Criteria and Method for Discernment of the Holy Spirit: An Ethnographic Study

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A . in Religious Studies


Department of Religious Studies


Elizabeth Groppe


The purpose of this thesis is to critically assess a theological paradigm for the discernment of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic tradition affirms that the ecclesial, spiritual, and moral life of Catholics is sustained and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Christ, given by God, enables participation in the divine life through the sacraments and prayer of the Church. This affirmation is foundational to Catholic theology and life. Because of this, this thesis seeks to address the practice and method of discerning the Holy Spirit. How do Catholics open themselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit? How do they determine when the Spirit is actually present, and what the Spirit is leading them to do? One theological paradigm for the discernment of the Spirit is Thomas Dubay’s Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment. Dubay attempts to distinguish between actions based on the Spirit’s involvement and those based on sin or subjective illusion. The proposed thesis applies Dubay’s methodology to common questions of discernment in order to illuminate different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in human life. The thesis will assess Dubay’s paradigm through ethnographic research conducted among members of a Catholic religious community. The integration of fieldwork with theological scholarship by means of ethnographic study is a dimension of Sarah Coakley’s method of theologie totale. Using both participant observation and interviews, I researched the practices of prayerful reception of the Spirit and active discernment of the Spirit in the male branch of the Society of Mary (Marianist) communities in Dayton, Ohio. The Marianists are a Roman Catholic religious community of brothers and priests that work in areas such as education, social justice, and environmental preservation. Members of this community are part of the order’s Province of the United States, whose mission states that they are a community “empowered by the Holy Spirit.” On the basis of this research, I will assess Dubay’s theological paradigm seeking to answer the following: Is it adequate to account for the lived experience of Marianist communities? Are there aspects of the paradigm that need revision? Is there a need for any enhancements or additions?


Theology, Religion, Discernment

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