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Vatican intensifying crackdown on American nuns
The Vatican and the American Catholic Church have issued three reprimands of Catholic nuns since last year.
June 5th, 2012
02:34 PM ET

Vatican intensifying crackdown on American nuns

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) – The Vatican denies there's a connection, but its reprimand of an influential American nun, at a moment when the Holy See is already engaged in an intense fight with most American nuns, sends a clear message: The Catholic Church’s leaders think America’s nuns have gone rogue and must be reined in.

The Vatican on Monday censured Sister Margaret A. Farley, who teaches at Yale Divinity School, over a 2006 book she wrote that the church said is out of step with official church teaching on human sexuality.

Just weeks before, the Vatican issued a major report condemning the groups that represent most American nuns, saying those organizations had promoted “radical feminism” while neglecting teachings against homosexuality and abortion.

“The Vatican believes that there is a climate of dissent in some quarters of the women’s religious life in America,” said John Allen, CNN’s Vatican analyst. “They are trying to deal with that, and both these developments speak to that.”

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In its reprimand of Farley, the church focused on her book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” which it said condones masturbation and homosexuality.

“Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” the church said in a statement Monday that characterized “homosexual acts” as “acts of grave depravity.”

The reprimand warned church officials not to use Farley’s book, raising eyebrows in Catholic circles because she is one of the country’s most respected female Catholic theologians.

The Rev. Brian Linnane, a Jesuit priest and president of Loyola University Maryland, did his doctoral work in theology under Farley.  He said the notification could have a chilling effect on academic freedom at Catholic institutions.

“There’s a sense that the vocation of the theologian is diminished in this notification to where it’s just, ‘Keep repeating what we’ve already said and don’t question it, don’t critique it, don’t try to help us make it more adequate.’  And I think that’s troubling,” he said.

Linnane said people who read the book knew that Farley was departing from Catholic teaching in certain areas.  

“She did not write a book about sexual practices.  She wrote a new framework to think about sexual ethics, which looks at justice, instead of procreation or abstinence, which have been part of the tradition,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong so much as I think it is of the ability to raise critical questions, to try and develop new understandings of the theological tradition and in this case of the moral tradition.”

Linnane said the Vatican is right to be sure that public ministers such as priests and nuns be on the same page doctrinally as the church leaders, and he noted the rebuke was specifically against the book, not the author.

“There’s no silencing of Sister Farley in the notification, there’s no threat to her membership in her religious community; it’s just about the book, which everyone agrees probably shouldn’t be taught in Catholic seminaries, certainly shouldn’t be taught in religious education classes for young persons. Everyone agrees it’s theological speculation,” he said.

The censure came days after the leadership that represents most American nuns concluded a meeting in Washington to devise a response to an April Vatican assessment that accused the nuns of hosting speakers who preached “radical feminism” at an annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The group represents about 80% of American nuns.

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The report also said the nuns were too focused on social justice and not enough on opposing abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

The recent reprimands come about a year after U.S. Catholic bishops rebuked another nun, Sister Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham University, for her writings.

The bishops said that Johnson falsely claims the Catholic Church’s names are “metaphors that do not apply to the reality of God within the traditional Catholic understanding.”

“In the last 12 months you’ve seen two of America’s leading Catholic nuns who are theologians in the cross hairs,” Allen said. “I’m not sure there’s anyone left of their stature to go after.”

Many parts of the American nuns’ community and the Catholic academic world have come out swinging against the Vatican critiques. In a statement, Farley defended her work, saying it was not meant as an official church teaching.

Farley said she feared the Vatican “misrepresents (perhaps unwittingly) the aims of my work and the nature of it as a proposal that might be in service of, not against, the church and its faithful people.”

On Friday, the leaders of the American nuns whom the Vatican had criticized said the Holy See’s report was “based on unsubstantiated accusations and (was) the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency” and that the report had “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community.”

Representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are flying to Rome this week to try to chart a course forward with Vatican officials. Church experts said that the nuns could accept the assessment, negotiate or resign en masse and form a new group outside the watchful eye of the Vatican.

The reprimands originate from the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI led for decades before his elevation to the papacy.

In interviews conducted while he held that earlier post, Benedict spoke often about growing the church by pruning becoming smaller but more devout before expanding.

It is hard to know what the reaction to the fight between American nuns and the Vatican is within the American Catholic community, but there have been some pockets of protest against the Vatican’s actions.

“It’s one thing when the Vatican goes after a theologian, because most rank-and-file Catholics don’t know any theologians,” Allen said. “But so many have been educated by sisters in a school, taken care of by a sister at a hospital or know a nun in their parish that is running the office."

He added, “When there’s a perception that sisters are under fire, there’s a tendency to support them.”

