THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

John A. Ryan v. Aquinas

In the previous posting on this subject, we looked at the different roles of faith and reason.  To oversimplify somewhat, reason takes first place in matters pertaining to the natural world, while faith takes first place in matters pertaining to the supernatural world.  At the same time, neither faith nor reason can contradict one another.


Rather, faith and reason fulfil and complete one another.  Thus, when justice (or any of the other natural virtues) is insufficient, charity (or faith or hope) steps in and provides what is lacking.

Note, however, that this does not mean that faith, hope, or charity replace or substitute for any of the temporal or natural virtues.  That is the error of moral relativism applied to a philosophical issue and inserting spiritual matters illegitimately into the natural order.  Msgr. Ronald Knox called this “enthusiasm” or “ultrasupernaturalism,” while others give it the rather confusing and misleading name of “modernism.”  There is nothing “modern” about it, as the tendency to force your personal beliefs on others “for their own good” has been around since the dawn of time.

Msgr. Ronald Knox


Our concern today, however, is how this tendency to mix the natural world and the supernatural world in some very unnatural ways distorts, even destroys the whole idea of social and economic justice.  Specifically, we refer to the mistaken ideas that “social justice” means substituting distribution based on need instead of reform of institutions to enable individual justice and charity to function, and that “economic justice” means distribution based on need instead of equality of opportunity and access to the means to participate in economic life.

Interestingly, both these misconceptions have been labeled “distributive justice,” although it has nothing in common with the classical understanding of the term, which refers to an equality of “proportionality.”  That is, anyone who contributes 10% of the value to some endeavor receives 10% of the gain or suffers 10% of the loss.

Msgr. John A. Ryan


How did this confusion appear?  We have traced it to the work of Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America, whose two best-known works, A Living Wage (1906), his doctoral thesis, and Distributive Justice (1916), which he considered his magnum opus, took extreme liberties with classical philosophical concepts, especially as they related to natural law and the primacy of reason in natural matters.

Ryan is thereby probably best known for his efforts in linking Catholic social teaching to the socialist concept of the “living wage” as the primary or even sole legitimate source of income for most people.  He is also renowned for his presumed development of doctrine that equated social justice and distributive justice, changing the understanding of the latter from that of classical Aristotelian-Thomism, to that of socialism.  His theories were based solidly on the modernist principle that natural rights are alienable, being vested not in the human person, but in the collective.  As he declared,

Natural rights are necessary means of right and reasonable living.  They are essential to the welfare of a human being, a person.  They exist and are sacred and inviolable because the welfare of the person exists — as a fact of the ideal order — and is a sacred and inviolable thing. (John A. Ryan, A Living Wage.  New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1906, 48.)

Aside from his Platonism and adherence to “the ideal order” in preference to concrete reality, Ryan’s fundamental error is therefore his claim that “[n]atural rights. . . . exist and are sacred and inviolable because the welfare of the person exists.”

Abp. John Ireland


On the contrary!  Natural rights exist and are sacred and inviolable because the human person exists, not because the welfare of the human person exists.  Human existence is objective fact.  Human welfare is subjective opinion.

Interestingly, Ryan asserted that Archbishop John Ireland endorsed his theories.  As Ryan — the sole source of this claim, published twenty-two years after Ireland’s death — stated in his autobiography,

Soon after my first book, A Living Wage, was published (1906), Archbishop Ireland informed me that he had not only seen the volume but had read it all.  “I assure you,” he said, “I do not examine many books so thoroughly.  I disagree with some of the positions that you take but not with many of them.”  Inasmuch as A Living Wage was not then regarded as excessively conservative, the Archbishop’s evaluation was very significant; it reflected his fundamental liberalism and progressivism. (Rt. Rev. Msgr. John A. Ryan, D.D., L.L.D., Litt.D., Social Doctrine in Action: A Personal History.  New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1941, 27.)

James Cardinal Gibbons


Assuming Ryan’s account is accurate, and given Ireland’s support for expanded capital ownership and the natural right to private property (James P. Shannon, “Archbishop Ireland’s Connemara Experiment,” Minnesota History, March 1957, 205-213), why did the archbishop fail to realize that Ryan’s theories were modernist?  For the simple reason that Ireland, along with James Cardinal Gibbons, was on record as claiming in the strongest possible terms that modernism was not a problem in the United States.  Even if Ryan had not disguised his modernism with great subtlety, making his theories appear orthodox except on very close examination, Ireland was not prepared to see something he had already declared did not exist.

Where A Living Wage transformed what it means for something to be true in Catholic social teaching by changing the basis of the natural law from reason to faith, Distributive Justice applied the principle of mutable truth to the virtue of justice.

In Distributive Justice, Ryan ignored commutative justice, the justice that governs equality of exchange (the law of contracts), that is, “equality of quantity.” (IIa IIae, q. 61, a. 2.) Significantly, all forms of justice presuppose the validity of commutative justice; (Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1807.) “Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible.” (Ibid., § 2411.)

Then there’s the problem of what Ryan did to the term “distributive justice,” which we will look at in the next posting on this subject.