Catholic Responses to Industrialization


Pope Leo XIII

Courtesy of ACUA

Pope Leo XIII

If American Catholic responses to industrialization's problems were complex, it was, in part, because Catholic social thought was complex. The church had a long tradition of social thinking rooted in the gospels and refined through the ages, but it was slow to adapt this thought to the social and economic revolution of the nineteenth century. Leo XIII was the first pope to address the problems of industrialization directly in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, which means, appropriately, "Of New Things."

Leo's encyclical began by pointing to a new revolution transforming the world, not political in nature, but economic. "New Developments in industry, new technologies striking out on new paths, changed the relations of employer and employee, abundant wealth among a very small number and destitution among the masses, increased self-reliance among the workers as well as a closer bond of union have caused conflict to hold forth." The changes, he noted, were so "momentous" that they kept "men's mind in anxious expectation." There were difficult problems to resolve, the pope acknowledged, but "all are agreed that the poor must be speedily and fittingly cared for, since the great majority of them live undeservedly in miserable and wretched conditions."

Leo XIII believed that the root of the problem was the decline of the old trade guilds of medieval origin and the failure of modern government to pay attention to "traditional religious teaching." Inspired by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aquinas' vision of an organic community knitting rich and poor together in reciprocal relation, Rerum Novarum in some ways looked not forward but back to a medieval golden age. In this sense it was a conservative document, or, conservatives believed that they could read it as such. They took notice of Leo's attack on the Socialists, for "exciting the enmity of the poor towards the rich" and advocating a program that "violates the rights of lawful owners, perverts the functions of the state... throws governments into confusion [and] actually injures the workers themselves."

Yet if Pope Leo XIII attacked Socialism in Rerum Novarum and gave hope to conservatives, he also assailed unregulated capitalism and encouraged reforms. Workers owed their bosses conscientious work, but "no laws either human or divine, permit them [the owners] for their own profit to oppress the needy and the wretched or to seek gain from another's want." The "principal" duty of an owner is "to give every worker what is justly due him." Leo XIII argued that "free contracts" between workers and owners must always be "an element of natural justice, one greater and more ancient that the free consent of contracting parties, namely that the wage shall not be less than enough to support a worker who is thrifty and upright." Leo contended that "in the case of the worker there are many things which the power of the state should protect... " Leo also gave support, if vaguely and cautiously worded, to the organization of workers. Many interpreted Leo's endorsement of workers' associations as an endorsement of unions.

As American Catholics came to grips with the problems and promise of economic change at the turn of the century, Leo's encyclical would become a powerful influence. Yet, if it inspired Catholic reformers and progressives, its effects would be complicated as conservative Catholics read it and their church's traditions of social thought in their own way. Nor would the encyclical and the church's formal social thought be the sole source of inspiration for Catholics confronting the industrial revolution of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


William Cardinal O'Connell

Courtesy of ACUA

Father John A. Ryan

In 1906, a young priest studying at Catholic University in Washington D.C. would draw on the new methods of American statistical analysis and available data to precisely compute what Leo's "living wage" would actually mean in concrete terms for American workers and their families. The young priest, John A. Ryan, had been born on a Minnesota farm, the son of an Irish immigrant. Raised in radical traditions rooted in the Populist movement of the U.S. plains states and Irish American custom, he would become the foremost Catholic proponent of social and economic reform in American church history and the most prominent Catholic "Progressive" of the Progressive Era. Ryan was a thinker, a philosopher, tightlipped and somewhat abrupt in person but passionate about ideas and the plight of working people. Ryan endorsed labor unions, but he believed strongly that the ultimate responsibility for rectifying the problems of the new industrial society lay with the government. His work on behalf of living wage legislation would earn him the title "Father of the Minimum Wage," and for his strong backing of Franklin Roosevelt he would be called the "Right Reverend New Dealer." In 1919 Father Ryan wrote what became known as the Bishops' Program for Social Reconstruction. Endorsed by bishops involved in the National Catholic War Council and based on Rerum Novarum, this program explicitly advocated legislation to regulate child labor, establish minimum wages, and provide national health insurance.

