Five Questions with Julie Hanlon Rubio and Paul Schutz on Clericalism

Julie Hanlon Rubio is a professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. Her research brings the resources of social ethics to issues of sex, gender, marriage, and family.  Her current book project is titled Catholicism, Gender, and the Family.

Paul J. Schutz joined the faculty of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University after completing his PhD in Systematic Theology at Fordham University. His research centers on the Christian theology of creation, with an emphasis on how contemporary scientific knowledge might transform the Christian tradition’s understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world in light of socio-ecological degradation. He is also active as a liturgist and liturgical musician.

Julie and Paul are principal investigators for the Taking Responsibility project “Critically Examining Whys and Hows: Measuring and Understanding How Structural Clericalism Enables Sexual Violence.” We caught up with them in November 2021 for a snapshot of their work in progress.

The former Jesuit seminary at Woodstock, MD (closed 1974)

1) TR: How did you get interested in clericalism as a topic?

JR & PS: We noticed that many different people–from Pope Francis to theologians and scholars who had been researching clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse (CPSA) for decades–named clericalism as a key, or even the key, to the problem of CPSA, but definitions varied widely, and only a few researchers had ever attempted to study clericalism empirically. Major studies (like the John Jay report) did not focus on clericalism at all. We wanted to better understand clericalism and its relationship to CPSA. We thought that theoretical work on structures could help us define structural clericalism, as a particular form of clericalism that many people were beginning to talk about. We hoped that surveying people preparing for and working in ecclesial ministry would help us understand both how clericalism persisted and how it could be resisted.

2) TR: What has it been like, as theologians, working with psychologists? What have you learned about their discipline and what do you wish psychology would learn about theology?

JR & PS: We have learned so much! Psychologists Tom Plante and Sonny Manuel, SJ advised us as we constructed our survey and our graduate assistant, then-scholastic Jeff Dorr, SJ, brought an essential critical eye to every phase of the survey’s development and distribution. One of our struggles was that as theologians, we tend to see multiple dimensions of problems, and we wanted to measure all of the relevant dimensions of clericalism. The psychologists on our team consistently encouraged us to focus more narrowly so that we could measure more accurately. 

Another struggle was getting people to complete the survey. We worked really hard to get our survey into the right hands using official channels at seminaries and schools of theology and ministry, as well as personal contacts. We ended up with nearly 300 participants, which is great considering the length of the survey, but we had hoped for an even larger pool. About two-thirds of our participants are religious sisters or lay ecclesial ministers. While we learned a lot from them, we had hoped for a larger percentage of priests and seminarians. 

Thankfully, psychologist Jasmin Llamas helped us make sense of the huge amount of data that we collected. Jasmin’s expertise was essential because she could run statistical analyses and tell us which of our findings were significant and which weren’t. But our expertise as theologians helped us ask the right questions about clericalism and understand the nuances of participant responses. Working together, we were able to go beyond most accounts we’ve seen by theologians (most of which lack empirical data) and most accounts we’ve read from social scientists (which lack deep understanding of religious beliefs and practices).

3) TR: I know you’re only partway through assessing your data, but what would you say your number one takeaway is right now?

JR & PS: Clericalism runs deep—in both clergy and laity! It involves a combination of gender, sex, and power and shows up in unexpected places and forms in ecclesial life.

4) TR: What would you say is the most pressing issue for Jesuit seminaries right now, vis a vis sexual abuse?

We had an incredible pool of respondents, many of whom had decades of experience in ecclesial ministry, and they told us a lot about the persistence of clericalism. Many noted the inadequacy of preparation for celibate life. Far fewer noted the lack of attention to gender and power in formation, but our data set (along with our review of sexual violence literature) pointed to a need for attention to these aspects of clericalism, too. We can’t ignore the reality that the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are men or fail to examine the connections between problematic forms of masculinity and distorted theologies of priesthood and abuse. So we hope our study encourages Jesuit schools of theology and ministry to commit to more rigorous formation programs on sex, gender, power, and abuse in relationship to clericalism. We think the best programs would include both priests and lay people and would foster concrete strategies for interrupting clericalism in general, and especially in relationship to sexual abuse. 

5) TR: What has your project not been able to tell you, that you would like to know?

JR & PS: Our study provides a thicker understanding of structural clericalism and, through analysis of the broader literature on sexual violence, points toward connections between clericalism and CPSA. However, more work needs to be done to develop an instrument that can measure structural clericalism more precisely and empirically prove its connection to CPSA. We have laid some solid groundwork, and we hope others can pick up where we left off.