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A Pioneer of Social Reform

Monsignor John A. Ryan

About Monsignor John Ryan

Monsignor Ryan was a renowned 20th-century pioneer in social reform and theory for the Catholic Church.

When Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum ("On Capital and Labor") in 1891, he paved the way for the social advocacy that would define Ryan's life. How Ryan received Rerum Novarum, considered the Church's first "social" encyclical, was deeply informed by his firsthand experience of hardships of farming on his family's farm. The encyclical was the cornerstone upon which Catholics of the early twentieth century, like John A. Ryan, based their political and economic views.

Early Life and Education

John Ryan was born in 1869 to William and Maria Ryan in Vermillion, Minnesota. His parents had emigrated from Ireland and raised their eleven children on the family farm, where John worked and developed his faith.

John was valedictorian of the 1892 College of Saint Thomas graduating class and entered St. Paul Seminary that fall. He graduated and was ordained by Archbishop Ireland in 1898. He pursued graduate studies in theology at the Catholic University of America, receiving a Theology Licentiate in 1900 and Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1906.

He taught at St. Paul Seminary from 1902 to 1915 and returned to Catholic University to teach political science and moral theology until 1939. In 1920, Father Ryan became the first director of the National Catholic Welfare Council's Social Action Department and remained so until his death. He was made Monsignor in 1933 by Archbishop John Murray.

A Catholic Social Reformer and Pioneer

Published in The Catholic World in 1900, "A Country Without Strikes" was the first of Ryan's writings exploring the line between the collectivism of communism and socialism and the moral corruption of capitalism.

Ryan argued for the primacy of private property and against unregulated free markets throughout his life. From 1913 to 1914, he publicly debated the merits of socialism with the leader of the Socialist Party of America, Morris Hillquit.

He published Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth in 1916. The American Bishops via the National Catholic War Council commissioned him to write the Bishop's Program of Social Reconstruction in 1919. This was the framework for the National Catholic Welfare Council's Social Action Department, a source of inspiration for Roosevelt's New Deal.