William Cardinal O'Connell

Not all bishops supported the programs advocated by Ryan, however. One who did not was William Cardinal O'Connell, Archbishop of Boston from 1906 to 1944. O'Connell had been born into an immigrant factory worker's family in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1859, so he knew firsthand the plight of working people. He was only the third cardinal in the history of the United States, and by the 1910s, one of the most influential men of the American Catholic Church. He was concerned about the church's place in America, and like many church leaders of his generation worried about a powerful state intruding into a moral sphere where the church alone should rule. O'Connell also objected to the government's attempts to assume responsibilities that more appropriately belonged to families--to parents over their children, for example. Unlike Ryan, then, O'Connell was suspicious of the government, doubted that it could do much good for the poor and workers through legislation, and indeed, feared that its interference would make the lives of working families much worse. In 1924 he clashed with John Ryan over adding an amendment to the Constitution permitting the federal government to ban child labor. O'Connell believed that the child labor amendment would take control of children away from their parents, handing it over to legislators and a "centralized bureaucracy" thereby weakening the family, the fundamental core unit of moral life.


Mary Harris "Mother" Jones

Courtesy of ACUA

Mother Jones

   Mary Harris, "Mother" Jones differed altogether from Ryan and O'Connell. She was a radical, self-proclaimed and universally acknowledged by friend and foe alike. Born in Ireland probably in 1836, she taught in parochial schools in Michigan briefly before marrying George Jones and settling down in Memphis, Tennessee with him and their three children. After a yellow fever epidemic killed her husband and all of their children in late 1860, she worked as a milliner (hatmaker) and drifted into the labor movement. It was not until 1900, when she was in her mid-sixties, however, that Mother Jones became an official organizer for the United Mine Workers and finally came into her own as a labor leader. She looked grandmotherly with her white hair, wire-rimmed glasses and old-fashioned lacy dresses. She spoke of her "boys," the miners or her "girls," the brewery or textile workers. Yet she swore like a sailor and stood up fearlessly to police, sheriffs, and company officials who tried to intimidate her. In the first two decades of the twentieth century she organized miners in the coal fields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Colorado, women brewery workers in Milwaukee, and child textile workers in Philadelphia. She was arrested, tried, and imprisoned in several states. The Attorney General of West Virginia called her "The most dangerous woman in America." Jones was suspicious of the government like O'Connell, then, but for very different reasons. She believed that the government would always act on behalf of the rich, and nearly always punish workers who fought for better conditions. She put more faith in union strikes and boycotts, for she thought that workers could help themselves only through their own efforts. Ryan and O'Connell explicitly drew on church teachings to justify their positions on economic issues. Jones, born and raised a Catholic, and even a teacher in a Catholic school, grew skeptical of organized religion over her lifetime. Nevertheless, she did not seem to lose her faith in Christ and drew heavily on biblical lessons and imagery to inspire her "boys" the union workers and offer them a vision of a happier future.

This website surveys documents related to the work of John A. Ryan, William O'Connell, and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones in its attempt to convey the variety of responses among Catholics to industrialization in the United States.

Catholics continue to respond to conditions caused by industrialization. As noted in the beginning of this introduction, however, the perception of injustice caused by industrialization has become worldwide in scope.  James Keady, along with labor activist Leslie Kretzu,  sought to dramatize conditions among impoverished and underpaid Nike workers by living in a Nike factory workers' town in Indonesia for one month on $1.25 a day, a typical wage paid to Nike's subcontracted workers at the time.  The living wasn't easy, and the experience fueled the founding of Educating for Justice, an international nonprofit organization that educates high school and college students on issues of global injustice.  Educating for Justice website:      


In addition to sources cited in the endnotes, the following were consulted in compiling this introduction:

Elliott J. Gorn, Mother Jones, The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

James O'Toole, Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944 (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley, eds., The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997), especially entries on Mother Jones, by Joseph Quinn, William Cardinal O'Connell by James O'Toole, and John Augustine Ryan by Jeffrey M. Burns.

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