In Search of the Common Good
The Catholic roots of American Liberalism
May 1, 2007
34 Min read time
When the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress in 2002, the view that “values matter,” once marginal in Democratic circles, suddenly became the talk of the town. To be sure, some analysts continued to argue that the Democrats had plenty of good policy ideas and simply required a better campaign strategy and effective policymaking once in office. But a new conversation had started, beginning from the premise that Democratic success depended on reclaiming the moral high ground.
John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, assumed by many to be the product of perceived Democratic deficiencies in “moral values,” gave this conversation renewed energy. And while some in the “new values” camp pointed to the importance of a specifically religious morality, others urged the Democrats to focus on a secular but morally demanding vision of the common good. In spring 2006 Michael Tomasky argued in The American Prospect that the Democratic Party should restore the idea of the “common good” to its proper place at the core of the party’s political identity. This argument provoked a widespread debate, and the term is now increasingly visible in the liberal apparatus of bloggers, think tanks, and even consulting groups.
The idea of the common good is the right place to start, but it is not well understood. More often than not it is used as a decorative term, a sound bite. Consider even Tomasky’s description: the liberalism of the Democratic Party, brought to power by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and upheld for three decades thereafter, “was built around the idea—the philosophical principle—that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.” As a definition of the common-good tradition, this is uncontroversial if somewhat redundant. Probing further, however, he describes the common good as the “moral basis of liberal governance—not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity.” The contrast he ultimately makes here, separating the common good from concepts of justice, equality, and rights, is jarring, and the argument loses its bearing. In what seems a throwaway line, it becomes clear why. The common good, he claims, is a matter of “faith” rather than ideology—but “not religious faith.” It’s about “faith in America and its potential to do good.”
The common good of New Deal liberalism was certainly about faith in America and its potential to do good, but so was, for example, Roosevelt’s predecessor Herbert Hoover’s common good, which, Hoover said, “penetrates and profoundly modifies all the forces in the modern world in which we live.” What distinguished Roosevelt was his “deep conviction,” as he said during his fiery 1936 campaign, “that democracy cannot live without that true religion which gives a nation a sense of justice and of moral purpose.” The major religious bodies stood behind him in this, despite his own rather indifferent religious life (he was a nominal Episcopalian). Roosevelt’s seemingly casual faith was not, in fact, a reliable indicator of what his followers felt or understood about the New Deal and its mission. No president who preceded him in the 20th century had so religious a following, or anything close to it. And none had so much support from religious leaders and particularly from Catholic thinkers.
Today we are so inured to the opposite problem of religious fundamentalism in the White House that the New Deal looks positively secular by comparison, but that was not how contemporary interpreters saw it. The Catholic press had little doubt that the New Deal’s vision of social justice was rooted in Christian thought. As Commonweal magazine urged readers to recognize, Roosevelt’s triumph in 1932 was “likewise the Catholic opportunity to make the teachings of Christ apply to the benefit of all.” The Christian journalist and editor Stanley Hoflund High, who organized the interdenominational Good Neighbor League to mobilize religious support for Roosevelt in 1936, similarly argued that “the fundamental objective of what we call the New Deal is religious.” This is the first time in modern history, he stated, “when a Government in any nation has set out to give practical application to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”
At a minimum it should be clear that the common good of New Deal liberalism involved much more than the bland commitment to self-sacrifice proposed by Tomasky. Indeed, it was in many ways a product of extraordinary developments in religious thought (if not “religious faith”). We cannot ignore or deny the religious roots of that ideal if we want a revival of the common good to motivate significant changes today.
The four decades surrounding World War I fundamentally altered the American balance of power, property and rights. Only a small minority had power, property, and effective rights at the turn of the 20th century, when the great “social question” of “poverty amid plenty” erupted into history. The dominant ideology of the Gilded Age—a concoction of laissez-faire economic theory, self-help mythology, and the mystique of constitutional law—was ruptured by new popular perspectives relying heavily on religious thought.
