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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

G.K. Chesterton v. “Some American Crank”

In the previous posting on this subject, we reviewed the influence of Henry George on the Fabian Society, and the influence of the Fabian Society.  Nor was the Fabian Society the only group influenced by George, and that influenced others, including groups and individuals in the Catholic Church.  More immediate in its effect on understanding of social justice — or, rather, misunderstanding — was the power wielded by Monsignor John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America.


At the height of George’s popularity in the 1880s, John Augustine Ryan, then in his early teens, read Progress and Poverty. (Ryan, Social Doctrine in Action, op. cit., 9.) He also became “much interested in the proposals for economic reform advocated by Donnelly, the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Knights of Labor.”

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly


“Donnelly” was Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, whom Ryan idolized and credited with “exercis[ing] more influence upon [his] political and economic thinking than any other factor.”  (Ibid.)  An attorney, politician, and writer, Donnelly was born a Catholic but became a spiritualist. (Walter Monfried, “The Astonishingly Inconsistent Ignatius Donnelly,” The Milwaukee Journal, August 19, 1974, 10.) A populist who hated William Jennings Bryan — Bryan was opposed to George’s proposals, as he made clear on more than one occasion, although George never ceased trying to gain his endorsement (“Anti-Trust Leaders At Variance Over Watered Stock,” Boston Evening Transcript, February 14, 1900, 4), Donnelly advocated socialism and corresponded with and supported George. (Helen McCann White, Guide to a Microfilm Edition of the Ignatius Donnelly Papers.  St. Paul, Minnesota: The Minnesota Historical Society, 1968, 24.) He has been described as “America’s ‘Prince of Cranks’.” (Walter Monfried, “America’s ‘Prince of Cranks’,” The Milwaukee Journal, May 15, 1953, 8.)

Madame Blavatsky


A primary source for the theosophy of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. New York: The Theosophical Society, 1888, II.221n, II.266n, II.276n, II.333, II.334, II.741n, II.745, II.746n, II.761n, II.782, II.782n, II.786n, II.791, II.792-793.) Donnelly wrote histories of the Antediluvian world dictated by his spirit guide. (Ignatius Donnelly, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882); Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883).) According to Ryan, Donnelly’s science fiction and fantasy novels (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)) contained innovative concepts that were integrated into his political thought. (Ryan, Social Doctrine in Action, op. cit., 15-16.)

G.K. Chesterton


Chesterton alluded to Donnelly as “some American crank” for his Shakespearean cryptogram theory. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.  New York: Image Books, 1955, 206.) His obituary characterized him as ruled “by his imagination more than logic” (“Ignatius Donnelly,” The Toledo Weekly Blade, January 10, 1901, 4) and “though he was a man of great mental powers he was dominated by the erratic and unfounded.” (Ibid.)

Ryan’s own theories, detailed in A Living Wage (1906), Distributive Justice (1916) and other works, expanded George’s theories from land to all forms of capital.  In A Living Wage, he redefined natural law to make it conditional based on faith instead of absolute based on reason. (John A. Ryan, A Living Wage.  New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1906, 48) He borrowed his concept of distributive justice from the American disciples of the French socialist Charles Fourier. (Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019, 82-83.)

Msgr. John A. Ryan


Ryan reinterpreted Rerum Novarum to justify a vast expansion of State power explicitly repudiated in the document itself. (Rerum Novarum, § 7) As historian Eric Frederick Goldman related,

Ryan proceeded to apply the Rerum Novarum in a way scarcely distinguishable from the Reform Darwinists of Protestants and Jews. . . . After Ryan had been hurling the Rerum Novarum at his enemies for years, a reform-minded rabbi achieved a masterpiece of superfluity by saying to the priest: “You have a very great advantage over men in my position. . . . You can hang your ‘radical’ utterances on a papal encyclical.”

“Yes,” I suppose there is something to that,” said Father Ryan, smiling. (Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform.  New York: Vintage Books, 1956, 86.)

Jacob Sechler Coxey, Jr.


Ryan’s social program was similar to that of the populist Jacob Sechler Coxey, Jr., a theosophist.  In 1894, when Ryan was in his mid-twenties, Coxey’s widely publicized Army had marched across the country to demand inflation-financed government assistance during the Great Depression of 1893-1898. (Carlos A. Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey.  Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.)

