Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Committee Member 1

Stacey L. Connaughton

Committee Member 2

Steven R. Wilson

Committee Member 3

Thomas Ryba

Committee Member 4

Suzy M. D'Enbeau


For centuries women religious have faced an uncomfortable tension with the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. This tension is underscored today by the Vatican’s 2008 assessment and subsequent investigation of women religious in the US. Considering this tension-filled context, this study is concerned with the ways in which women religious organize around, alongside, and in some cases against the Church while also supporting the same beliefs and values as the Church. Specifically, this study recognizes NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice as a unique organizational site operating at the intersection of religion, politics, and authority, and explores how women religious and staff at NETWORK frame organizational tension and construct and stabilize authority for the purpose of their ministry. Embracing a tension-centered approach, along with the lenses of authority/authoring and alternative organizing, this study aimed to contribute to theory by exploring the organizational implications of subunits (i.e., women religious) of larger institutions (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church) authoring new tensions. To do so, this dissertation project relied on the qualitative methods of interviews, varying degrees of participant-observation, and document analysis, and engaged a manual approach to data analysis. The findings revealed how staff and sisters associated with NETWORK framed tension and manifested authority through their work, as well as how their organizing efforts have historically authored tension(s) within the institution of Church. First, NETWORK identified tension around three central tensional nodes, framed as dualisms, namely: Catholic/secular; all-male hierarchy of the Church/laity; and religious convent/society. In response to tension, NETWORK discursively constructed a third space, or a space between opposite poles wherein tension can be united in creative ways (Janssens & Steyaert, 1999). NETWORK’s third space is named sister spirit, and it allows staff and sisters to redefine the situation and be productive within the tension. Next, the manifestation of authority happened on two separate levels: the individual, or micro-level (i.e., Catholic sisters who associate with NETWORK) and the organizational, or meso-level (i.e., NETWORK as an organization). At the individual level Catholic sisters leveraged the support of their religious communities as a means of collective construction of authority in order to dissent from the Catholic Church. At the organizational level, NETWORK invoked authority through the Gospel, as an authoritative text brought to life through their work in engaging politics as an avenue for change. Finally, NETWORK’s organizing efforts of have authored tensions within the institution of the Church through NETWORK’s foundational feminist agenda and its Catholic identity. This study contributes to theory on tension and authority/authoring by explicitly recognizing the ways tension engenders authoring, and advances theory on the construction and stabilization of authority in third space. Additionally, this work responds to requests for theory development around duality relationships, suggesting the process of constructing third space via trialectics as a strategy to manage tension inherent in dualities. Methodologically, this project contributes to scholarship by introducing the strategic application of authority construction to qualitative data analysis and expands on manual procedures for data analysis through the use of whiteboarding during specific moments of the analysis process. Practical contributions identify third space as a strategically ambiguous form of alternative organizing that may be ideal for other religious or spiritual social change organizations. In addition, the use of religious or spiritual guiding principles, when organizationally appropriate, may offer stability and energy for staff facing a variety of organizational tensions.