In the dominant view, the market was a system that distributed goods and services and allocated rewards by the laws of supply and demand, guaranteeing “natural” results according to the value of contributions; labor was a voluntary exchange, free of physical or political coercion. These assumptions about labor relations were subsumed in a constitutional framework of freedom, under the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment. Lochner v. New York, a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court decision throwing out a New York state law setting maximum hours for bakers, was the watershed case: to regulate work hours violated the employer’s constitutional right to set contractual terms as a party to a “free exchange.”
As the legal historian Morton Horwitz has argued, in the background of the new constitutional “freedom of contract” lay a corresponding shift in natural-law reasoning: by the late 19th century, the traditional “communitarian” thrust of Christian natural law had been completely supplanted by theories of individual “natural right” attached to private property and the prerogatives of business corporations. As we will see, this was not the final word on natural law and the economy; developments in Catholic thought, particularly, would challenge laissez-faire constitutionalism and natural rights alongside the better known theories of Progressivism.
Progressive theorists after Lochner exposed the abstract legal edifice protecting business as a circular, self-justifying myth. At the heart of their analysis was the issue of coercion; disparities of power—such as unequal bargaining power and the exclusionary power conferred by property rights—empty contractual “freedom” of any substantive meaning. Shielding private power behind freedom of contract, thus, was no different than leaving individuals unprotected from the power of the state.
These progressive ideas set the stage for new legislative powers in the private economy. Yet how these new powers of intervention should be used—for what purpose and for whose benefit and correction—evolved in another story. It was, significantly, a religious story; and most surprising of all, the Catholic Church, an embattled minority faith with a long history of passive neglect on social problems, emerged as the major protagonist. And the weapon it carried into battle was the “common good.”
One key part of the story of the Catholic Church and the New Deal was the dramatic exodus of urban Catholic voters from the Republican Party that began in 1928 behind Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate on a major-party ticket. The trend was enlarged and consolidated by Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. Another factor, less well known, was the extraordinary maturation of Catholic thought in this period, beginning with the late 19th-century pontificate of Leo XIII. American Catholic thinkers influenced by Leo (and themselves increasingly influential within American Catholic institutions) emerged as a distinctive presence in public life in the decade before World War I. This intellectual trend was part of a broader evolution of Catholic communities along two distinct but related paths: gaining acceptance within a majority Protestant culture; and embracing government action on the basis of Catholic social teachings.
Catholic support for McKinley-era Republicanism at the turn of the 20th century was a relatively brief (and somewhat inconsistent) interlude between two great eras of Catholic allegiance to the Democratic Party shaped by immigration patterns and religious identity. Coming in large numbers from Ireland and Germany in the 1840s and 50s, and in subsequent waves from Southern and Eastern Europe by the end of the century, Catholics were loyal supporters of the Democratic Party from the Jacksonian era through most of the Gilded Age. Like the Southern bloc of the Democratic Party, they feared losing their culture and way of life at the hands of the “big-government” Whigs and Republicans, with their culturally dominant Protestant churches.
Strong religious identity (often with strong ethnic divisions within confessions as well) was politically segmented in the 19th century in a way that is hard to appreciate today. The basic division was between the “pietists” and the “liturgicals.” Pietists were the evangelicals of their day, based mainly in the British-derived churches of the Northeast and their pioneer mission plantings in the Midwest—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Northern Baptists, and Quakers. Culturally and religiously dominant, pietist voters were reliably Whig and Republican in the 19th century. Spurred by spreading revivalism in the 1830s, the pietistic churches pursued social reform as a method of saving souls. They promoted coercive regulations such as temperance and Sabbath laws (while also fighting slavery and defending workers in more radical circles). But by removing liquor and other carnal obstacles to personal salvation, they also sought to absorb the “ravellings from the Old World” into the dominant Protestant culture. Their main targets were Irish and German Catholic immigrants, as well as German Lutherans: the so-called “liturgicals.”