As analyzed by the solidarist economist Dr. Franz Herman Mueller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., Ryan assumed the whole message of Rerum Novarum was summed up in § 36: “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.”  As Mueller commented,

Msgr. John A. Ryan


Ryan relates that the first time he read Rerum Novarum he was most impressed by the passage in Section 28. [Mueller used another edition of the encyclical with different numbering than the current official Vatican translation.] Actually this passage is a clear statement of the principle of subsidiarity, but at that time Ryan seems to have been fascinated by the pope’s acceptance of State intervention and overlooked the important qualifications made by Leo. . . . Ryan all through his life felt that what governments normally do, and what appears to be practically necessary, may be regarded as belonging to the proper functions of government — a rather pragmatic point of view. (Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, 1984, 96.)

Ryan’s program included minimum wage and maximum hours laws (Monsignor John A. Ryan, “A Program of Social Reform by Legislation,” New York: Catholic World Press, 1909), compulsory arbitration, (Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 104-105.) State employment bureaus (ibid.), and unemployment insurance (ibid.).  Ryan also advocated “State labor colonies” for recalcitrants and hardcore unemployables that “could be of great benefit to certain classes of the unemployed.” (Ryan, “A Program of Social Reform by Legislation,” loc. cit.) Regimentation of the workforce would be accompanied “by gradual nationalization of railroads, power companies, water works, municipal transportation, and telephones.” (Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 105. Ryan’s proposal for industrial armies may have been suggested by Marx, Fourier (Chris Jennings, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism.  New York: Random House, 2016, 240) or Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward (Morris, American Messiahs, op. cit., 166).) Wealth above a predetermined level would be confiscated and redistributed. (Cahill, The Framework of a Christian State, op. cit., 568-569.)

"It ain't Tony Bennett"


The American Bishops’ Program of 1919 contained many of the elements of Ryan’s proposal.  In particular, “The industry in which a man is employed should provide him with all that is necessary to meet all the needs of his entire life.”  (Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 107. Cf. “I would rather see a man employed in private industry. But if he can’t find that kind of a job, the government should give him one.” “Restaurant Union Hears Judge Smith,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 20, 1939, 6.) As Mueller commented, “It is hard to understand why neither Ryan nor the Catholic War Council realized, or so it seems, the ‘corporatist’ [i.e., Fascist] implications of this statement.” (Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 107.)

Franklin D. Roosevelt


Ryan’s chief accomplishment was to make Rerum Novarum mean exactly the opposite of what Leo XIII had intended.  Further, just as the post-World War II era brought the Fabians to power in England, Ryan’s preeminence in the United States ensured that his interpretation of Catholic social teaching would be regarded as authoritative and authentic.  As Mueller observed,

Perhaps the only nation in which the Catholic social movement — and a “movement” it now was — could continue to operate with almost undiminished vigor was the United States.  Under the leadership of John A. Ryan social Catholicism in this country enjoyed during the depression something approaching official recognition. . . . Ryan rose, in a manner, to be the architect of social legislation in this country, enjoying the special confidence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Ibid., 117-118.)

David Émile Durkheim


Although he does not appear to have been influenced directly by Henry George, the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim profoundly influenced modernism and today’s popular understanding of religion.  A disciple of Saint-Simon (Julian Strube, “Socialist Religion and the Emergence of Occultism,” Religion, 2016, 46:3, 264.), Durkheim is credited with the first scientific treatment of solidarism, a term he applied to a fascist and socialist — “entirely positivist” (Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, 413.) — form of corporatism.

Durkheim presented his religious theories in Les Forms Élémentaires de la Vie Religieuse (1912), “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.” (Allen & Unwin in London and Macmillan and Co. in New York published the first English edition simultaneously in 1915.) Fulton Sheen characterized Durkheim’s view of God as “a divinized society.” (Fulton J. Sheen, Religion Without God.  New York: Garden City Books, 1954, 54.) As Joseph Alois Schumpeter put it, for Durkheim, “religion is the group’s worship of itself.” (Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis, op. cit., 794.)  This is a logical conclusion drawn from Durkheim’s belief that religion is a social, rather than a spiritual phenomenon.