Meaghan O'Keefe-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University


Everything New Is Old Again: The American Catholic Bishops' Politics of
Conscience

Author: Meaghan O'Keefe

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2012

Over the last ten years, American Catholic bishops have suffered a
catastrophic loss of authority in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. In the
midst of these scandals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
[USCCB] has issued voting guides for presidential elections. In this
dissertation, I investigate the American Catholic church's attempts to
influence electoral politics while its public image has been severely
compromised.

This project considers the argumentative strategies used in the 2008/2012
USCCB voting guide, entitled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."
The main rhetorical tactic adopted by the USCCB is one of repetition of key
phrases and structures.  This project is, therefore, organized around the
analysis of three of three key phrases-well-formed conscience, intrinsic
evil, and the dignity of the human person-that are deployed repeatedly
throughout the voting guide. The phrases selected for this project reveal
(respectively) the assumptions on the nature and role of conscience in
public life, of civic responsibility in the face of wrongdoing, and human
rights held by the American Catholic church.

Repetition serves as a means of making arguments less visible while
simultaneously stabilizing terms that are contested and I draw on the
tradition of rhetorical figures in order to examine this process. While the
classical tradition is quite useful when looking at certain lines of
reasoning, it is less helpful when considering the particular grammatical
constraints and opportunities that are specific to English. In order to
examine English discourse patterns that form lines of reasoning, I
supplement the classical tradition with more recent studies in linguistics
in the area of formulaic language. I argue that certain kinds of formulaic
language are developing into a set of  "emergent" figures of argument.  The
examination of the particular linguistic choices and the overall rhetorical
strategy of the USCCB serves as a means of understanding repetition as a
valuable contemporary rhetorical resource. In broader terms, this project is
a useful case study of how issues of authority are negotiated by a
traditional institution in the rhetorical arena of contemporary American
political discourse.