The liturgicals were ritualistic and creedal, placing responsibility for salvation in the doctrinal and sacramental ordering of the church. For the German liturgicals, stopping at a beer garden after church on Sunday posed no threat to salvation—what biblical commandment or church ordinance did it violate? Pietistic regulation of such things was viewed as fanatical and oppressive. The regulations, along with the Republican Party’s nativist elements and sweeping anti-Catholic bias in the drive for common schools, kept most liturgicals, Catholic and Lutheran, solidly behind the Democratic Party from the 1830s on. As newer Catholic immigrants streamed into Eastern cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and as Northeastern Protestants inspired by revivalism moved west to establish new churches and settlements in areas populated by older-stock immigrants, mainly German (Catholic and Lutheran), the religious contours of party politics became more defined.
The regular pattern changed dramatically in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for president on a fusion ballot endorsed by the Populists. Bryan’s pietistic biblical oratory, the Democratic platform’s inflationary silver plank, the prohibitionism of many of Bryan’s Populist followers (although not of his own campaign), and his opponent William McKinley’s refusal of support from the anti-Catholic American Protective Association helped create unprecedented fractures in the liturgical-Democratic alliance. The McKinley campaign carefully and successfully exploited them. Campaign chief Mark Hanna’s legendary winning strategy was partly built around swinging urban laborers in heavily Catholic Midwestern and Northeastern cities into the Republican column. McKinley’s working-class background (his father worked furnaces) and his rather non-pietistic Methodism deflated fears among the liturgical blocs, particularly German Catholics and Lutherans. The shift in 1896 (by as much as 20 points for Catholics by some estimates) was news back then, as one German-American paper (cited in Kevin Phillips’s book William McKinley) made clear:
[The German voters] have many complaints against the Republican party, which. . . sought to combat the influence of Germans in every way, and annoyed them continually with Prohibition laws, Sunday closing laws and school laws. The Germans consequently turned their backs on the Republicans . . . and if the Democrats had not inscribed repudiation, bankruptcy and dishonor on their colors as a result of the union with the Populists, the Germans would have supported them this time also.
Bryan failed to hold for the Democrats in 1896 some heavily Catholic states including Wisconsin, Illinois, California, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut.
One Midwestern Catholic who did note vote for McKinley in 1896 was John A. Ryan, the man who would lead the Catholic Church into the Progressive Age and the New Deal coalition. Ryan was born into a large Irish farming family in Vermillion, Minnesota. His interest in economic issues was ignited when he read the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator at age 11, and then Henry George’s worldwide bestseller on land reform, Progress and Poverty. In 1892, as a seminary student in St. Paul, Ryan cast his first presidential vote for James Weaver, the candidate of the People’s Party. Among the attractions of populism for an Irish farm boy from Minnesota was the heroic Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota congressman from Nininger (a few miles from Vermillion), and one of the few Catholic leaders of the populist movement (later to embrace spiritualism). Donnelly wrote the famous Preamble to the People’s Party national platform of 1892, which included a statement that expressed Ryan’s own developing point of view: “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.” When Ryan read Leo XIII’s groundbreaking “labor encyclical,” Rerum Novarum, shortly thereafter (it was issued in 1891), the die was cast for Ryan’s life’s work of melding Catholic moral theology and social thought with American progressivism.
Ryan received his Holy Orders for the priesthood from John Ireland, Archbishop of St. Paul, whose lament in 1889 at Catholic silence on the “social question” had inspired Ryan along with his other readings. (“What has come over us that we shun the work which is essentially ours to do? These are days of action, days of warfare . . . Into the arena, priest and layman! Seek out social evils, and lead in movements that tend to rectify them,” Ireland declared.)
Although Ryan ardently supported William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (and witnessed his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago), the mainstream of the Catholic Church, increasingly urban and industrial, was cautious if not fearful of the radical agrarian grievances at the core of Bryan’s support. It therefore remained caught between a Democratic Party now controlled by Bryanist populism, with its strong Protestant identity, and a Republican Party seemingly more tolerant (for a change) and sympathetic to urban immigrant workers, but essentially wedded to laissez faire. Faced with resurgent nativism as well, the Church’s transitional political identity at the end of the 19th century left its social mission in disarray—“confused, ineffective, and devoid of passion and intellectual depth,” as the historian Joseph M. McShane writes in his book “Sufficiently Radical”: Catholicism, Progressivism, and the Bishops’ Program of 1919.
