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A Matter of Discretion

The Politics of Catholic Priests in the United States and Ireland

Brian R. Calfano; Melissa R. Michelson and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon

Clergy are pillars of local religious communities, and Roman Catholic priests are perhaps the quintessential examples of pastors functioning as political elites. The political science literature demonstrates that priests (indeed, clergy more generally) are well-positioned to influence the faithful, even if this influence is somewhat inconsistent. At their core, priests are opinion leaders and representatives of their church to both the faithful and their local communities.

But exactly how Catholic priests determine the political acts and attitudes associated with their elite role remains a puzzle. We suggest it is the product of an interactive institutional, social, and psychological milieu, the complexity of which has not been fully assessed in the extant literature. Though some might prefer to think of priests as profiles in courage operating above the political fray, the institutional and personal realities of priest life often forces them to deal with the political realm. In doing so, priests are variably responsive to different principals, or reference groups, that represent specific dimensions of their professional context. Drawing on a series of randomized experiments on samples of Roman Catholic priests in the US and Ireland, we find that priests cognitively draw on varying professional and personal cues in responding to their employer’s institutional preferences. Furthermore, how priests represent their church's political preferences to parishioners appears to be a matter of individual-level discretion.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 222Size: 6 x 9
978-1-4422-3724-7 • Hardback • April 2017 • $80.00 • (£52.95)
978-1-4422-3725-4 • eBook • April 2017 • $76.00 • (£49.95)
Brian R. Calfano (Ph.D., University of North Texas) is assistant professor of political science and journalism at the University of Cincinnati and is the academic advisor for the EmbRACELA study conducted by the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Calfano is the author of God Talk: Experimenting with the Religious Cause of Public Opinion (with Paul Djupe). His work has appeared in Political Research Quarterly, Political Behavior, Political Communication, PS: Political Science and Politics, and State Politics and Policy Quarterly, among other outlets.

Melissa R. Michelson (Ph.D., Yale University) is professor of political science at Menlo College. She is author of Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights (with Brian F. Harrison), Living the Dream: New Immigration Policies and the Lives of Undocumented Latino Youth (with Maria Chávez and Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti), and Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (with Lisa García Bedolla). Michelson's work has appeared in American Political Science Review, Journal of Politics, and many other outlets.

Elizabeth A. Oldmixon (Ph.D., University of Florida) is associate professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas, and a fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies Summer Institute, Brandeis University. Oldmixon's research focuses on clergy politics and religion and legislative policy-making. She is author of Uncompromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives, and her work has appeared in Politics and Religion, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, and Journal of Church and State. She is editor-in-chief of Politics and Religion.

Chapter 1: Catholicism and Politics
Chapter 2: Priests as Political Entrepreneurs of Varying Desire
Chapter 3: Reflecting on Ministry and Politics
Chapter 4: The Dynamics of Priest Cue Reliance
Chapter 5: Cognitive Frames, Group Cues, and Priest Political Responses
Chapter 6: Priest Discretion in the Field
Chapter 7: Conclusions

While we know a great deal about individual clergy members from a generation of study, we still know very little about their institutional constraints, the context in which they act, until now. The authors expertly navigate the complex environment of the Catholic Church across nations (for the first time) with creative data collection. This book, therefore, represents a phase change in the study of clergy; it is a true agenda setting work.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

This book is a welcome and important addition to several literatures. The volume combines a rigorous and creative multimethod research design with a sophisticated understanding of Catholic doctrine and social teaching and a nuanced understanding of two distinctive political cultures. This work will serve as an invaluable resource for scholars working in several diverse theoretical traditions.
Ted G. Jelen, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This volume advances the study of the role of religious leaders within political life. Employing a contextual, cross-national framework of analysis, adopting new theoretical frameworks, and utilizing multiple modes of methodological analysis (including survey research, ethnographic, and experimental modes of analysis), this endeavor breaks new ground in the study of the political roles of clergy.
Corwin E. Smidt, Calvin College