The Practical Priest: A Reform Thinker and Advocate in the Catholic Church

Most historians have characterized early twentieth century Progressivism as an essentially Protestant or secularized Protestant movement. Catholics, if considered at all by most historians, have been lumped with the opponents of Progressivism: traditional minded, former peasant immigrants faithfully and dumbly electing and reelecting corrupt conservative immigrant or second generation political bosses.

Such a characterization, however, overlooks the significant contributions of lay Catholic politicians like "Big Tim" Sullivan or Al Smith in New York, Martin Lomasney or David Walsh in Massachusetts or Edward Dunne in Illinois to Progressive reform. In the 1910s, Democrats took over or became increasingly powerful in legislatures and state houses throughout the Northeast and Midwest. These often Catholic-led Democratic parties passed a raft of social welfare and other reforms including minimum wage laws, limitations of working hours for women and children, workman's compensation, factory inspection and widows' pensions - all reforms that Ryan had backed.

The Catholic reputation for conservatism in this period probably stems as much from historians' reading of the views of the Catholic bishops as of the attitudes of their lay flocks and here they have a better case. American bishops in the turn of the century era were far more likely to pick up on Leo XIII's warnings about the dangers of socialism than his pleadings for labor organization or state intervention on behalf of the poor. Priests who took more radical positions risked their careers. Rev. Edward McGlynn of New York was even excommunicated in 1887 for backing the radical Henry George in a local election. Some radical or liberal priests, on the other hand, managed to survive, even prosper, like Rev. Peter Yorke of San Francisco.

Still Ryan's choice of a career as a priest devoted to economic and social reform in a church whose leaders were overwhelmingly conservative appeared to place him in a precarious position. His own Archbishop, John Ireland, though a "liberal" on such issues as relations with non-Catholics, was a strong supporter of the Republican party and a great admirer of successful industrialists. Ryan once noted wryly that Ireland's good friend James J. Hill, the railroad magnate, gave much of the money for the seminary in St. Paul where Ryan, the vigorous anti- monopolist and enemy of excessive wealth, trained to become a priest.

Yet Ryan survived and even flourished in this conservative church. For all the abstract rhetoric and bookish preoccupation of the absentminded professor, "Fog" Ryan was a practical man and devoted to his church. He lived by what could be called a principle of expediency: that reforms should be judged not only by Catholic doctrine but by whether they worked; and the reformer should not push for measures that had no chance of being enacted. Ryan cultivated Archbishop Ireland's support and Ireland, in turn, did not interfere with Ryan's work. Ryan was also careful to set his arguments firmly within the principles of Catholic social teaching. He would always claim to be merely elaborating on Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum. Finally, for all his liberalism on economic issues, Ryan was strictly orthodox on such issues as birth control and had traditional opinions about women's roles.


  • How did Ryan relate his work for reform to his vocation as a priest?
  • What was Ryan's test for supporting reform?
  • Is the latter cowardly or prudent?
  • How does a reformer know when to fight and when not to?