About Monsignor John A. Ryan

Monsignor John A. Ryan

1869 - 1945

Significant Works

A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects (from California Digital Library)

1919 Bishop's Document on Program of Social Reconstruction‌ (from University of St. Thomas)

Francisco Ferrer, Criminal Conspirator (from Internet Archives: Digital Library)

Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of our Current Distribution of Wealth (from California Digital Library)

The Church and Labor (from Universal Digital Library)

The State and the Church (from the University of Notre Dame)

Alleged Socialism of the Church Fathers (from Internet Archives: Digital Library)

The Church and Socialism and Other Essays (from California Digital Library)

Audio Archive of Msgr. Ryan's Speeches (from University of St. Thomas)


John A. Ryan was born on May 25, 1869, to William and Maria Ryan in Vermillion, Minnesota, now a southern suburb to Saint Paul. Both of his parents emigrated from Ireland, and they raised their eleven children (of whom John was the oldest) on the family farm, where John worked and developed his devout Catholic faith. 

He attended the Christian Brothers School, from which he graduated in 1887, and was the valedictorian of the College of Saint Thomas’ 1892 graduating class. John then entered Saint Paul Seminary that fall, graduated in spring of 1898, and he was ordained a Priest by Archbishop John Ireland that summer. Father Ryan was then sent to Washington D.C. to pursue graduate studies in theology at the Catholic University of America, where he received his Licentiate in Theology in 1900 and his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1906. 

He taught at Saint Paul Seminary from 1902 until 1915, when he left to be a professor of political science at The Catholic University of America. The following year, he also became a professor of moral theology and taught until he retired in 1939. On occasion, he also taught at Trinity College, something he had been doing since he had returned to the Washington D.C. area back in 1915. In 1920, Father Ryan had become the first director of the National Catholic Welfare Council’s Social Action Department, and remained in that capacity until his death on September 16, 1945. He was made Monsignor in 1933 by Archbishop John Murray.

Msgr. Ryan was a pioneer in social justice advocacy and theory for the 20th Century Church. Most of his views on these subjects were formed while he experienced firsthand the hardships of farming on his family’s farm. As a young man, he was sympathetic to the populist movement, as well as the cause of Irish Independence. 

When Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, he paved the way for the social activism that would define Ryan’s life. This was the cornerstone upon which the progressive Catholics, like John A. Ryan, based their political and economic views in the early twentieth century. His first published article, “A Country Without Strikes”, published in The Catholic World in 1900, was the first of many academic forays into that fine line between the collectivism of communism and socialism (which he was against) and the morally corrupt capitalism (which he thought ought be regulated also for economic reasons). 

He argued for the primacy of private property, while shying away from unregulated free markets, and he argued these positions his entire life, regardless of the climate. He debated somewhat regularly with the leader of the Socialist Party of America, Morris Hillquit, on the merits of socialism between 1913 and 1914.

Father Ryan emerged as even more of a player on the political map when he moved back to DC in 1915. As a professor at the Catholic University of America, he published another major work, Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth (1916). Due to such works and the studies he had done in order to write them, the American Bishops via the National Catholic War Council commissioned him to write the Bishop’s Program of Social Reconstruction in 1919, which became the framework for the National Catholic Welfare Council's Social Action Department and Catholic progressives in the 1920s and 1930s. This program would end up being a source of inspiration for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Monsignor Ryan eventually developed a personal relationship with both Roosevelt and his New Deal, eventually earning him the nickname “Right Reverend New Dealer.” Roosevelt asked Ryan to do the invocation at his 1937 presidential inauguration, the first time a Catholic priest had ever done so.  In 1945, he would do so again.