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  • A Matter of Discretion: The Politics of Catholic Priests in the United States and Ireland by Brian R. Calfano, Melissa R. Michelson, and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon
  • Mary L. Gautier
A Matter of Discretion: The Politics of Catholic Priests in the United States and Ireland. By Brian R. Calfano, Melissa R. Michelson, and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 210 pp. $80.00.

The purpose of this book is to explore, with a certain amount of scientific rigor, the extent that Roman Catholic priests, as “street-level bureaucrats,” negotiate their role as church elites in explaining, implementing, and enforcing church teachings to their parishioners. Priests have their own political attitudes and behaviors, certainly, as individual political actors. But as church elites, “situated in vast, voluntary associational networks, a priest’s job is to provide moral leadership to his local community” (3). They communicate the moral teachings of the church, primarily to their parishioners. But they do not necessarily agree with all that the church teaches or rigidly adhere to every political stance of the church.

They use discretion to negotiate internally “what characterization of their professional roles they will cognitively draw on in responding to their employer’s institutional preferences while ensuring parishioner approbation” (4). In other words, priests must balance expectations from their bishops (who are above them in church hierarchy) and expectations from their parishioners (who, in essence, pay their salary) to communicate just the right message to satisfy both influence groups while maintaining their personal integrity.

The authors employ survey research to explore some of the political attitudes and behaviors of Catholic priests in the United States and Ireland (more on that in a bit), and perform an empirical test of “the extent to which priests act with discretion in representing church teaching to the public” (155). The study is unique in that it is the first to examine the data through the lens of the potentially competing expectations priests face from their different reference groups—bishops and parishioners.

The authors created an online survey of both closed-ended and open-ended questions and offered it to a sample of priests in the United States and Ireland (modified slightly for the Irish priests to reflect [End Page 81] differences in party identification and political policy particular to Ireland). They created two blocks of questions designed to explore the impact of frame of reference on political attitudes and behaviors of priests. One block, named the “Personal frame” by the researchers, measured different aspects of professional stress experienced by priests. The other block, named the “Institutional frame,” included “questions about promoting politically salient church teachings, parish financial health, and relationships with one’s bishop” (53). They then manipulated the order of questions in the survey to test the effect of these framing questions on priests’ political attitudes and behaviors. Finally, the authors experimented with an email test to see whether and how referencing the bishops or parishioners reference groups’ beliefs would affect the priests’ responses to a question about a controversial church teaching (receiving communion at Mass if one holds a pro-choice position on abortion).

The study is well-designed and methodologically sound. The authors found, and report, significant differences in a number of political attitudes and behaviors that vary according to whether the Personal frame or Institutional frame blocks appeared before or after the questions about political attitudes and behaviors. The effects were particularly notable among U.S. priests and stronger for the Institutional frame than for the Personal frame. They found similar effects in the email tests—including reference groups did affect priests’ responses to a politically sensitive question.

This book represents a first attempt at applying more rigorous experimental design methods to the field of religion and politics. As such, its findings are necessarily preliminary and sure to be challenged by others. The authors welcome the challenge and hope that the book will stimulate more use of experimental design methods in this area. Personally, while I enjoyed reading the comparison to Irish priests, it read like an afterthought and I think the book would have been stronger without it. This book makes a contribution to the politics and religion literature in the...


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pp. 81-82
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