Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorically Constituting and Contesting Identity Norms for American Catholic Sisters in Public Discourse

Author: Kari Lundgren

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013

In this study, I identify a fairly prominent recent case that served as a rhetorical exigence for rhetors in a particular community to argue about—and in the process contest and construct rhetorically—what qualifies as authentic identity, that is, what ways of enacting an identity are legitimate. That case is a controversial 2009-2012 Vatican-sponsored investigation of Roman Catholic sisters in the United States, the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious. Because this Visitation was officially framed as an inquiry into American sisters’ “quality of life,” responses to it explicitly addressed whether American women’s religious orders were enabling sisters to fulfill their identities as Catholic sisters.

I examine this case through two complementary rhetorical analyses—one focused on the themes at work in the arguments, the other focused on rhetors’ grammatical choices—of two corpora of published texts written by Roman Catholic women that are distinguished by whether the rhetors argue in support or in criticism of the Apostolic Visitation. I show that assumptions about norms for how to be a legitimate Roman Catholic sister, faithful to her vocation, undergird and shape these Roman Catholic women’s rhetorical strategies in their responses to this controversial Vatican investigation. I focus on two competing norms for enacting women’s religious identity constituted through the discourse of the corpora: a patriarchal identity norm of obedience (which undergirds rhetorical strategies in arguments supporting the Apostolic Visitation) and a feminist identity norm of personal conscience (which undergirds rhetorical strategies in arguments criticizing the Visitation).

I find that even within an institutional rhetorical context like the Roman Catholic Church, which holds explicit standards for legitimacy (and formal mechanisms for enforcing those standards, like excommunication), rhetors have access to a variety of strategies for maintaining or establishing insider status. Thus, whether arguing in support or criticism of the Apostolic Visitation, rhetors draw upon a variety of rhetorical strategies in how they represent Roman Catholic sisters. As such, identity norms are rhetorically constructed rather than “natural” or “essential,” and they can be rhetorically contested.

While many rhetoricians have studied how identities are constituted through language and how rhetorically constituted identities relate to political legitimacy, my project takes a new approach by pairing two methods of analysis to reveal strategies available to rhetors in their arguments about Roman Catholic sisters. In addition, while rhetoricians have studied the public discourse of Roman Catholic bishops and Catholic women seeking ordination, rhetoricians have not yet devoted much study to discourse about Catholic sisters, despite sisters’ relatively prominent role in American history, society, and political discourse. Thus in studying rhetorical strategies by which Catholic sisters are represented in public discourse and the identity norms for sisters that are thereby constituted, I pave the way for further rhetorical investigations of this significant but understudied population.