Why Does This Topic Matter? Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the broader issues that the Catholics and Politics website can illuminate in the classroom.

Intersection of Catholics and Politics

On the question of Catholic ideals and politics, both Ryan and Coughlin expressed their desire to apply Catholic ideals in the world of politics in order to address social problems and economic inequities, but both moved further from Catholic teaching and more into politics. Ryan drew heavily on Catholic social teaching as he advocated certain political solutions: for example, his "Message of the Encyclicals for Today" was an overt exercise in applying Catholic ideals to society via policy. His correspondence with Hoey regarding the "Safeguard" speech also drew on Catholic teaching, albeit in a much less overt manner. Coughlin, however, began discussing how Catholic teaching could be applied via various policies, but dramatically drew away from this approach by the mid-1930s. By the time Coughlin established his NUSJ, it appears, he was downplaying Catholic teaching, and when he did mention it, it was often in the context of discussing other religions. His famous NUSJ Cleveland Convention speech is blatantly political, with very little appeal to Catholic teaching. Ryan's social justice advocacy, on the other hand, remained much more closely dependent on Catholic teaching, as these documents show.

The documents address the following questions related to Catholics and Politics:

How did Catholic teaching inform the political positions of Fathers Ryan and Coughlin?

How did they justify their political activities?

How did Ryan and Coughlin work out their views of Catholicism in the political arena?

Catholic Priests, Church Policy, and American Politics

There is no specific position on the role of priests in formal politics stated in Church law. The Bishop is supposed to supervise the activities of the priest locally, and this extends to politics. The rules differed, however, with respect to NCWC staff, who were prohibited from expressing their views on politics. Hence, Coughlin was under the supervision of Gallagher as far as expressing his views of politics, and ultimately Ryan was under the authority of the NCWC, though presumably he'd be subject to the approval of Archbishop Curley, who was the DC-Baltimore Archbishop. I added some documents here that reveal frustration within the church over how to address Coughlin's anti-FDR activities. Fr. Burke's note to Mooney reveals he is openly aiming to counter Coughlin's influence. Bishop Peterson is also angry at Coughlin's activities, though both realize too that they can't come out and condemn him, presumably because they'd step on Gallagher's toes. Sheehy covertly campaigns for FDR to counter Coughlin's activities.

The documents address the following questions related to priests and politics:

What was the position of the hierarchy on Coughlin's and Ryan's involvement in politics?

What role, if any, should a priest play in the political arena?

How did politics shape the attitudes and actions of the priests toward each other?

The American Public and the Catholic Priest in the 1930s

Responses to the speeches and campaigning of Coughlin and Ryan regarding FDR varied considerably. Reactions tended to be both strong and highly polarized. Here are representations from the secular press (which tended to be pro-Ryan), the Catholic press (which tried to balance between the two), and a range of individuals with varying backgrounds. Themes are the role of the priest in politics, communism, and economic class issues.

The documents address the following questions related to public perception of priests:

How did the American public respond to each priest's political activities?

How many publics are represented?

The Use of Radio in 1930s Politics

The documents address the following questions related to the use of radio in 1930s politics:

What is the role of radio in 1930s politics?

How did radio shape Coughlin's and Ryan's messages?

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