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“What He Has Done Is Sickening to Contemplate”: Catholic Liberal John Ryan Denounces Father Charles Coughlin

by John Ryan

Father Charles Coughlin attracted an enormous audience for his radio sermons in the 1930s. Although he initially supported President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, his speeches turned increasingly strident, conspiratorial, and anti-Semitic over the course of the decade. After 1936, his talks combined harsh attacks on Roosevelt as the tool of international Jewish bankers with praise for the fascist leaders Mussolini and Hitler. The now bitter and delusional tone of his sermons alienated his larger audience and made many of his fellow Catholics nervous. John Ryan, a Catholic priest himself, had long been active as a social reformer and university educator, and became a vocal critic of Coughlin. Ryan published the following missive in the Catholic journal Commonweal in October, 1936.

To the Editor: I thank you heartily for your editorial in THE COMMONWEAL, October 23, 1936, entitled “The Ryan-Coughlin Controversy.” While your interpretation of my position is entirely correct as far as it goes, it does not mention the principal reason why I made my radio speech, October 8. On the face of the record, however, there was nothing to let you know what this reason was. As you say, I wanted to shout that the “condemnation of the New Deal as communistic was false and absurd”, but more earnestly than that I desired to offset, insofar as I could, the evil effect of Father Coughlin’s speeches upon Catholic interests and upon the peace of mind of two distinct groups of Catholics.

When I decided to deliver that address, the indications were that if Roosevelt were defeated for reelection, the main cause would be the defection of large groups of followers to Mr. Lemke. If that were to happen, the conclusion would be drawn by millions of Americans that the PresidentĚs defeat was due to the opposition of a Catholic priest. The bad effects of that conclusion would not have been easy to live down, particularly in those regions of America where the Catholic population is small. Happily these hypothetical events are no longer of practical moment, inasmuch as it is now overwhelmingly probable that the President will be reelected.

The direct evil effects of Father Coughlin’s addresses, particularly his political speeches during the last few months, have affected both those who do not agree with him and those who blindly follow him. The former have suffered a considerable amount of anxiety and even anguish over the question of his authority. To many of them it seemed that his teachings on the money system as the cause of our economic ills and his advocacy of certain monetary remedies, enjoyed the sanction and approval of the Church. The same impression was received by many Protestants. Since the delivery of my radio speech, the Catholic opponents of Father Coughlin have experienced a great sense of relief. They realize that Father Coughlin’s economic theories and proposals have no positive support in the encyclicals of Leo and Pius or in any other authoritative Catholic source. They can now hold up their heads and make an effective reply to their Protestant friends who tell them that “the Catholic Church must be back of Father Coughlin.” Since the address was delivered I have received a considerable number of letters from Protestants expressing satisfaction over the fact that Father Coughlin’s theories are not necessarily Catholic doctrine. A much greater number of letters has come from Catholics rejoicing over the same discovery. This reassurance given to both Catholics and Protestants has been in my opinion sufficient of itself to Justify the delivery of the address.

Greater even than the harm done by Father Coughlin’s addresses to Catholics and Protestants who do not accept his teaching is that inflicted upon his faithful followers.

What he has done to the emotions and minds and souls of thousands of Catholics in this country is saddening and sickening to contemplate. In a general way I was aware of this fact before I delivered my radio address. Now I have specific and documented knowledge on the subject. Out of the more than 1,200 letters which I have received from convinced Coughlinites, not more than 50 were expressed in courteous language. The overwhelming majority of the letters were not merely lacking in the respect due to a priest, but contained expressions that ladies and gentlemen do not use in addressing anyone. The vast majority of the letters were intemperate and intolerant, while a large proportion were abusive and insulting. Many of them declared that I was a Judas Iscariot; many others wanted to know how much money I had got from Jim

Farley for making the speech; one said that I was a devil in disguise, while Father Coughlin was another Jesus on earth. Through a great many of the letters ran a thread not merely of prejudice but of hate, and not a few of them exhibited strong evidence of anti-clericalism.

Father Coughlin has succeeded in persuading his hearers, or at least a large proportion of them, not only that his money theories and remedies are supported by the papal encyclicals, but that his economic teachings in general are on a level with the infallible pronouncements of the Church. These devotees resent any question of “our great leader’s”teachings. They are particularly incensed at the statement in my speech that his explanation of our economic maladies is at least 50 per cent wrong and his monetary theories and proposals at least 90 per cent wrong, even though the overwhelming majority of the economists would put down these estimates as understatements.

I repeat that what Father Coughlin has done to the minds of his followers is saddening and sickening. The majority of the 1,200 and more letters that have come to me from them are evidently written by poor and uneducated persons who have suffered much from the depression and who look upon Father Coughlin as a Messiah who will lead them into the Promised Land. They have been completely misled and their minds have been closed against the consideration of genuine remedies and reforms.

The leading editorial of the October 10 issue of the Washington Post was headed “Overdue Deflation.” The reference was to Father Coughlin and to my radio speech. But I do not flatter myself the speech has convinced or converted any of those who have written me angry and protesting letters or any of the thousands of others of Father Coughlin’s followers who follow him as blindly as do the letter writers. The letters, however, contain some internal evidence to the effect that many of the writers feel less cocksure than they did before my speech was delivered. They have at least been thrown into a state of bewilderment that any Catholic could have questioned the teachings of their leader. But the main good effects of my address upon the group of Catholics that have been attracted by Father Coughlin’s speeches are and will be felt by those who had already begun to waver in their allegiance to him and by those who had not yet become convinced adherents of his doctrine. Abundant evidence of this development has come to me in other letters received since the speech was delivered.

In view of both the favorable and the unfavorable letters that I have received, I am glad that I made that radio speech. I regard it as one of the most effective and beneficial acts that I have ever performed in the interests of my religion and my country.


Source: John A. Ryan, Seven Troubled Years (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1937), pp. 300–1.