Meet Our Researchers – Theresa Tobin


Dr. Theresa Tobin (Marquette University) is co-PI of the SMV-funded research project The Motivation to Love: Overcoming Spiritual Violence and Sacramental Shame in Christian Churches. She is collaborating with co-PI Dr. Dawne Moon (Marquette University).

THERESA TOBIN (Ph.D., University of Colorado, Boulder, 2005) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University.  She studies contemporary ethics with a special focus on ethical questions that arise at the intersections of gender, sexuality, religion and culture.  Publications in these areas include: “On Their Own Ground: Strategies of Resistance for Sunni Muslim Women” (2007), “The Relevance of Trust for Moral Justification” (2011), and “Spiritual Violence, Gender, and Sexuality: Implications for Seeking and Dwelling Among Some Catholic Women and LGBT Catholics” (forthcoming).

From where I stand now, I can see that my interest in the phenomenon I eventually came to know as ‘spiritual violence’ began in 2002, when news broke publicly about the decades-long sexual abuse of children perpetrated by Roman Catholic clergy and the extensive cover up by Church leaders of that abuse. As a member of this faith community, I was spiritually devastated by this news. Although I was never directly abused, I felt deeply betrayed by and angry at church leaders who had instilled so much shame and guilt in people and especially in women and girls about sexual sin and moral purity, all while they themselves were engaging in horrific forms of sexualized violence against children or shielding perpetrators from accountability for their crimes and their sinfulness. At the time, it never occurred to me that I’d take up this topic as research; this was personal. But in 2010, I began reading testimony from clergy abuse victims and their stories commanded a moral attention that I just couldn’t ignore.  As I read their stories, I perceived a gap in both public and academic conversations about this tragedy. These conversations focused a lot on institutional credibility and accountability, as well as the severe psychological, physical, and sexual harms victims endured, but not as much on something that many victims were naming as one of the most devastating consequences of the abuse: that the abuse had damaged their faith and relationship with God. Their stories moved me to want to understand how faith communities can sometimes be places of spiritual trauma and even spiritual death, rather than places that foster spiritual life.  And as a moral philosopher, I wanted to understand the moral impact of victimization by this form of abuse.

Around the time I was reading this testimony, two additional serendipitous findings helped me frame and solidify a set of research questions that would lead eventually to my collaboration with Dawne. I literally stumbled upon a National Catholic Reporter editorial by Jaime Manson who named the 2010 Vatican statement criminalizing attempts to ordain women as an act of spiritual violence against women. The term ‘spiritual violence’ and Manson’s brief explication of it leapt out at me as a term with potentially much broader resonance to also capture the distinctively spiritual harms clergy abuse victims were experiencing.  So I decided to research that term, ‘spiritual violence’, and I quickly discovered that a decade earlier LGBT Christians had organized a formal “Stop Spiritual Violence Campaign,” which called for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to end the use of religious teachings to promote demeaning beliefs about and treatment of LGBT church members. A set of research questions began to emerge for me around understanding the nature of spiritual violence and the moral significance of victimization by this mode of violence.

I find this research compelling because it seeks to understand a largely overlooked form of violence and because it aspires to produce scholarship that will raise awareness of, legitimate, and aid the work of communities engaged in movements to end spiritual violence. The research is also very close to my heart given my personal involvement within a faith community that is itself struggling to overcome spiritual violence. It is a great gift to be able to weave my personal and professional life together in a project that is so intellectually gratifying and practically important to me, and the abundance of this gift has grown exponentially in my collaboration with Dawne.

Dawne and I met early on in our time at Marquette, and in brief conversation we realized we had similar research interests. In the summer of 2014, (while I was on parental leave with twins!) Dawne emailed me about the SMV fellowship opportunity wondering if I might be interested in a possible collaboration. I was excited by this possibility. When we met to discuss how our research might fit with the fellowship themes, we discovered a lot of resonance in our thinking about these issues and a lot of potential for each disciplinary perspective to offer something the other lacked. For example, Dawne was intrigued by how philosophical ethics could provide a normative framework to adjudicate among competing claims about what constitutes authentic love. And I realized that Dawne’s sociological data about peoples’ actual experiences both of spiritual harm and resilience to it was telling a far more complex and nuanced story about spiritual violence than the picture that was emerging from my still pretty abstract philosophical thinking. When Dawne and I first met, I had been focusing mostly on the spiritual harm of clergy sexual abuse and had not yet done much research on the spiritual violence LGBT Christians experience. Dawne had been working on LGBT experience for a much longer time, and had hypothesized that shame was operating as a primary source of spiritual harm for LGBT church members. I was eager to develop this aspect of my research and Dawne was eager to continue and bolster her line of inquiry, so our collaboration easily fell into place with a focus on LGBT experiences of spiritual violence in conservative Christian churches.

This interdisciplinary research opportunity has been game changing for me as a scholar. Learning and practicing qualitative research skills and being able to participate and observe people in real time as they work in this movement for justice and love has given texture and richness to the philosophical analysis I do, and has complicated moral arguments I’m interested to advance about gender, sexuality, sin and love. This collaboration has affirmed my sense of how impoverished practical moral philosophy is when it is too far removed from the messy moral realities of peoples’ lives. There are crucial insights and nuanced understanding that comes from being immersed in a particular struggle with particular people, and I am grateful to the communities who have welcomed us to observe and learn about their lives. I have also been deeply humbled and awed by their extraordinary faith and their astounding capacity for humility and love for people who have hurt them so severely. At times, this research has felt simultaneously like being at the most rigorous academic conference and the most compelling spiritual retreat. My scholarship and my faith have been strengthened by this project.