We come at last to where we can understand specifically how the common sense thought of G. K. Chesterton fell victim to the uncommon nonsense of socialism. We have seen how socialism began creeping into Catholic social thought through the popularity of the proposals of the agrarian socialist Henry George, and how in Rerum Novarum Leo XIII carefully refuted not only George’s theories, but the whole of socialism.
The question then becomes how, in light of Rerum Novarum, any Catholic (or, for that matter, anyone else with the ability to use common sense) could possibly construe Catholic social teaching in any way other than what we at CESJ believe to be consistent with what we call the Just Third Way. The answer lies in the career of the man who almost singlehandedly changed what it means for something to be true in the understanding of Catholic social teaching or anything else: Monsignor John A. Ryan, S.T.D. (1869-1945).
The story begins with Henry George’s mayoral bid in 1886. As the solidarist economist Dr. Franz H. Mueller related in his book, The Church and the Social Question (1984), “the newly elevated Archbishop of New York, Michael A. Corrigan, supposedly at the urging of Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, N.Y., formally denounced Georgism with the result that Father McGlynn publicly and scornfully contradicted him.” (Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, 1984, 65.)
After a great deal of discussion among the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, McGlynn was excommunicated in 1887. He had refused to go to Rome to answer charges resulting from his efforts to advance George’s socialist program after several more warnings to desist. He was reinstated in 1892 after an equivocal recantation through a third party. This was quite probably because many members of the hierarchy, although agreeing that while McGlynn richly deserved excommunication both for open disobedience, insulting behavior, and espousing heretical views, were doubtful about the political wisdom of such a move.
McGlynn managed to obtain a private audience with Leo XIII in 1893. Georgist legend has it that during this audience McGlynn persuaded Leo XIII to accept George’s “single tax” proposal as consistent with Rerum Novarum. There are at least two problems with this claim, either one sufficient to refute it.
One, it was the “single tax” that the pope and others specifically condemned in the georgist proposal. The question of title was, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to the main point. This was whether “ownership” means the right to control what is owned and receive the “fruits of ownership,” i.e., income and disposal of both the income and what is owned.
Two, there is no contemporary evidence or even claim that the pope said any such thing. The earliest mention I have found is from 1916 — long after George, McGlynn, and Leo XIII were dead — in ABC of Taxation by Charles Bowdoin Fillebrown, a georgist.
It was during the height of George’s popularity in the late 19th century that John A. Ryan read George’s Progress and Poverty in his “early teens.”(1) He later claimed that he did not fully understand it. (Ibid.) Reading the book, however, inspired him to commit his life to social justice. (Ibid.)
(1) Harlan Beckley, “Reflections on the Life of Monsignor John A. Ryan,” Robert G. Kennedy, Mary Christine Athans, Bernard V. Brady, William C. McDonough, and Michael J. Naughton, editors, Religion and Public Life: The Legacy of Monsignor John A. Ryan. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2001, 7.
Ryan must have received a severe shock when he was eighteen and McGlynn was excommunicated. Ryan would have been discerning his vocation to the priesthood, and McGlynn and McGlynn’s version of social activism may have been something of a model for him. If we believe the account of Eric Goldman in Rendezvous with Destiny (Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Vintage Books, 1956), however, Ryan quickly learned how to mask his philosophical and social heterodoxy.
I wish to point out that in the following account I am only repeating Goldman’s claims, and drawing the obvious inferences. I am inventing nothing. The fact that Goldman clearly admired Ryan, and viewed him as an opponent of Catholic orthodoxy in matters of social thought suggests that he, Goldman, believed that the position of the Catholic Church to be in error, and that Ryan was (and remains) in the right, despite his obvious differences with the Church he represented.
Goldman — and I stress that I am only reporting what Goldman wrote — claimed that Ryan was a champion of social justice reacting against [alleged] Vatican condemnations of progress and scientific truth. As far as I can tell from Goldman’s laudatory account of Ryan’s activities, these were presumably contained in Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors and Pius X’s 1907 Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists. Fitting the latter into the timeframe becomes a little problematical, however, as Ryan published his formative doctoral thesis, A Living Wage, in 1906.
According to Goldman, Ryan spent his career reforming a reactionary Catholic Church and bringing it into the modern age on social issues. (Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny, op. cit., 85.) For his efforts he was allegedly threatened constantly with excommunication: “daily excursions close to excommunication” (ibid., 86) as Goldman put it. Unlike McGlynn, Ryan was supposedly able to avoid application of the ultimate remedy by his skill at political maneuvering and equivocation. (Ibid.)
In addition to George, Goldman claimed that the populist politician Ignatius L. Donnelly influenced Ryan, which may be supposition on Goldman’s part. Donnelly is noted for his inventive and revisionist theories concerning the “antediluvian world” and “high Neolithic civilization” that, in Donnelly’s belief, existed before the Flood,(1) questions regarding whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him,(2) and for authoring some now long-forgotten science fiction novels.(3)
(1) Ignatius Donnelly, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882); Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883).
(2) Ignatius Donnelly, The Shakespeare Myth (1887); The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in Shakespeare’s Plays (1888); The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone (1899).
(3) Ignatius Donnelly (as Edmund Boisgilbert), Caesar’s Column (1890); Doctor Huguet: A Novel (1891); (as Ignatius Donnelly) The Golden Bottle, or, The Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (1892).
Judging solely from Goldman’s account — and keep in mind that he appeared to admire Ryan greatly — there is more than a little that is suspicious in Ryan’s social thought, and much that is directly contrary to Aristotelian-Thomism, the “official” philosophy of the Catholic Church. Applying today’s academic techniques of innuendo and insinuation, and adding a few ad hominem abusive and circumstantial logical fallacies, we have more than enough here to “convict” Ryan of undermining Catholic social teaching and Aristotelian-Thomism, thereby influencing many people’s misunderstanding of Chesterton’s thought and philosophy.
Fortunately, we do not need to rely on such flabby and underhanded faith-based techniques when we have reason on our side — to say nothing of the fact that Chesterton would find it hard to forgive us if we “defended” the Apostle of Common Sense and his social thought using such scurrilous methods. In the next posting in this series, then, we will start to look at the logical flaws and fallacies of Ryan’s social thought, and make our case on the basis of reason and evidence.