Yes, a “labor priest” is a thing. His origins can be found in the intersection of the rise of the modern working class in the nineteenth century and the issuance of the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. The labor priest usually materialized from a working class community, often with immigrant roots, and often possessed an organic awareness of issues affecting the people in those communities. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise of conflicts between employers and employees in the wake of industrialization in the United States, much of it centered on the question of whether employees could form unions and collectively bargain with employers through these organizations. The CUA Archives has a very strong collection of materials related to Catholicism and labor, including rich collections related to three individuals known as “labor priests”: John Ryan, Francis Haas, and George Higgins.
The trailblazer of the labor priests was Monsignor John Ryan, a professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America (CUA) from 1915 until 1939. Ryan was electrified when he read the encyclical Rerum Novarum in the 1890s, noting that “The doctrine of state intervention which I had come to accept and which was sometimes denounced as ‘socialistic’ on those benighted days, I now read in a papal encyclical.” Ryan drew inspiration from the encyclical to dream up a whole host of reforms aimed at improving the condition of the American worker. Realizing that very little research had been done on what it actually took to survive economically in America, Ryan wrote “A Living Wage,” the first book published on the subject in 1906. Ryan did extensive research into living wage issues, worker rights, and employer-employee obligations, and wrote a program of reform for the U.S. Bishops that was largely adopted during the New Deal years. Later, he served on the Fair Employment Practices Commission and advised various individuals in the Roosevelt administration on workplace issues. Ryan’s papers are a rich chronicle of a progressive Catholic reformer in the early twentieth century.[i] Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: What the Heck is a Labor Priest?”