Chapter 9


       One would be inclined to say, at least by way of generalization, that the Irish in America, including the Irish in Cleveland, were often very close to many forms of radicalism between 1845 and 1933. The fact that this radicalism never became a full blown social and political rebellion against authority in the United States seems due to several causes.

       First, the leadership of these radical causes was, as we have noted in the case of Dr. Edward McGlynn, confined to clerics who had little staying power in the political life of the country over the long run. For a cleric or priest to be a radical often exposed him to hierarchical sanction, a burden the cleric generally found almost unbearable.

       Second, the cleric who espoused radical causes, especially in the 19th Century, seldom understood the need to form political coalitions to carry on the cause, and, even if he tried to do so, he found the laity generally too timid and unlettered to assume any leadership in such a group, even if it was organized. .....




       Third, the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, while proposing the idea of justice in the distribution of wealth, cautioned against any activity which might undo the established order of things in any country. So, in the United States, the Papal Encyclicals were more often than not interpreted as cautionary documents, full of speculative theory but never interpreted by the upwardly mobile Irish as a call for radical political action on their part.

       As a case in point, Fr. John A. Ryan, who began teaching economics at the Catholic University of America, as early as 1906 tried to translate the Papal theory into practice; his insights remain remarkably true even to this day. But he never sought to organize any political activist movements, even among his most gifted students. For the most part, Ryan urged his students to acquire the skills, the ruthlessness and the drive of the Wasps with whom he hoped they would compete, but he took these students one step further. As an Americanizing priest, he retained something of the 19th Century Catholic belief (which had its origin in the Puritan Covenant theory of the 17th Century) that, regardless of the secularism perceived by the Catholic Irish in American business and professional life, there was something basically good and noble in the American spirit. He saw this country, as did the Puritans, as a vast undeveloped force for good, uninhibited by the petty church-state squabbles that plagued the nations of Europe.




       So Ryan wanted his students to bring to the market place of the United States their own unique Catholic values. He wanted them to seek to transform laissez faire capitalism into a force that would support and make great the strong and, at the same time, alleviate and equalize the plight of laboring men and of the poor. He urged programs of welfare, relief, equal housing, job opportunity and all the other social reform measures with which we today take for granted, but which were thought to be wildely liberal and impossible at the beginning of this century. Ryan taw rightly that the social gospel preached by some of the Protestant churches in the 19th Century had failed, mainly because the churches were neither organized nor unified in the understanding of social reform, and they had no cohesive plan rooted in political leverage to carry it out. Ryan firmly believed that the Catholic Church had not only a program of social reform rooted in the Papal Encyclicals, but also that these programs could be implemented by the impact his students would have on the business and political life of this country. One would have to say that, in the end, his dream failed. There are several reasons that explain this failure.

a)   Ryan's students were too few to make a real difference in the power structure of American capitalism.

b)   These students rarely rose to positions of real decision and policy-making in either political or corporation life in this country. The ancient hostility of the Wasp establishment toward Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, saw to this.




c)   If any Irish Catholics did rise to a position of real Power and wealth in the American establishment, they sacrificed so much of their commitment to the social teachings of their church that they became corrupted or blinded by self-seeking. To push for reform became for them unthinkable. For the few successful Irish in the business and political world there occurred in their lives an absolute separation between their religious beliefs and their lives in the market place. It was not until the 1960's that this dichotomy in the lives of successful Irish came ever so slightly to be challenged by the social doctrines of Vatican II.

d)   The American bishops themselves during the first half of this century rarely put forth any sort of practical plan of action that would support Ryan's basic thesis. Indeed, the contrary was true. The bishops, by their silence, seemed to be often the partners with the worst of the laissez faire capitalists. The people followed the lead of the bishops, not of the priest.

e)   One must also take into consideration the climate of the times in which Ryan was proposing his dreams to his students. They were, by the very nature of events, a small, somewhat elite group. The vast majority of Irish Catholics were struggling laboring men who regarded all phases of social reform as a threat to their very survival and more often than not as having the overtones of Communism, which .....



they knew was the enemy of their Church. Ryan was teaching during the years of the First World War when the country held patriotism as a far greater value than that if social reform. Then the boom years of the 1920's seduced many Irish Catholics into believing there might be something in that boom for them. The poor they benignly ignored, especially if the poor were not Catholic.

