John A. Ryan Articles Against Consumerism, 1907



As seen, Father John A. Ryan was writing as Americans entered the consumer age. At that time, production of capital goods such as steel, machinery, and natural resources still led the economy. But consumer goods, for example bicycles, telephones, and phonographs, were accounting for a large share of the economy. A desire and/or need for these things was being fostered through movies and magazines, and the emergence of mass advertising. Fr. Ryan, however, who made a sharp distinction between "want" and "need", expressed skepticism concerning the necessity of these new inventions. He feared the consequences for the working family, with little money, who attempted to acquire these items. At the same time, for the wealthy, he worried about the dangers that accompanied having too much.




As a Catholic, he saw material goods as distractions that took peoples' focus off of the spiritual life and Christ. Christians, he feared, would begin to equate material acquisition with self-worth and salvation. His skepticism and fears were shaped by both his Catholic and his Irish background. Irish peasants in the late nineteenth century lived in an economy of scarcity. Wealth was finite, which meant that more for you meant less for me. Consequently, he saw the rich getting ahead at the expense of the poor, making materialism and consumerism as harmful to both the consumer and those around the consumers.

In these two essays, Fr. Ryan attempts to counter the growing popularity of consumerism. Not only couldn't a person "better" himself or herself through material things, materialism ran counter to the Christian conception of a right and proper life.

As you read the excerpts marked by the blue boxes, think about the implied value system you saw underlying Annie Ramsey's article on dressing well and how it compares with Fr. Ryan's value system as seen in these and his other writings.



  • Do you agree with Fr. Ryan that having "too much" can hinder the Christian life? What is the purpose of life from the Christian perspective, and how does it shape one's response to consumerism?
  • Do you think that Fr. Ryan believed that one could enjoy a "good life" and live a "right and reasonable life"?
  • Do you think that one's status in life should be a factor in determining "how much?"
  • What is the fallacy of which Fr. Ryan writes? How does one truly better oneself?
  • Does one better or trap oneself through the acquisition of material things?
  • How much is too much? According to Fr. Ryan's criteria, did Ramsey want too much?