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“The (Second) Greatest Teacher of All Time”: Father Coughlin’s Followers Fight Back

Father Charles Coughlin occupied both a strange and a familiar place in American politics during the 1930s. Politically radical, a passionate democrat, he nevertheless was a bigot who freely vented angry, irrational charges and assertions. A Catholic priest, he broadcast weekly radio sermons that by 1930 drew as many as forty-five million listeners. By the mid-1930s, Coughlin’s growing extremism, his increasing determination to cast political problems in terms of free-floating conspiracy, and his persistent attacks on a popular president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made many of his fellow Catholics nervous. John Ryan, a fellow Catholic priest, had long been active as a social reformer and university educator. In a September 1936 radio speech, he denounced Coughlin for his attacks on FDR. Ryan’s address provoked a host of letters; these three typical letters to Ryan reflected the character of Coughlin’s devoted support and the capitulation to hatred that characterized Coughlin’s movement in the late 1930s.

Nov. 8, 1936.

Monsignor. Ryan,

Dear Sir.;-

I do not make a habit of writing letters to express my approval or disapproval of either persons or programs, but common decency has prompted me to answer you.

Since I was a child I was raised in the Catholic schools and colleges, I was born of catholic parents, and I was always taught to respect the clergy. But when the clergy stoops as low as you did that respect falls by the wayside.

You are the personification of the modern Judas, who sold his Christ for 30 pieces of silver. You sold the respect of the Catholic Church and it’s people but for a much greater amount. Your deed was anything but noble, to discredit as acknowledged an authority as Father Coughlin. Your attempt was pathetic to say the least. You have been discredited more than once.

Mr. Farley predicted the campaign would be a dirty one and your radio address was one of the contributing factors to make it so.

I am committing, too, the unpardonable sin of being a young woman, but if the mellowness of age and the advantage of education can only produce people like you who can be used as a mere tool then what hope can we hold for America.

I have a son ready for college in June, and had planned placing him of course in a Catholic college, but thank God I have found out before it is too late. He will be placed under people who at least will display respect and honor among their fellow clergyman.

You have done more in one radio address to drag the dignity and respect of the Catholic Church through the muck and mire than it will take years to rebuild.

I Am

1721 Brighton Place,

North Side

Pittsburgh, Penna.


San Diego, Calif.,

Nov.16, 1936.

Rev. J. A.. Ryan,

Catholic University,

Washington, D.C.


The Democratic victory is now history. The part you played in that election amounted to nothing. It was, however, significant in just one thing, viz:_ the impression it made upon Catholics of what an asinine exhibition a college prof of clergy rank, made of himself. We do not believe your so-called “speech” influenced one voter, but it did confirm more strongly those voters who look askance at profs of your ilk, drawing a college salary, the while anxious and eager to munch at the Democratic pie-counter.

We have read your windy, lugubrious and puerile complaint in the “Commonweal” of November 6th. It is a weak and futile attempt at comeback, an empty gesture to cultivate sympathy. When one orders a sandwich and coffee in a cafe, they are not served pie and ice-cream. You went entirely out of your path to attack a brother priest. An honorable, an upright and learned priest, one whose vestments never trailed in the dust of scandal, and hence, Ryan, the reverberations from your unwarranted approach, the approach of a conceited upstart, are the result. You asked for what you got.

This complaint of yours is a windy compilation of gratuitous assertions devoid of proof, logic, sanity or reason.

You tell us in your quasi “speech” that you are a “teacher of many years”. Reading this spasm of yours no one could ever be induced to believe it. On the contrary, the strength of the Ryan line seems to have run out before it reached you.

In this lamentation you revert to the thread-bare, time-worn method of the victims who couldn’t absorb the punching. Your bump of conceit has been seriously dented and now you fall back upon abuse, vituperation, lies, venom, accusations that are devoid of even the bearing of a strumpet’s pimp.

There is one thing, Ryan, we would like to impress upon your noggin encrusted with an inflated sense of importance due in no small measure to your free lance peregrinations in the halls and class-rooms of the U and in the strutting of your stuff around the college campus.

If you intend to play the game of politics, and dirty politics at that, your opponents and critics have the perfect right, the legitimate right to treat you as a politician and examine you remarks as political statements, not compelled to observe an exaggerated politeness or suffer the insults of a would-be learned but vicious fraud in timid and peaceful silence.