In Ryan’s first magazine article—a 1900 Catholic World review of Henry Demarest Lloyd’s A Country Without Strikes, a book on New Zealand’s 1894 compulsory labor arbitration law—Ryan formulates a defense of “state interference with freedom of contract,” anticipating the arguments of progressive legal theory. At the time there was a more radical labor critique that rejected not only unequal bargaining power but the commodification of labor itself, often focused on John Locke’s idea of labor as an extension of the self.
But Catholic social teaching, beginning with Rerum Novarum, did not view the wage contract as intrinsically evil. In the Leonine approach developed by Ryan, what was important was the natural right of the worker, not as defined by Lockean labor theory but understood as the “moral means or opportunities by which the individual attains the end appointed him by nature.” This end, as Ryan stated in his first book, A Living Wage (1906), is a “right and reasonable life,” meaning a life consistent with the moral worth of the person as measured by his intrinsic and equally given (God-given) faculties of reason, self-improvement, and love of God.
Ryan regarded the wage system skeptically—even despairingly—for its separation of workers from the productive resources that could best secure prosperity for themselves and their families. Leo XIII believed workers need to be restored to ownership of productive wealth in some form, and both Ryan and Pope Pius XI, Leo’s great intellectual successor, strongly supported strategies to give workers a stake in the appreciating wealth of industry. But they did not draw a line against wage labor in principle. Instead they argued, as Ryan put it, that “human needs constitute the primary ethical title or claim to material goods.” This standard cannot be applied “to all possible human needs,” but to those basic needs the satisfaction of which safeguards a reasonable life as measured by the faculties of self-improvement that all human beings share (making them equal in their right of basic sustenance). So defined, “the validity of needs as a partial rule of wage justice” rests ultimately on the foundational principle that “God created the earth for the sustenance of all His children; therefore, that all persons are equal in their inherent claims upon the bounty of nature.” The subsistence wage of modern business theory did not meet this standard. Only a living wage met this standard, supporting the person, not just the labor; supporting the person in his faculties of self-development, not just in his service to capital.
In his major ethical work Distributive Justice (1916), Ryan argued that when a worker “accepts a wage insufficient for his needs under the compulsion of avoiding the worse evil of starvation,” his contract is “no more free than the contract by which the helpless wayfarer gives up his purse to escape the pistol of the robber . . . Like the wayfarer, he merely submits to superior force. The fact that the force imposed on him is economic does not affect the morality of the transaction.”
Ryan’s growing influence reflected a broader shift in Catholic teaching, reaching from Leo XIII to the more radical views of Pius XI. At the heart of this shift was an evolution in Catholic natural-law thinking, a tradition revived in the wake of the French Revolution. Essentially, Catholic natural-law thinking was pushed beyond a conventional focus on political liberalism (with its “tyrannical” governmental encroachments on religious institutions and authority) toward a more communitarian critique of the economic domination at the core of the liberal state. Drawing on this deeper intellectual transformation, Ryan constructed an explicit moral defense of state intervention in the economy, as well as a specific legislative framework in support of workers and their families—one that, in many respects, would ultimately be ratified under the New Deal.
At the center of the natural-law revival that fueled Ryan’s thinking stood the great 13th-century moral theologian Thomas Aquinas. Thomas had defined natural law as “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,” the eternal law being God’s law as it directs the whole universe to its appointed end. As applied to political order, Thomistic natural law is the grounding or set of principles that orient human laws to what is right and good. Thomas said that the fundamental objective of natural law is that the good be done, and evil avoided. Thus, the law of a people is “nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community.” The fundamental orientation of natural law in the construction of human law is the preservation of life, out of love for God’s creation and out of the unique responsibility God gave us regarding its care.
