American Catholic Bishops and the Politics of Scandal

Rhetoric of Authority

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Meaghan O'Keefe
Routledge Studies in Religion, 1st ed.
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
    , April
     178 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theologians, and in particular ecclesiologists, have appropriately analyzed many aspects of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church, particularly about the role of the bishops. This reckoning has been analyzed though historical, organizational, theological, legal, and pastoral lenses. In American Catholic Bishops and the Politics of Scandal: Rhetoric of Authority, Meaghan O’Keefe introduces a new lens: rhetoric. O’Keefe examines how the argumentation styles and rhetorical strategies of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have evolved in the wake of its diminishing authority resulting from its mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis.


O’Keefe focuses attention on how bishops exercise authority. The sexual abuse crisis and cover-up diminished the authority of the bishops. As a result, they were limited in appealing to their own authority or that of the office of the bishops. Interestingly, O’Keefe examines the rhetorical strategies not in documents published in response to the sexual abuse crisis, but rather in the USCCB voting guides. In the 21st century, there was a shift in the rhetorical tools of voting guides from a “theological argument aimed at persuasion” to “moral instruction meant to be followed unquestionably” (55). The bishops use “oblique argumentation” as a strategy for asserting their authority. In simplest terms, this means that the bishops employ many rhetorical strategies that do not appear to be rhetorical strategies, such as repetition and appealing to tradition. O’Keefe argues that the bishops take this approach to assert their own authority, for “explicitly trying to persuade their audience would undermine the bishops’ already diminished authority” (105).

A true asset of this book is calling attention to rhetorical strategies that are often unnoticed. O’Keefe argues, “In the absence of explicit claims to authority, discursive structures of authority that are ordinarily submerged in discourse come to the surface” (57). While it may not appear to be newsworthy that the USCCB includes other sources of church teaching in its voting guides, O’Keefe effectively demonstrates that this is an important shift. For example, the 2000 voting guide included five references to other sources of Church teaching.

By contrast, the 2016 voting guide included seventy-six references (58). This is a major rhetorical shift, and one that might go otherwise unnoticed. This dramatic increase in referring to other sources of church teaching bolsters the USCCB’s authority. The shift in language surrounding racism is another example of O’Keefe’s careful analysis. In the 2008 and 2012 voting guides, the USCCB classifies “the promotion of racism” as an “intrinsic evil,” along with abortion. In the 2016 guide, “racist behavior” is listed as “an intrinsically evil act” along with abortion and the redefinition of marriage (112). O’Keefe identifies this as a major change, for when racism was listed as one of two intrinsic evils, its importance was paramount. By adding a third issue, changing the classification to “an intrinsically evil act,” and shifting to “racist behavior,” the USCCB fails to recognize racism as a structural issue and downgrades its moral urgency. A casual reading may not recognize this theological shift, yet O’Keefe’s analysis correctly identifies these shifts in language as important.

An especially accessible chapter is chapter 6, in which O’Keefe contrasts the rhetorical strategy of the USCCB with that of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus” campaign. O’Keefe looks to a keynote address by Sr. Pat Farrell, former president of LCWR, as a case study. Farrell utilized an extended metaphor which is open to interpretation and multiplicity of meanings. By contrast, the USCCB often uses questions and answers (anthypophora), “a figure that limits and precludes possibilities rather than a figure such as metaphor which opens up possibilities” (145–46). Question and answers also falsely give the impression of interlocutors and allude to the Baltimore Catechism. This contrast in communication styles illuminates the divergence in ecclesiologies and engagement with the public between the LCWR and USCCB.

This study would greatly benefit from a more robust examination of key terms, such as tradition, conscience, and dignity. While O’Keefe is careful to keep the focus on rhetorical analysis rather than theological exploration, she provides overviews of these terms. In this brief analysis, she privileges some sources over others without explaining her method. In discussing human dignity, O’Keefe relies upon the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the most authoritative document, a puzzling selection in a scholarly analysis.

While this book is a great contribution, it suffers from many technical errors that may hinder its reception in the theological academy. At times this is more of a style issue, such as incorrectly referring to Pope Francis as Francis I or misidentifying the LCWR as the “Leadership Conference of Catholic Women.” At other times, these errors are more severe. O’Keefe refers to most church documents as encyclicals, incorrectly identifying Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humane as encyclicals rather than a constitution and declaration, respectively (25). This is more than a style error, for the teaching authority of constitutions, declarations, and encyclicals differs. In an examination on authority, the varying levels of authority of church teaching must be addressed. This critique does not invalidate the usefulness of her argument and analysis, but provides an example of how rich this work is for further theological analysis.

In summary, American Catholic Bishops and the Politics of Scandal makes the case that studies of leadership, power, and authority in the church should also take account of rhetoric. However, this book also highlights the need for collaboration between experts in rhetoric and experts in theology. While there are well-established collaborations between theology and psychology, ethnography, or leadership studies, rhetoric is an area of study that is not drawn upon as often. For example, an article co-authored by O’Keefe and an ecclesiologist on the response of the USCCB to the 2020 election would be an important contribution. At its best, O’Keefe’s analysis is a rich resource for scholars of religion and theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Annie Selak is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Meaghan O'Keefe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at University of California, Davis, USA. Her work has appeared in Written Communication, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, and The American Journal of Bioethics.


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