f)   It was the chaos of the Great Depression and the despair which it generated in so many walks of life that finally caused Catholics, and the Irish in particular, to look to their Church for either guidance or reassurance. The guidance was there in the person and the teachings of Fr. John A. Ryan. The reassurance began in the soothing radio voice of Fr. Charles Coughlin of Royal Oak, Michigan. Ryan continued to be ignored by the majority of Catholics. They needed more than social reform programs, right as these programs may have been. These people needed to know that there was an enemy causing their financial crisis. Coughlin provided the enemy. At first, Coughlin told his audiences, which numbered into the millions on Sunday afternoons in the 1930's, that it was vague and ill-defined international bankers whose avarice had created the Great Depression. He cited the social encyclical Quadregesmo Anno, written by Pope Pius XI in 1929 on the rights of the laboring class and of the poor, as the solution to the greed of these bankers. He never named these bankers. Many of Coughlin's Irish Catholic listeners believed .....




him completely; indeed he may have been at least half right. But soon enough Coughlin took a swerve to the far right. He condemned the Jewish bankers in particular; then he broke with Franklin 0. Roosevelt whom he had supported in the 1932 election, claiming Roosevelt had become the tool of the Jewish bankers, and in 1936 Coughlin helped create a pathetic third party which nominated Louis Lemke for the Presidency. Roosevelt, of course, crushed Lemke in the election and Coughlin continued to denounce the President until Archbishop Edward Mooney of Detroit ordered him silenced in 1939-40.

       But John Ryan did not go entirely unnoticed. When Franklin Roosevelt became President he surrounded himself in his first year in office with the most able and innovative men he could find. They were to brainstorm the economic and social problems created by the Great Depression and suggest programs to help extricate the country from what may have been its worst crisis ever. Among these men chosen by Roosevelt was John A. Ryan. Coughlin called Ryan "The Right Reverend New Dealer," the title given years later to Ryan's biography. The book suggests two basic themes about Ryan. The first is that he was a man twenty-five years ahead of his time and that when he was finally recognized, it was really too late. Ryan died in 1945, in limbo after Coughlin's attacks on him. The second was that if Ryan had been teaching at a secular university, he would have been listened to by the young liberals of these schools. As it was, at Catholic University .....




during Ryan's tenure there, few young liberals were to be found. More was the pity, Ryan's biography suggests. He was wasted at the Catholic University, dominated by the bishops. Their policy at the University was to protect the Church from her adversaries, not to address her wisdom and social teachings to the secular world which was so badly in need of these social principles. We must note that the bishops were not much in favor of Father Coughlin either, but since his only platform, large as it was through the use of radio, could be eroded only by his bishop, there was nobody to check Coughlin's plunge into demagoguery. And when Coughlin was checked by his bishop, it was 1939; the damage was done. A Church which had as its spokesman in social affairs a man like Coughlin was hardly to be taken seriously by the decision makers of this country. They erroneously saw Coughlin as the personification of the parish priest, rooted in anti-intellectualism and condemning the course of social reform begun by Roosevelt. Coughlin's personal animosity, toward Roosevelt was out of touch with the real needs of the working people Coughlin claimed to represent.

       The victory of Coughlin over Ryan in the eyes of the leading men of the New Deal lost for the American Catholic Church (and specifically the Irish who followed Coughlin in the Church) one of the greatest opportunities of the Irish in America to truly come of age and become an integral part of what the Federal Government had finally decided to do. When the United States became involved in World War II, the American Church and .....




the Irish in the Church were surpassed by no minority group in their patriotism and sacrifice. Still, at the end of the war, the contribution of the Catholics and of the Irish to the war effort was regarded as something less than wholehearted by many in government. Its leaders felt that Catholics and Irish had espoused the cause of fascism and even Naziism by supporting Coughlin in the years just prior to the outbreak of the war.

       The connection between Catholicism and Populism and Coughlin in the eyes of the men who ran the government durinq the early 1950's seemed clear when Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted, for all to see on television, his peculiar probe into the integrity of many honest and sincere men as he waged a strongly paranoid search for Communists and traitors in the government. When the Senate censured McCarthy there was a feeling that the last elements of the residue of the Coughlin poison had been purged from the Catholic body politic. It should be remembered that a high percentage of Irish Catholics felt a sympathy with McCarthy's unfair probes at the time they occurred. These Catholics seem to have reversed their position quickly when the McCarthy censure was passed in the Senate in 1955. This only underscored in the eyes of the non-Catholic power structure in Washington the evident lack of perspective of Catholic voters (again noting Irish in particular). The facts seemed to have been clearly pointed up to those who measured the political climate of minority groups, that the Irish Catholic population in the 1940's and the 1950's .....(continued next page)