The National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), the annual meeting of the American hierarchy and its standing secretariat, was established in 1919. Its predecessor had been an emergency organization, the National Catholic War Council, created in 1917 to coordinate American Catholic activities during the World War I. In 1919, the council adopted a statement written by John A. Ryan, which became known as the Bishop`s Program of Social Reconstruction. It reflected the view of progressive Catholics that the church was a social institution in addition to a church. It began:
The ending of the Great War has brought peace. But the only safeguard of peace is social justice and a contented people. The deep unrest so emphatically and so widely voiced throughout the world is the most serious menace to the future peace of every nation and of the entire world. Great problems face us. They cannot be put aside; they must be met and solved with justice to all.In 1922, following conflicts with the Vatican, the organization changed its name to the National Catholic Welfare Council, under which it operated until after Vatican II. The NCWC described itself in the following terms:
The National Catholic Welfare Conference is an organization of the cardinals, archbishops and bishops of the United States, centered at Washington, with the purpose of unifying, coordinating, and organizing the Catholics of the country in works of social welfare, education, and similar activities, by means particularly of the press and of existing lay organizations.Father Ryan, after teaching at the Catholic University, became head of the Social Action Department of the NCWC. He strongly supported the unsuccessful Child Labor Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, against the opposition of Cardinal William Henry O`Connell, Archbishop of Boston. During the 1930`s, Catholic organizations worked to further labor unions, promote civil rights, and advance the cause of international peace and justice. In a 1938 statement written by the Most Reverend Edwin O`Hara, the Conference adopted a series of principles, including employment security, profit-sharing by employees, collective bargaining rights for labor, and a decent Minimum Wage. The statement would later be denounced by right-wing radio commentators as having "also the distinct and unmistakable thread of Marxist socialism and communism in those statements."
The NCWC represents the united influence of the hierarchy on national, social, and civic policies; it provides a remarkable leadership for the promotion of social justice, education, a Catholic press, and coordinated lay action. In a certain sense, the NCWC is the nerve center of the Church in America.
In 1966, following Vatican II, the American bishops reorganized the NCWC into the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its standing secretariat, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC).