The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 569-570
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Religion and Public Life: The Legacy of Monsignor John A. Ryan. Edited by Robert G. Kennedy, Mary Christine Athans, Bernard V. Brady, William C. McDonough, and Michael J. Naughton. (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. 2001. Pp. vi, 384. Paperback.)
This collection of essays emerged from a 1995 conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John A. Ryan, the American social theorist who was professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and author of numerous books including most notably A Living Wage (1906) and Distributive Justice (1916).
Ryan was certainly one of the seminal American Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century. John Coleman, one of the volume's contributors, has argued in the past that Ryan, Orestes Brownson, and John Courtney Murray are the only three deceased American Catholic theologians "still worth reading today for more than historical interest." Ryan, however, has not received the scholarly attention demanded by his place in the intellectual canon. While a steady trickle of Ryan scholarship has appeared over the past several decades, it has not equaled that addressing the thought of Brownson, Murray, or even Dorothy Day. Even more unfortunate is that much of the work on Ryan has treated him primarily as an object of historical, but not contemporary, import. This book is a refreshing change in that it not only celebrates Ryan's historical importance, but treats his thought as a resource for contemporary Christian reflection about church and society. As the book's introduction states, the theme of the conference from which these papers come "was not merely a retrospective of Ryan' s work, but also an exploration of the vitality of the tradition he helped to initiate."
The book contains two dozen wide-ranging essays divided into thematic sections. The introductory section looks at Ryan in the context of American and American Catholic history, while the set of essays that follows considers Ryan in the context of the broader Catholic social-thought tradition. The essays in the latter section, particularly that of Harlan Beckley, are important in that they treat the theological, as opposed to merely social and political, concerns that undergirded Ryan's work. The third group of essays consider the business implications of Ryan's thought, including such issues as corporate governance, the relevance of Ryan's ethic for a global economy, and women's work and wages. Also in this section is an important essay by Michael Schuck and Francis Hannafey about Ryan's understanding of entrepreneurship, an issue that has been almost entirely ignored in previous scholarship. The concluding section, particularly Herwig Art's essay, similarly addresses a neglected issue: spirituality and its relationship to Ryan's social thought. The longest and most important section of the book is that which deals with Ryan and public policy. The many fine essays in this section address the application of Ryan's thought to such contemporary political and ethical questions as work, health care, family, and international relations. [End Page 569]
As with any volume that attempts to draw together the proceedings of a conference, the book at times lacks a strong unifying narrative or focus. The essays address such a diverse range of issues that the sections into which they are divided are often artificial. The editors, however, have done an admirable job in assembling this volume and making the papers of this important conference available. The one significant shortcoming of the volume is that while it has successfully resuscitated Ryan as a viable theologian for our day, it has done little to move him out of the Catholic ghetto. Harlan Beckley notes in his introduction that "Protestant ethicists and non-Catholic students of U.S. history have paid little attention to Ryan," but this book unfortunately does little to directly address this longstanding problem. The next step in the recovery of Ryan's legacy must be to make his thought available to the whole...