February 2003

Religion and Public Life: The Legacy of Monsignor John A. Ryan.  Edited by Robert G. Kennedy. University Press of America. 384 pages. $48.

Most Catholics have never heard of Msgr. John Ryan (1869-1945), long-time professor at Catholic University, Director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, prolific writer, informal advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, member of the Industrial Appeals Board of the National Recovery Administration (one of the New Deal agencies), foremost Catholic spokesman for social justice during the first half of the 20th century, and one of the most outstanding Catholic thinkers the U.S. has produced. Msgr. Ryan wrote the text of the 1919 Bishops Program of Social Reconstruction, the first pronouncement by the American bishops on the subject of social reform. Seeing these activities, many would probably want to place him on the so-called Left, but to do so would be to not only read the conflicts of the present day backwards into history, but more importantly to misunderstand Catholic teaching on social justice. For Ryan was also a determined opponent of and frequent writer against contraception; he wrote against socialism and supported traditional Catholic teaching on the duty of the state to protect and safeguard the Catholic religion as the one true religion. In short, despite the unfortunate ideologies of our time, which would have difficulty placing him on their dim one-dimensional political spectrum, Ryan was an orthodox Catholic who championed all of the teachings of the Church. This is not to say that one must agree with each one of his prudential judgments, but his overall approach to socio-political issues is one that ought to commend itself to every Catholic.

The volume under review here results from a conference held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of the authors explore aspects of Ryan’s work and thought, others seek to apply, not always successfully, his ideas to present-day questions. (The work also includes a valuable bibliography of all of Ryan’s publications.) Their papers range over a wide variety of subjects, from Ryan’s role in the presidential election of 1936 to current debates about health care reform. Several contributors make the point that Ryan was working within the framework of natural law teaching on social questions as laid down first by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891), later supplemented by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Ryan sought to apply papal teaching to concrete situations and did not shy away from carrying the popes’ radical analysis to its logical conclusions. But he did not attempt or desire to go beyond the standards and doctrines enunciated by the popes. Nonetheless, he could be very critical of the complacent attitude of many Catholics of his day who simply accepted the economy as it was and seemed immune to anything that even the popes might say in criticism.

The article by John Berkman on Ryan’s thought on contraception, the family, and just wages is one of the best in this collection and illustrates very well why Ryan, and indeed all authentic Catholic thinkers, cannot be placed on the witless Left/Right spectrum. Ryan opposed contraception and promoted large families. He vigorously opposed efforts to limit the right of poor parents to decide for themselves how many children they wished to have. At the same time, he pointed out that if the poor are to have large families, then the fathers of poor families must receive a living wage. Today, many who laudably oppose contraception and champion a family’s right to have more than the politically correct number of children seem to have forgotten that this liberty must apply to the poor as well as the rich, but that without just wages this is a hollow liberty indeed. On the other hand, many outside the Church, who correctly see the need for a living wage, would be horrified by Ryan’s condemnation of contraception. But then, as now, a true Catholic takes positions that confound the wisdom of this world, whether “liberal” or “conservative.”

While this collection contains some useful and interesting articles, if one is not well acquainted with this area of Catholic thought, he would do better to read Ryan himself. There, and in papal teaching, will he find genuine Catholic social doctrine, always relevant but seldom in fashion.

- Thomas Storck



Moral Darwinism.  By Benjamin Wiker. InterVarsity. 321 pages. $20.

Moral Darwinism takes us on an intriguing jaunt through the history of Western thought to expose the roots of modern materialism — and deep roots they are.

Wiker’s thesis is that the Greek philosopher Epicurus was the first to articulate what is now the fundamental belief of modern secularism: that the universe has no meaning or Creator, and that we have no souls and no life after death. Today we associate Epicurus with hedonism, although he was an ascetic whose goal was to rid life of all anxiety. The best way to do that, he taught, was to rid oneself of the notion of a Creator and an afterlife where one may be punished.

To eliminate the Creator, Epicurus had to posit that the universe was eternal. To eliminate the soul, he had to accept the hypothesis that the cosmos was made up entirely of atoms rebounding pointlessly through space. Wiker shows how this became the foundation of a materialism that, in modern times, has eroded morality and religion. (Wiker’s book grew out of an article, “The Christian & the Epicurean,” in the Jul.-Aug. 1999 NOR).

Wiker does a remarkable job of providing what is essentially a history of Western philosophy, religion, and science in a concise form and a readable fashion. He tracks the growth of Epicurus’s vision as it developed throughout Western history, sometimes covertly — a sort of philosophical Fifth Column in the Middle Ages — and then in the vanguard, with Darwin as the most influential materialist of his time. Today the struggle between materialism and Christianity continues.

Several points stand out. A common gibe against Christianity is that it is designed to allay anxiety and soothe our fears about death. Wiker shows that materialism is actually more soothing. There is nothing more comforting than the thought that there is no God to judge our behavior, and that after death oblivion erases all pain or anxiety.

Moral Darwinism also illustrates how materialism, like bugs slowly eating away at a great elm tree, invaded and infected much of Christianity. The Church Fathers vigorously opposed Epicurus and other materialistic thinkers. But even in the Middle Ages, some philosophers were seduced by materialist philosophy. Other, later Christian thinkers stressed God’s transcendence so excessively as to hustle Him out of the universe altogether, which fostered theologies that made Him irrelevant. Still other Christians tried to find a compromise between materialism and Christianity. That, however, is impossible. Christianity and secularism, this book shows, are not just different, they are antithetical.

Moreover, Wiker sheds light on why modern secularism is indeed a kind of religion. Moral Darwinism shows that it’s not just the facts on any one issue that motivate secularists. Indeed, the facts are beside the point. Materialism is a faith that began in classical times, centuries before modern science, and continues even when modern science contradicts it. For instance, Moral Darwinism points out that the Big Bang theory made it plain that the universe was, indeed, created. Moreover, it was created so recently — as these things go — that it leaves an embarrassingly short time for natural selection to have created all life. These facts, however, have not daunted those who adhere to the secularist religion.

While Moral Darwinism presupposes that the reader has some acquaintance with the history of Western philosophy and theology, the book is not intended for specialists. A generally educated reader interested in modern scientific, religious, and moral debates will find this book illuminating.

- James E. Tynen





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