In its economic dimensions, this approach is guided by the biblical understanding that God gave the earth to all human beings in common. The law codes of the Hebrew Bible, defended by the prophets, established a comprehensive system of economic security and restoration based on the principle of the earth being a common gift. This included provisions for the control and remission of debt, the release of slaves, and the periodic return of alienated lands in order to restore family stability and prevent concentrated wealth. Thomas viewed the latter policy of the “Old Law” as especially significant and compared it favorably with Aristotle’s views of property. For Thomas, private property was notably an integral feature of the common good, but it had a twofold nature of private possession and common use. “Man may fully possess [material goods] as his own.” But “as regard their use . . . a man ought not to look upon them as his own, but as common, so that he may readily minister to the needs of others.”
In Catholic thought, these mandates are encapsulated by a principle termed “the universal destination of goods,” which is deemed “primordial” in the church’s Catechism. Leo XIII established the modern template for Catholic teaching from this principle in Rerum Novarum. Although seemingly a bold departure from the dominant laissez-faire ethos of the period, the interventionist thrust of Rerum Novarum was in fact deeply rooted in Catholic thought. The 16th-century Jesuit philosopher Francisco Suárez argued plainly, for example, that “the object of civil legislation is the natural welfare of the community and of its individual members, in order that they may live in peace and justice, with a sufficiency of those goods that are necessary for physical conservation and comfort, and with those moral conditions which are required for private well-being and public prosperity.”
While Leo vigorously condemned political liberalism for its philosophical individualism and its vesting of sovereignty in the people or its representatives rather than God, it is important to understand how Catholic thought in this period, as noted earlier, became increasingly concerned with economic liberalism (more consistently so than today’s “communitarian” critics of liberalism). As Ryan’s work illustrates, in the wake of Rerum Novarum, with its defense of “isolated and helpless” workers against the “hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition,” the dangers of economic liberalism, anchored in the unencumbered reign of “freedom of contract,” became much more pronounced in Catholic teaching.
On the path opened up by Ryan’s ethical works, the decisive turning point for Catholic progressivism in the United States came in 1919, with the release of the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, written by Ryan himself. Here, the “American Catholic search for social justice” truly began, writes McShane, growing out of earlier institutional efforts to mobilize support behind the U.S. entry into World War I.
The National Catholic War Council had been formed in 1917, and when the Council received accreditation as an official government war agency in 1918, many Catholics began to see the importance of having a national organization to represent their views in the corridors of power. There was a growing sense that Catholic teaching was convergent with American ideals, and, even as President Wilson signed the armistice ending the war, conversations had begun about how to continue the work of the war council in another form.
The Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction was released on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1919. As McShane stresses, this connection was meant to align the new age of social reconstruction with the spirit of the great emancipator. The program contained a set of immediate reforms, including the establishment of a legal minimum wage, public housing for workers, labor participation in industrial management, and social insurance for illness, disability, unemployment, and old age, funded by a levy on industry. It also contained a set of “fundamental” reforms for the future, including worker ownership of capital, universal living wages, and abolition and control of monopolies. Citing Leo XIII’s view that “society can be healed in no other way than by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions,” the Program ended with a strong admonition to the "capitalist":
He needs to learn the long-forgotten truth that wealth is stewardship, that profit-making is not the basic justification of business enterprise, and that there are such things as fair profits, fair interest and fair prices. Above and before all, he must cultivate and strengthen within his mind the truth which many of his class have begun to grasp for the first time during the present war; namely, that the laborer is a human being, not merely an instrument of production; and that the laborer’s right to a decent livelihood is the first moral charge upon industry. The employer has a right to get a reasonable living out of his business, but he has no right to interest on his investment until his employees have obtained at least living wages. This is the human and Christian, in contrast to the purely commercial and pagan, ethics of industry.
As McShane notes, conservative bishops did not publicly voice their dissent when the program was released; it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Catholic progressives had captured the church and “charted a new course for her.” The program (and its widespread promotion) was the most important official act of the American Church in its history to that point, and in the years to come it would remain a major touchstone both in the development of social policy and in the rebirth of Catholic loyalty to the Democratic Party in the pivotal years of 1928–1936.
