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Abstract

After the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church appeared to suffer a collapse of its moral authority over the lay people in the United States. This has been attributed to the actions of Church elites, who intentionally created structures of dissent to keep people involved in the Church. It has also been attributed to general secularization whereby people simply reject the teachings of the Church in favor of non-Catholic ideas about individualism and moral relativism. A close examination of moral authority dynamics in the Catholic schools of Chicago demonstrates that neither explanation gives sufficient attention to the agency and experiences of lay Catholics both before and after Vatican II. During the three decades after the Second World War, Catholic school teachers shifted the moral education they provided from being focused on the rote memorization of moral rules to the experiential development of moral skills and dispositions. This change in the style of moral education was the outcome of a process of influence at the most distal levels of the church structure, like Catholic schools. These peripheral spaces, where the moral authority of the magisterium is weak and openness to the non-Catholic world is high, allow exchanges across the boundary between the “religious” and the “secular.” This dissertation uses archival materials from the Catholic schools in Chicago to demonstrate the power of these peripheral spaces, not to weaken the Catholic Church—but to reimagine it.

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