New Book: One Faith, Two Authorities: Tension Between Female Religious and Male Clergy in the American Catholic Church

Jeanine E. Kraybill, PhD, California State University, Bakersfield

In August of 2018, the Attorney General for the state of Pennsylvania released a grand jury report claiming that bishops had conspired to cover up the sexual abuse of over 1,000 people spanning a period of 70-plus years. As a result, other states attorneys general began opening up similar investigations. Recently, victims in the Los Angeles Archdiocese began pressuring their state attorney general to launch new investigations into the abuses of the 1980s through early 2000s to uncover how widespread the practice of protecting, hiding, and shuffling around accused or suspected priests was in immigrant communities. Since the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was removed in 2002, the Los Angeles Archdiocese has enacted a zero-tolerance policy. The damage that was incurred in the local immigrant community is still uncertain.

The grand jury’s report out of Pennsylvania, the preying on immigrant communities by some members of the clergy, along with Pope Francis acknowledging last month the sexual abuse of some religious sisters , is telling of a systemic crisis in the American Catholic Church. This is a crisis that did not go away with prior lawsuits and investigations and has continued despite the American bishops announcing policies to try to stop sexual abuse. It has continued to exist because of the rampant culture of clericalism within the Churchan extreme deference to clerical superiority for the purposes of maintaining or increasing power within the hierarchy. Policies only have the potential to work when they are implemented under a shared-governance model and violators are held immediately accountable, as opposed to a system which allows some, under the veil of compliance, to continue to use their position of authority to mask abuse and skirt accountability. This dynamic stems from the top echelons of Church authority.  For example, in the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis authorized a tribunal to assess bishops accused of covering up sex abuse allegations. However, the forum was closed down, largely due to Vatican officials who pressured the Pontiff, insisting that the Church already possessed the institutional mechanisms to discipline these bishops.

The continued sex abuse scandals are not the only incidences that call for a new leadership model within the institution, but they are one of the most serious and on-going threats to the long-term moral authority and survival of the Church. It calls for the laity and female religious to take on a much more meaningful leadership role in the institution. Although the Church has formed lay national conferences, such as Voice of the Faithful, to help advocate for victims of sexual abuse, there is a disconnect between what they are advocating for and clergy reform. The leadership model needed, which is transparent, public, and egalitarian, is discussed by Brigham (2015) and S.Fiorenza (2002).

I capture this deep tension over clericalism in my freshly printed book out now with Temple University Press, One Faith, Two Authorities: Tension Between Female Religious and Male Clergy in the American Catholic Church part of the Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics series. My work focuses on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the scrutiny of their work imposed by the Vatican in 2012 called Doctrinal Assessment. The book showcases how non-ordained religious nuns and sisters in the Catholic Church derived a sense of personal authority by working outside of the formal institutional structure, engaging directly with the laity. This experience has led female religious to be highly professionalized and to cultivate a unique sense of trust with the faithful through their work.

As I uncover, female religious’ work with the laity does not go without its challenges. At times, female religious can fall under institutional scrutiny for exercising their personal authority, as seen with the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, which accused the nuns of themes of radical feminism, corporate dissent, and silence on issues of homosexuality and abortion. I put these charges to the test by examining the bishops and LCWR’s policy and education statements. I find that the nuns did not vary much from institutional positions on issues such as immigration, the economy, and the environment. However, differences did exist on which social policies were prioritized and how they framed their policy stances, particularly on the topics of healthcare, gender, and homosexuality. Of course, these have been flashpoints in American politics for the Catholic Church.

I also looked for evidence of a crisis of authority in the Catholic Church through a survey experiment.  The experiment randomly presented respondents with policy statements that either disclosed the source (USCCB or LCWR) or not.  The results suggest some continued deference to the Bishops, but not consistently across the issues I tested (gender roles, homosexuality, government aid to the poor, and the environment), suggesting some erosion of authority in the Church.

It was apparent this fall at the USCCB’s November plenary meeting that their moral and institutional authority was in crisis. In the hours leading up to the session, Pope Francis called for the bishops not to vote on their proposal on the conduct of bishops until after the Vatican held its meeting on clergy sex abuse in February. The announcement spurred mixed reactions among the bishops. The session did include a discussion and renewal of the bishop’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, along with a call for a lay commission to review complaints against bishops, a third-party reporting system, and testimony from survivors of clergy sexual abuse. These are all positive steps, but one could argue they are similar to the efforts made in 2002. This is all the more concerning when looking at the data, which shows the number of men entering the seminary to be stagnant and low, coupled with a continued decrease in the number of priests and religious sisters. It will be difficult for the Church to sustain itself under the current clerical model.


Jeanine E. Kraybill is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at CSU, Bakersfield where she researchers and teachings in the areas of politics and religion, the presidency, judicial politics, and constitutional law.  Her work has been featured in Oxford University Press Research Encyclopedia, Field Work in Religion, and the Journal of Communication and Religion.

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