As author of the Bishops’ Program, Ryan recounted his “great comfort” when, on May 15, 1931, he listened to a radio transmission of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in the offices of The New York Times. His long effort to integrate Leonine natural-law teaching with concrete social policy had been “vindicated,” as one colleague put it. That summer he published a commentary on Quadragesimo Anno in the American Ecclesiastical Review, highlighting its important contributions. Among the most important was the idea that the distribution of income and wealth “must be brought into conformity with the demands of the common good and social justice”; that the worker has a right to a wage of “ample sufficiency” for himself and his family (what was called a “family wage” in social policy of the 1920s, something widely debated in Europe); and that the worker has a right to accumulate a “modest fortune” by sharing ownership of capital with employers.
Quadragesimo Anno (issued in the “fortieth year” after Rerum Novarum) was subtitled “On Reconstruction of the Social Order.” It was arguably the most radical and controversial church-wide statement in all of Catholic history to that point and the political culmination of the natural-law revival in Catholic thought that began under Leo XIII. As Pius XI explained, Rerum Novarum “completely overthrew” the tenets of economic liberalism, “which had long hampered effective interference by the government,” and had a galvanizing effect on Catholic social reform:
Rerum Novarum . . . prevailed upon the peoples themselves to develop their social policy more intensely and on truer lines, and encouraged the elite among Catholics to give such efficacious help and assistance to rulers of the state that in legislative assemblies they were not infrequently the foremost advocates of the new policy. Furthermore, not a few recent laws dealing with social questions were originally proposed to the suffrages of the people’s representatives by ecclesiastics thoroughly imbued with Leo’s teaching, who afterwards with watchful care promoted and fostered their execution. . . . As a result of these steady and tireless efforts, there has arisen a new branch of jurisprudence unknown to earlier times, whose aim is the energetic defense of those sacred rights of the workingman which proceed from his dignity as a man and as a Christian.
Most controversially, Quadragesimo Anno proposed (in a section specifically designated “Reconstruction of the Social Order”) the establishment of a corporatist industrial order built around occupational councils comprising industry, labor, and government representatives. Charged with negotiating fair wages, hours, prices, and business practices, the councils would replace pure market forces with mandatory bargaining. This was to “bind men together not according to the position which they occupy in the labor market but according to the diverse functions which they exercise in society.”
The development of Catholic thought over the decades before Quadragesimo Anno was dramatic. As Ryan later wrote, the Leonine interpretation of the rights of labor, “as demanding a living wage regardless of free contract, or the law of supply and demand, or any other false philosophy has proved the most revolutionary idea that has been injected into modern economic life.”
The radicalization of Catholic thought in the early decades of the 20th century converged closely with Bryanism’s attack on concentrated economic power (indeed, explicitly so in Ryan’s case), and it also shared with the Settlement House movement and other social-reform movements a focus on winning practical legislation to protect workers and their families. Yet without the transcendental perspective of Catholic teaching, the natural-right defense of business domination would not have been so dramatically weakened during the Progressive Age, as Franklin D. Roosevelt would implicitly acknowledge in an important speech toward the end of his first presidential campaign.
In October 1932 Roosevelt went to Detroit to give a speech sponsored by a key Catholic ally, Mayor Frank Murphy. The speech was titled, “The Philosophy of Social Justice through Social Action.” True to the title, Roosevelt happily ignored politics, focusing instead on the “fundamentals that antedate parties, and antedate republics and empires.” In the culmination of the speech, Roosevelt called for “social justice, through social action,” and quoted at length from the source of this idea, Quadragesimo Anno:
It is patent in our days that not alone is wealth accumulated, but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few, and that those few are frequently not the owners but only the trustees and directors of invested funds which they administer at their good pleasure . . . This accumulation of power, the characteristic note of the modern economic order, is a natural result of limitless free competition, which permits the survival of those only who are the strongest, which often means those who fight most relentlessly, who pay least heed to the dictates of conscience . . . This concentration of power has led to a three-fold struggle for domination: First, there is the struggle for dictatorship in the economic sphere itself; then the fierce battle to acquire control of the Government, so that its resources and authority may be abused in the economic struggle, and, finally, the clash between the Governments themselves.
After Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, Catholic institutions mobilized what The New York Times called a “crusade for social justice.” The National Catholic Alumni Federation held regional conferences to promote a radical transformation of the capitalist system, based on the tenets of Leo XIII and Pius XI. “The immediate goal of the crusade,” said the Times, “is the education of industrialists and workmen to the realization that capitalism, in its present form, ‘has failed and must continue to fail.’” Ryan, who was a prominent speaker at one of the regional conferences (held at Fordham University), argued at the time that an “occupational group system,” creating a new balance of power between capital and labor, could spur a recovery from the Great Depression in some sectors of the economy. In Roosevelt’s first major New Deal program, under the National Industrial Recovery Act, Ryan saw a partial embodiment of the corporative vision put forward by Pius XI. Title I of the act created government powers to establish and enforce sectoral business codes for setting wages, hours, bargaining rules, and fair business practices (the act was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1935). Ryan was appointed to a three-person advisory panel of the National Recovery Administration, the agency that implemented the law, and he was subsequently a fixture in other counsels of the New Deal, serving on numerous committees and also publicly defending Roosevelt on many fronts. After watching the Supreme Court throw out labor reforms for three decades, Ryan defended the “court-packing” plan of 1937 in Commonweal. Then, famously, in a national radio speech late in the 1936 presidential campaign, he defended the president against charges of communism issuing from the Union Party campaign of William Lemke. The populist radio priest Charles Coughlin formed the Union Party to challenge Roosevelt in 1936, and it was feared that he would succeed in his goal of engineering a massive diversion of Catholic votes from the Democratic ticket, throwing the election to the Republican Alf Landon. Although reluctant at first to make the speech, Ryan later said it was “one of the most effective and beneficial acts that I have ever performed in the interest of my religion and my country.”
Ryan gave the invocation at Roosevelt’s second inauguration in 1937, the first time that honor was given to a Catholic priest. And in April 1939 he was formally honored on the occasion of his 70th birthday (and his retirement from the Catholic University in Washington) with a banquet at the Willard Hotel attended by 600 people, including members of Roosevelt’s cabinet, several Supreme Court justices, and dozens of members of the House and Senate. Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins toasted Ryan eloquently on his contributions to the New Deal:
We have still not caught up with Father Ryan’s thinking, . . . but we are coming closer to it. Only lately has business begun to realize that economic policies are subject to ethics, and that a moral obligation to pay a good wage falls on the employer of labor as a consequence of his position of power over the fruits of the earth . . . There is no greater tribute I can give his persistent influence on American thought and action than to quote his own words. “Never before in our history,” he says, “have Government policies been so deliberately and consciously based on the conception of moral right and social justice.”
President Roosevelt sent a message to the banquet: “With voice and pen, you have pleaded the cause of social justice and the right of the individual to happiness through economic security, a living wage, and an opportunity to share in the things that enrich and ennoble human life.” Here was a rough draft of the famous “Second Bill of Rights” he would propose five years later in his State of the Union Address.
Catholic social teaching had revolutionized the moral landscape of capitalism, not only by reinforcing the progressive critique of laissez-faire constitutionalism but, more importantly, by stealing the thunder of higher-law reasoning and restoring its communal roots. It was a turning point that made the welfare state morally necessary and, because of that, politically possible.
The contrast Tomasky seems to draw between the common good and today’s more familiar discourse of “justice, equality, and rights” only makes sense—and ultimately does make sense—because his “justice, equality, and rights” refer to the liberal social agenda of the 1960s, which, in fact, he believes we must transcend. Crucially, however, he obscures what actually happened to the common good in that era. Sexual freedom, extreme secularism, and other agendas of the new social liberalism did not merely replace the common good as a normative framework. It shifted the whole framework of rights from the worker and his family and community, viewed as something in need of protection, to the detached individual of liberal philosophy, regardless of economic position or need. Essentially, the common good was supplanted by individual liberation, and what remained of it in public discourse was little more than empty rhetoric (think “compassionate conservatism”).
New Deal liberalism’s common-good ideal gave workers and their families a new (yet very old) moral ground for claiming resources and power necessary for their self-preservation. In fact, the primary objective listed in the Democratic platform of 1936 was “The Protection of the Family and the Home,” in defense of which it specified, “We shall continue to use the powers of government to end the activities of the malefactors of great wealth who defraud and exploit the people.” As the historian Allan Carlson emphasizes in his book The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity, New Deal social-assistance programs such as Aid to Dependent Children were designed to “reconstruct” the home or, as the Roosevelt appointee Grace Abbott testified, “to give some security in the home.” The Home Owners Loan Act of 1933 provided over one million long-term, low-interest loans to prevent foreclosures. The 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act, which created dependent and survivor benefits, were particularly emblematic of this philosophy, extending the policy focus from the individual worker to “the economic security of the family unit.”
The individualistic social liberalism that came to dominate decades later clearly weakened, and in some ways fundamentally attacked, the familial and communal understanding of rights that shaped New Deal social policy. The protection of the family and the home from economic tyranny was no longer a certain or even desirable policy objective in an era of individual liberation marshaled against the traditional culture of family and community. Not coincidentally, as the common good disappeared from the discourse of rights in the 1960s, big business re-established its dominance in American politics, and families and communities received no new protection from the government even as older protections came under attack. The family living wage paid by a substantial majority of U.S. businesses literally vanished from the country by the late 1970s. Although many mothers initially went into the work force willingly and happily, in search of more variety and accomplishment in their lives, today a majority of working mothers do not view employment positively. According to survey data reported by Public Agenda in 2000, 80 percent of mothers would prefer to stay at home with their children if they could. Of course, the profound lack of employer and government support for working mothers in the United States contributes to this attitude; how much so is a central point of contention between conservatives and feminists. Clearly, however, many working mothers take jobs out of necessity, not choice, and to ignore this coercive reality, as both conservatives and feminists generally do, is morally incoherent at best in a country boasting high regard for “family values.” The problem is ultimately a question of wage distribution within the private economy—something no American government has challenged or even seriously contemplated since the early days of the New Deal.
The resulting extraordinary changes in family life have gone almost completely unaccounted for in American economic policy. Instead of helping families, government power helped big business extort more hours for less pay and less security, and it did so without any interference from the discourse of rights. Indeed, the much remarked political convergence of corporate power and religious backlash in the 1980s was arguably a collateral result of social liberalism’s diminishment of the common good, exposing the religious roots of this ideal in a distorted way. Reviving a secular version of the common good does not make it a strong defense. It will not guide us from chaos to community.
The common good commands objective change in the balance of economic power. It is not a unifying force but one that divides right from wrong by a unifying standard. It is a faith with poor friends and wealthy enemies. To deny responsibility for the common good, asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” is the same thing as murder, the Bible teaches. In medieval Christianity, “ordering what is personal to what is common” is the beginning of justice, and the tyrant, simply, is one who destroys the common good for private gain. For Roosevelt, it was necessary to wage a “struggle for the liberty of the community rather than the liberty of the individual.” Martin Luther King Jr. described a “single garment of destiny,” by which “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Freedom came not from autonomy or anarchy but from one’s membership and birthright in the “beloved community.”
Within the last 30 years, the struggle between the common good and competing principles of property right and economic efficiency was enjoined again, by a resurgent ruling class. While they cannot succeed in returning to the good old days of laissez-faire constitutionalism, they have succeeded in stalling and, in some respects, rolling back the legislative progress secured in the 1930s.
Catholic teaching recognized the evil that arose from releasing individuals from the moral law. In the background to the New Deal, its whole thrust was to replenish that moral law in binding force against destructive economic power. Father Ryan inscribed this in our public history when he dedicated the new building of the Department of Labor in 1935, beseeching public authorities to fulfill their solemn obligation to the common good, so that God’s justice will “dominate and permeate all the relations of industry and labor.” In King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the moral evil of segregation aborted the same natural law. It was aborted again as the spirit of Lochner was reborn in the Reagan-Bush era. Ryan and King and the millions they helped had little doubt of what was at stake. Has abandoning their faith profited justice in the decades since?
May 01, 2007
34 Min read time