There is evidence that the reprimand against Farley has raised her profile as a theologian. Her "Just Love" was the best-selling religious studies book Tuesday on Amazon.com.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Sexuality

soundoff (2,186 Responses)
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  6. sabrina

    Scriptures says in Matthew 6:24 "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." These days it seems like far too many people in Christianity are worshipping at the altar of political correctness than they are about following the teachings of their specific religious communities, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox. My question is if you don't believe in or can't accept the teachings or consistenly rebel against or refuse to adhere to them, why do you bother staying in your faith communities? What's the point? Really? Don't you realize that atheists and secular humanists and the irreligious are laughing at us? They delight in calling all Christians "hypocrites" because of our endless tendency to not let the left hand know that the right is doing. It makes us look schizophrenic. Christians: If you are NOT consistenly following the teachings and NOT going by faith, and are unrepentant about it...then yes, you are being a hypocrite and in a state of sin! If you feel like you do, then it's better to leave the churches and be HONEST about what you believe/don't believe and live accordingly. This is particularly true of those who are in a ministry position: get in line or get out! If a person wants to be a priest, monk or nun, the BE ONE and stop trying to have things both ways. It's misleading the congregation and that's not fair.

    July 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  7. Arathole

    If you are catholic, I don't understand how you can be angry about this. As a catholic, you have to follow what the vatican and the pope says as they are the church leaders of the religion. You cannot pick and choose what to believe in, or else you are not being catholic. There is no "modern". That is what it states, and thats what you have to follow. If you don't, you cannot call yourself a catholic.

    June 30, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • deborah

      As a Catholic , I have to say " Leave those Nuns alone " .......Just because the Church said it , doesn't make it right.....Leave them alone !

      June 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • kenburch

      The church isn't JUST the hierarchy.

      Benedict is putting all the lights out in Catholicism. There will be nothing left but fear and shame when he's done. And the children will just go on being abused by the all-male "celibate" priesthood.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • montreux

      Yes, drink that Kool Aid. You have no choice.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • sabrina

      Agree, and I'm no longer Catholic. I'm Eastern Orthodox and the same applies there. Anyplace in Christianity it should apply.

      July 3, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  8. Winston5

    that's it Rome, miss the big picture again. Forget about the ped o philes, go after your OWN nuns! (They're not young boys in secret, fyi)

    June 22, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • kenburch

      That's what this is about...All Ratzi cares about is getting the priestophiles off the hook.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  9. Mark

    In light of the underground community of abuse and depravity that exists in the priesthood, I see this condemnation as little more than the excessive whinings of the proverbial kid caught with his own hand in the cookie jar. Let's not focus on issues...let's focus on dogma, which is the very thing that drove me away. Hypocrites.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  10. Bob

    Watch out, these nuns are going wild! Before we know it, they'll start to think!

    June 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • belinda

      The Catholic Church, doesn't seem to understand how this could work against them , instead of considering how to bring Catholics back to church , like myself , I quit going in 2008 , when it was clearly supporting the always, self serving Republican Party . They are once again alienating Catholics . I am amazed by the Courage, these Nuns have shown, in the face of terrible threats, by the Vatican . They deserve our complete support and total respect !!!!!!

      June 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  11. LEB

    The Vatican's new action plan on distracting from the pedophile priest scandal: "Look! Women acting uppity! Let's get 'em!!!!"

    June 18, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • kenburch

      They should just nail a "No Girls Allowed' sign on the door of every church.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  12. JoeP199

    Ah, why all the uproar? After all, they're JUST women. Who cares what they think? Seriously, this gives you a pretty good idea of what the RCC thinks about women.

    June 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Johnny

      So, because they are women anything they say must be immediately accepted?

      I am glad that they were not women the scientists who performed the now discredited study on neutrinos traveling faster than light. Otherwise, the scientists questioning the results would have been blamed and misogynists by the radical feminists.

      Let's see :

      “There’s a sense that the vocation of the scientist is diminished in these challenges to where it’s just, ‘Keep repeating what we’ve already said about the speed of light and don’t question it, don’t critique it, don’t try to help us make physics go in a different, perhaps more adequate, direction'."

      Yes, I can think of THOUSANDS of differences between this and the crackdown of nuns (and I am pretty sure I will get any "answers" saying that), none of them changes the fact these nuns are wrong (according to Church's doctrine), and it does not make it any difference that they are women.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • mkodrel

      @johnny the Church sounds just like Muslims, they both limit women's voices.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  13. charles

    Thank god i'm an atheist !!!!!!

    June 15, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • catholic engineer

      I'm confused. I thought atheism was the result of "reason" (which is seldom observed in a pure state).

      June 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • mkodrel

      I'm not an atheist or theist I'm agnostic. No one can prove or disprove God. Muslims, Catholics, etc, threat women lowly.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • sabrina

      Not very original, are you?

