First, priests are forbidden from holding positions of temporal power. Second, priests are forbidden from taking an "active role" in political parties and labor unions. However, exceptions can be made to the second canon when political discussions require the assessment of "ecclesiastical authority." This permission for exceptions introduces some ambiguity into the consensus. Even more ambiguity persists because of what remains uncodified: the extent to which priests can take a public role in advocating a particular political position.

There are a number of historical and theological sources for the rationale behind these canons; however, this analysis will focus on a practical one: the common view that Catholic priests serve as spokesmen for the official positions of their church. Catholic theology delineates, if not always with perfect clarity, between matters of faith and morals on which unity of belief is required, and matters of prudential judgment (sometimes related more or less closely to faith and morals), on which diversity is permitted. Priests, like all Catholics and all citizens, will necessarily have opinions about these matters of judgment, the category under which we can place matters of politics. When a priest makes these judgments public, however, or when he affiliates himself with a political organization that embraces certain judgments, the natural result is public confusion about where Catholic doctrine ends and the priest's opinion begins.

It is on the question of the extent to which a priest ought to take public political stands that the present essay hopes to offer some guidance. It will do so by examining slices of the work and writings of two figures prominent as American Catholic clergy and commentators on social questions in the first half of the twentieth century, Monsignor John A. Ryan and Father Virgil Michel, O.S.B. While both men have been subjects for scholarly attention, including comparison, no previous examination has focused on their relevance as representing types of clerical approaches to politics. The contrast between these two Catholic scholars conveyed in this article will elucidate the stance of each vis-a-vis the political sphere and thereby clarify the benefits and drawbacks of their respective approaches. Ultimately, it will not define the "correct" relationship between priest and political order. That determination will, by its nature and within certain bounds, be historically contingent and subjective. A close look at actual cases of clerical engagement, however, will help to illuminate some of the considerations that such a determination should involve.


While he did not occupy the highest appointed position of any Catholic in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, Monsignor John A. Ryan was the most important Catholic spokesman for the thirty-second president. Ryan held posts in government agencies in the 1930s, including stints on a National Recovery Administration (NRA) industrial appeals board (1934-35) and on the Committee on Farm Tenancy. More importantly, Ryan articulated the relationship between Roosevelt's reforms and Catholic social teaching for an intellectual and middlebrow audience. Ryan seldom saw tension between the programs of New Deal reform and Catholic teaching and his conviction as to their compatibility seemed to intensify over the course of the 1930s. His identification with Roosevelt led the radio priest Charles Coughlin to call him "the Right Reverend New Dealer."

Ryan first achieved national notoriety in academic circles in 1906, when he published A Living Wage, which the noted economist and social reformer Richard Ely claimed to be "the first attempt in the English language to elaborate what may be called a Roman Catholic system of political economy." (4) In fact, Ryan dedicated his book to Ely, "through whose writings the author first became interested in the study of economic problems." (5) With his first foray into economic scholarship, Ryan established a reputation for being not only a serious Catholic thinker, but also a first-rate social scientist. (6)

A Living Wage demonstrated the affinity for progressive thinking that was to characterize Ryan's career. The book displayed the influence that another economist and social reformer, John A. Hobson (1858-1940), had on Ryan's economic thinking. Hobson's contribution to Ryan's thought was through the influence of his theory of "under-consumption," which holds that economic stagnation occurs when too many resources are channeled into capital instead of labor, resulting in the production of more goods than can be consumed. (7)

A Living Wage also demonstrated Ryan's tendency, shared with other progressives, to look to the state for the solution to social ills. In Ryan's thinking, the state had an obligation not only to protect such traditional "negative" rights as those of life and property by outlawing murder and theft; it also had the duty to ensure the attainment of other "positive" rights (religious practice, livelihood). Whenever anyone lacks the means of "doing and enjoying those things that are essential to a reasonable life," Ryan wrote, "the absence of State intervention means the presence of insuperable obstacles to real and effective liberty." (8) For Ryan, the power and resources of government presented themselves more as the guarantors of liberty than as threats to it.

Ryan's alliances with the progressives of his day should not obscure the ways in which he differed from them. Ryan was adamant in his opposition to socialism and his reasons were rooted in the fundamentally Catholic worldview that provided his intellectual material. Socialism was mistaken, Ryan thought, because it was based on a utopian belief: "the assumption that a perfectly flawless economic system is practically attainable." Any attempt at reform must recognize the pervasive reality of sin, he noted: "Many of our social wrongs and maladjustments spring directly from the limitations of human nature, such as ignorance and greed; these would exist and be effective under any system whatsoever." (9) He criticized the Protestant social gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch for failing to sufficiently emphasize the church's primary concern as being the salvation of souls. (10) Ryan's Catholic loyalties always made him an uncomfortable ally of the political left. (11) Francis Broderick characterized the situation well: "Ryan was always more the progressive than he realized, and more the moral theologian than his progressive friends realized." (12)

Ryan's writings in the 1920s continued to emphasize the potential for government's role in economic reform. In "Declining Liberty," Ryan cited immigration restriction and alcohol prohibition as improper uses of state power that curtailed individual freedom, but he also stressed the need for "positive economic liberty." Among social conditions necessary to assure this liberty, he asserted, "are labor unions, reasonable assistance by the state, and the legal prevention of various forms of economic oppression." (13) In Distributive Justice, Ryan proclaimed his openness to the use of the government's power of taxation for "social" ends, deriving justification from the fact that the state's purpose is to promote the general welfare. (14)

Ryan was aware of the fact that some Catholics would be skeptical of his cooperation with the political left, but he sought to defuse the issue by showing the inadequacy of political labels:

The liberal economic views of Pope Leo's Encyclical and the Bishops' Program are more conservative than the views and politics to which they are opposed, for they go back in spirit and essence to the Middle Ages when, under the fostering care of the Church, the masses possessed an amount of economic freedom, economic opportunity, and economic control which would be immensely distasteful to present-day...

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