You, Ryan, should be the last to bewail and moan about the “respect due a priest” after the disgraceful part you played in this unholy spectacle. “The letters were intemperate and intolerant, abusive and insulting, the majority evidently written by poor and uneducated persons”. “Poor and uneducated” in your system of ethics,- it is a crime to be “poor and uneducated”. On this score there is nothing more to be said than that only a dirty dog, a mongrel, would be guilty of making such a statement.

“I repeat that what Father Coughlin has done to the minds of his followers is saddening and sickening”. Absolutely speaking, Ryan that is a d—- lie “made of whole cloth of most shoddy fabrication”. Relatively speaking, to you it is “saddening and sickening” after the mental shellacking you were forced to absorb. Your alibi is weak and it resolves itself to a simple case of “locus a non lucendo”.

“The evil effects of Father Coughlin’s addresses”. That is another bombastic quod gratis asseritu aberrations of your now punch-drunk cranium. It isn’t well for you, Ryan, to attempt anymore compositions until you have recovered from the drenching, and partially regained your equilibrium.

“Cut of the 1200 letters, not more than 50 were expressed in courteous language”. A bully, ostentatiously mimicking, the role of a mental expert does not engender respect, and if such a “mug” gets ruthlessly toppled from his self-assumed pinnacle, logically, he can expect no gentle treatment, even though he be a conceited a— in clerical garb.

It is not well to enter a field of action for which it is apparent you are not mentally well equipped. The logic you have displayed should remind you of the homely axiom: “shoemaker, stick to your last”.

Comparisons are odious, we know, but you are not to be noticed when Father Coughlin enters the arena, for, Ryan, to give the devil his due, you now, are just a small-town piker, of peanut-whistler caliber on the way to the ash-can.

You are mooching for sympathy and we give you ours as far as it goes which is not very far. You invited a solar plexus of the cranium and you were accommodated. Any one, any day, can get the same sensation by casually stepping off the curbstone and being hit by a five ton truck.

The next time you crawl through the ropes to meet the Peerless Leader of Social Justice in the mental arena, you will be in need of a fortitude nothing less, than heroic. You had better clear up a deal of that rose colored fog out of your noodle, and as a fundamental in polemics, for heaven’s sake stop leading with your chin. Get your guard up, your feet plated on facts, figures and specifications, or you will not last out the first round.

We have always wanted to take a squint at one of these profound, original thinkers, so, Ryan will you kindly step over where the light shines on you? Thank you. We’re terribly impressed. But we fear that we will be more impresses if you keep monkeying with a young man named Coughlin who does not tolerate any meddler.

Old as you are, you look like a novice at the game. Couldn’t protect yourself, even in the clinches, and at long range you were like a painted target, wide open.

Ye, “Mr. Shoemaker, better stick to your last”, for the next time you tangle with the young man you’ll be carried out on a stretcher and we do not mean maybe.

Better begin to candle your eggs, John, for suspicious point that there are not a few infertile in your belfry.

It is a law of nature that we have to climb a flight of stairs, a step at a time. Perhaps when you are old enough and have climbed enough steps, you may reach the top, but while the going is good, you had better take a run-out powder.

And here is another chunk of advice which, although unsolicited, is nevertheless ad rem: Unless you take an account of your resources, garner some accessories in the way of arguments and logic, you are approximating the condition of the man in the parable whose last state was worse than the first. It has taken you a h— of a long time to change gears, Ryan, we are waiting anxiously for the next adventure, or are you just an ordinary stooge after all? You have got to admit, that one was hung on your optic and you have got to admit, too, nolens-volens that it was not just luck. Coughlin did every thing but sweep out the university at the end of the encounter.

Taken, in toto, this dismal bewail of yours is “specific and documentary knowledge”, that there is an aching void in the pit of your stomach. The bewail of a defeated and disgruntled amateur politician seeking a place of safe retreat.

“I regard it as one of the most effective and beneficial acts that I have ever performed in the interests of my church and my country”. A jack-ass brays because he likes to hear the resonance of his voice. Say, Ryan, any high-school kid who could not make a more impressive showing in subject-knowledge, logic and argumentation ought to be kicked around the block.

God help the church and God save our country if either were forced to depend on the saving enlightenment displayed by this bulwark of defense, the Three Star Hennessy of the Catholic U.

“I am glad I made the radio speech”. You are not alone in the rejoicing. We share the pleasure but we rather think, Ryan, that you have little regard for the truth, for the simple reason that no one, especially an over-inflated Ego of your dimensions, get any kick out of having his nose rubbed in the rosin.

With great pleasure,

Ambrose Leo Tenure.

Source: John Ryan Papers, Catholic University Archives.

See Also:"Somebody Must be Blamed": Father Coughlin Speaks to the Nation