During the early cultural battles over birth control in 1920s America, social thinker Monsignor John A. Ryan brought a unique perspective to the debate: he argued that contraception hurt solidarity and other efforts to ensure a decent living for workers and their families.
“In the late 19th and early 20th century workers were many times exploited by those who employed them. The working class was subjected to poor working conditions, low wages, and long hours. Ryan was their defender,” Prof. Clement A. Mulloy, a history professor at Arkansas State University, told CNA July 24. “Ryan believed workers were entitled to a normal family life which he equated with children, preferably in a large family.”
Ryan thought payment of a “living wage” to workers was a moral obligation of employers. This living wage meant “a decent livelihood” for a worker and his family, not merely subsistence pay. He took this position from papal encyclicals like Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, which condemned abuses of capitalism and defended the worker.
Critics of this “living wage” approach found inspiration in thinkers like Thomas Malthus, who claimed population growth would tend to outpace the ability for a society to provide support. They would counter that workers had too many children and “if they could just limit the size of their families, then they would have enough money to support themselves.”
“Ryan believed this to be a clever dodge, whereby those who were affluent would point out that the reason why people were poor is they could not restrain themselves,” Mulloy said. “In other words, their poverty was their own fault. Consequently, those who were affluent were relieved of any responsibility to help the poor.”
Ryan was not a socialist. Rather, he backed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. His support was so strong that he became known as the “Right Reverend New Dealer.” Born in Minnesota in 1869, the priest was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and later became a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He became a prominent advisor for the U.S. bishops before his death in 1945 at the age of 76.
The priest is not well known for discussing birth control, but he wrote about it in many articles and in his most famous book “A Living Wage.” Mulloy discusses this aspect of Ryan’s thought in his essay “John A. Ryan and the Issue of Family Limitation,” which appeared in the 2013 issue of the Catholic Social Science Review.
“Ryan advocated ‘social justice’ in the sense that he believed government and employers had a duty to improve conditions and not just blame the poor for their plight,” Mulloy said. “Ryan believed there was plenty of wealth to support the population, if it was just distributed properly.”
Birth control advocates in the 1920s particularly wanted birth control practiced by the working class. In their view, the Industrial Revolution had produced uneducated, unskilled and “unfit” workers who were “breeding out of control.”
These attitudes were not purely scientific. Rather, they were accompanied by ethnic and religious animosity.
“The working class tended to be Catholic, while the wealthy tended to be white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and tended to have small families,” Mulloy said. “So there existed a certain fear or animosity.”
“Ryan, again, was the defender of the working class. He referred to the working class as the ‘saving remnant’ of civilization. He stated they were fit, morally fit, because they engaged in the sacrifice and hard work of raising large families.”
For Ryan, widespread use of birth control would have long-term detrimental effects on society, not just individuals. He predicted that birth control would lead to “enervating self-indulgence” across society. Husband and wife would treat each other as instruments of pleasure, and not cooperate with God to produce children. People would limit their families “to selfishly satisfy their material wants” and shirk “in the hard work of raising a family,” Mulloy explained.
“As a result, he predicted that people would lack integrity, a work ethic would deteriorate, people would become less patriotic, and more concerned with making money and not higher pursuits,” said Mulloy.
Population decline would also have harmful effects, in Ryan’s view, including damaging economic effects.
Mulloy reflected on these predictions.
“Our culture, though there has been great progress, has also become immoral and decadent in many ways, so Ryan’s predictions have some validity,” he said. A case can be made that high divorce rates, a rise in children born out of wedlock, and depopulation in places like Europe are in part due to birth control.
“A case could be made that women, despite the gains that have been made socially and economically, are not held in high regard,” he said.
Ryan wrote amid a push for “eugenics,” the reputed application of science to improve the quality of the human population. Birth control advocacy was among the strategies advanced by this movement, alongside marriage restrictions or involuntary sterilization. The last strategy was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 and over 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized out of the belief their ability to have children was a threat to social welfare.
The priest argued that involuntary sterilization was unnecessary and would have harmful effects on society. If “imbeciles,” the then-scientific term for the mentally disabled, would be forcibly sterilized, then other socially marginalized groups, such as Mexicans and African-Americans, would be targeted next.
“In some ways Ryan’s arguments against sterilization are more interesting than other Catholic theologians because Ryan considers the harmful effects to society from involuntary sterilization which the other theologians do not bother with,” Mulloy said.
In the 1920s, Ryan was among a minority of Catholic theologians who did not believe that involuntary sterilization was an evil in itself. It had not been defined as such in Church teaching. When Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti connubii condemned the practice as inherently evil in 1930, the priest accepted this teaching.
While Ryan acknowledged and made use of “natural law”-style arguments, Mulloy wrote in his Catholic Social Science Review essay, “Ryan realized this would have little impact on most Americans, since it was a purely intellectual argument with no reference to utility or social welfare.”
Pope Paul VI reaffirmed Catholic teaching on contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, but the hostile reaction from many Catholic and non-Catholic leaders continues to this day.