– was a leading moral theologian, priest, professor, author, and social justice advocate. Ryan lived during a decisive moment in the development of Catholic social teaching within the United States. The largest influx of immigrants in America’s history, the emancipation of American slaves, and the industrial revolution had produced a new social climate in the early twentieth century, and the Church faced increasing pressure to take a stance on questions of social reform.
Ryan saw the social reform debate of the early twentieth century as essentially an argument between libertarian individualists and collectivists concerned with equality, and thus contended that an emphasis on human welfare framed in natural law theory provided the most promising means to combine conflicting concerns over individual and social welfare. Ryan’s influential response was the development of a Catholic critique of the American capitalist system that emphasized the existence of absolute natural human rights.
While Ryan identified primarily as a moral theologian, he also made important contributions to American political life and economic thought. He supported a number of social reforms that were eventually incorporated into the New Deal, and have become elemental to the modern welfare state. Ryan’s most well-known contribution to American economic thought was his argument for a minimum wage presented in his doctoral dissertation, A Living Wage.
Ryan recognized the importance of a “synergistic relation among scholarship, moral teaching, and political activism,” which led to his vigorous application of moral thinking to the political arena.[5