      July 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  14. Sortakinda

    This headline demonstrates an attempt at what you call "inductive reasoning." The Vatican writes a letter to ONE nun, therefore it is "Intensifying (its)Crackdown on (ALL) American Nuns." STUPID CNN, but hey, if you hate the Catholic Church, and you want to make hay, what else can you do?

    June 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • catholic engineer

      "Crackdown", "watchdog". The use of such words tell us more about the media and salivating church haters than they do about the church.

      June 15, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • donna

      ONE nun? Where have you been?
      Look up
      "US nuns' group to challenge Vatican censure "
      By RACHEL ZOLL
      AP Religion Writer I think that was from June 2, 2012

      The nuns that are being censured now, comprise I think, approximately 75-85% of ALL the US nuns. Not just One.

      But attacks on US nuns are not new news, it has been going for ages, before the 1970's when the all male heirarchy of the Catholic Church so attempted to control and dominate US nuns, that 400 Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles, elected to renounce their vows, and sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church. "Witness to Integrity" by Anita M. Caspary I.M.H., Ph.D. is an excellent book which thoroughly examines this very sad and controversial episode in the U.S. Catholic Church.

      FOUR HUNDRED nuns were expendable then, and it doesn't look like much has changed.

      If you are a member of the Catholic Church, you shouldn't take this lightly.

      If you are a woman, you shouldn't take this lightly.

      I fear that these issues have larger societal implications. Perhaps they speak not only to Catholic males trying to control Catholic females (here I'm referring to Priests and nuns), but it seems that Catholic dogma pretty well limits the lives, opportunities,and choices, of ALL good Catholic females.

      I am not "Hating on" the Catholic Church, in fact I may be grieving for it.

      June 16, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Winston5

      I hate the Catholic Church, don't mind saying it. Paterno-ing pedophiles is kinda a deal breaker in my world. :)

      June 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  15. Delmar H. Knudson

    Catholic women are seeking a voice, and the Papacy will have nun uv it.

    June 15, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • sabrina

      but what is that voice? Is the voice the voice of rebellion and advocating sinful immoral lifestyles...or is it a voice that encourages people not to conform to the ways of the world but instead to transform it? The latter is what nuns are supposed to do Not just nuns, either. It's expected by all who believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Not always an easy path, but a worthwhile one.

      July 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  16. czar33

    In the USA I am keeping tally of the surnames of priests and bishops that touched little boys. So far the Irish surnames are winning at 78%
    The Holy See should crackdown on the Irish-bishops in the USA, these men are stealing money from the ethnic Polish and Lithuainian churches. Then they close down the church or tell the people it is nolonger a Polish church. The Irish cholera of Allentown PA, better stay the 'F' away from Saint Casimirs church in Shenandoah, PA
    I will not play around this time FAT over-weight-PIG

    June 15, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • theTH1NKER

      Uh, someone might want to take a closer look at this guy. I'm sensing anger that is beyond filling squirt guns with holy water. I hope I'm not reading about him on CNN in a few days.

      June 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • MNMartin

      Just save everyone the trouble & shoot yourself now. No need to take others with you.

      June 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  17. czar33

    The Holy See should crackdown on the Irish-bishops in the USA, these men are stealing money from the ethnic Polish and Lithuainian churches. Then they close down the church or tell the people it is nolonger a Polish church. The Irish cholera of Allentown PA, better stay the 'F' away from Saint Casimirs church in Shenandoah, PA
    I will not play around this time FAT over-weight-PIG

    June 15, 2012 at 2:11 am |
    • SouthernCelt

      Obviously you never learned anything in Saint Casimir's Church in Shenandoah, PA. I suggest you move to a more tolerant Church.

      June 18, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Winston5

      Can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm rooting for the Irish priest to shut your lame church down, if your hate is an example of the pews.

      June 22, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  18. b4bigbang

    Sick 'em Pope !!!

    June 15, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  19. Pt8685

    If you read the letter from the Vatican it's obvious they are concerned that the book will be mistaken for Catholic teaching. They don't really care who reads it, they care that some might think, becasue the author is Catholic nun, that the teachings in it are officially Catholic. They are not.

    If a member of Obama's administration writes a book saying that the Tea Party is right, taxes shoud be cut for the rich, and Obamacare should be repealed, the president has every right to distance himself from that book and the author.

    Where is the controversy here?

    June 14, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • donna

      in that case a simple "Statement" from the church probably would have cleared up any "confusion".

      And as a good Catholic nun, I'm sure the sister who wrote the book would have been happy to put a forward in the book Clarifying that issue.

      This is WAY bigger than just rebuking one nun, or the church distancing itself from one book....

      June 16, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  20. GodFreeNow

    Clearly women make these guys very nervous.

    June 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Shawn

      you know they do !! lololol I have seen some sisters wearing their running shoes too. have to be fast these days . :)

      June 15, 2012 at 3:09 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.