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)
  1. curiousdwk

    Fundamentalists (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish) have always been at War With Women. The Catholic Church is now realizing that it's power is being marginalized so it is trying to marshall its resources to demonstrate its power rather than slide into impotency.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  2. John

    The Catholic church is not a democracy and couldn't care less about keeping with the times or being mainstream. The Church bases it's doctrine on 2000 years of the absolute best of theology ever produced. The Catholic church does not care that in the past 20 years Hollywood has made sin cool... in the Catholic church sin is still sin and will always be sin, and if you don't like it then your loss.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Dorothy

      It would be an interesting lesson for the hierarchy to learn. Galileo may have had a few things to say about that as well......ah, but as a good Catholic he accepted the silence (and I am sure the apology 400 years later).

      June 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Then, in your opinion, the Church knows absolutely what sin is and furthermore will never change? And, given the absolute nature of the Church's understanding of sin, it need never bother with any kind of open discussion or listen to any dissent? This is very helpful.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  3. StandupforTruth

    I wish many of you expend that zeal that you have in supporting our convents and charities. But your feelings probably will change in the next few hours because that is all you have invested, feelings, not commitment. Many of us believe in Jesus but aren't willing to follow him.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • existential nihilism

      all you have to do is trust in yourself. As a non-believer I sit back and laugh at your silly guabbles. People just can't accept they are no more important than any other living thing on this planet. That's their downfall

      June 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  4. John

    Welcome to all of the non-Catholics, atheist, Protestants and Catholics that don't know anything about Catholicism

    June 5, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • Dorothy

      I know a lot about Catholicism......I also know that most scandals within the Catholic Church have been historically due to the actions of its hierarchy. I fear this generation will be no exception.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • John

      Dorothy, I don't disagree... I am the first to admit that the church has sinners, and you're right, greed and power have hurt the church... but the church teaches that throughout the years, the core doctrine of the church has remained pure. Keep in mind that within Jesus’s own 12 apostles was Judas, and in 2000 years of history we have had some Judases..

      June 5, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  5. AlterBoyBang

    The Vatican is full of male hypocrites and bigots (and I'm a man). Did they not forget the Vatican seex parties or all the little alter boys that the priests so fondly fondled? Why not crack down on the pope and priests/alter-boy-lovers? Time to disband catholicism.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • John

      You clearly don't know your facts:
      1. The number of priest abuses in the past 20 years is about zero... number of priest abuses in the 70s and 80s was in line with the male population, but the entire world believed that a) it was a correctable condition and b) it was a topic not to be spoken about publically. (not just in Catholic churches)
      2. The % of priest that have abused children = 4%, and the % of US men that have abused children =4%. So guess what, Priest are men.. how about that?
      3. Being a priest doesn't make you God, priest, bishops, cardinals and popes all sin.
      4. The only time the Catholic clergy is different than a normal man is when they are administering a sacrament.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • existential nihilism

      Your either a wack job or a priest, if your trying to convince us that no priest has molested a child in 20 years ! What planet are you from? Uranus?

      June 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  6. johnquepublique

    So is this "crackdown" going to be to the knuckles or the back of the head?

    June 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • existential nihilism

      except that these priest consider their pen*s a sacrament and administer it way to much.!! Where you come up with 0 percent is a joke. Your saying that zero priest have molested no one in 20 years? Your a fu*cink joke, or a priest !

      June 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  7. ralph

    The Catholic Church is totally out of touch with reality. While it has systematically hidden pedophiles for decades (if not centuries) it attempts to take the high ground with the nuns. The church, and I was raised a Catholic, is simply a power structure trying to preserve its own interests and influence. The hipocrisy and corruption within the Catholic church is unbelievable. " Do as I say, but don't do as I do." Their teachings have become a very sad joke.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      I will pray for you ralph

      June 5, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  8. johnquepublique

    So is this "crackdown" going to be to the knuckles or the back of the head.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  9. buckeyenonbeliever

    How do believers tolerate and accept such heinous hypocrisy? The Catholic church reprimands nuns whose crimes are merely helping those in need regardless of religious affiliation or belief, meanwhile pedophiles doing "god's work" and molesting children of the church are paid off or moved around the country to try and hide these criminals and make the problem go away!!!!

    Absolutely atrocious. Catholics, please stop giving your hard earned money to a criminal orginization. You can and must do better.

    June 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • John

      it always comes back to the pedophile priest, no matter what the topic... the pedophile priest always seem to be the pillar of every argument for why the church is bad. Really... I've been reading religious blogs for a couple years and it always comes up, usually many many times.. but it doesn't hold water.. priest are men and the % of pedophile priest = that of pedophile men. It's a horrible thing but has nothing to do with the Catholic Church or it's teaching... if anything priest are guilty of believing other priest when said they wouldn't do it again... there you have it.... that horrible thing called forgiveness.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      So John, we should forget about the serial pedophilia, enabled by church leaders and just forgive. Do you advocate that philosophy for secular criminals too?

      June 5, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • existential nihilism

      John, you keep comparing the number of men molesting children to the number of priest, NOW try comparing the number of times abuse occurred. The priests have committed the same crime many many times on the same child. You can't even compare the 2 together. When a priest abuses the same child dozens of times, then it's dozens of crimes, not just one. I think the priests have the lead here.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  10. Bill Ball

    What is needed is a Strike against Sunday Mass for a month or so and see if they get the message!

    June 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  11. NauticalMan

    Who would we trust more, the nuns or the majority of old men running the church?

    June 5, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  12. John

    Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have out lived their time, it's time humanity sheds these primitive ritual religions for a philosophy worthy of an evolving species. Doesn't the church understand that without women we don't exist, show some respect to the gender that gives you your life. If there is a God, it (not him) would look at our cultures with disgust and our arrogance claiming we know the mind of this God. Bibles are written by these dirty old men whose only skill is running the Ponzi scheme aka religion. You can be saved by a donation every week or more, even if it hurts.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Spirituality Hausa place in this world ven if you don't like the way it's organized. And, believe it or not, it took both a male and female to get you onto this planet.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • curiousdwk

      I'll be a bit more moderate and say that Fundamentalism is the bane to society – whether that Fundamentalism is Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Jewish. The more the claim to have all the answers to all the questions, the more bothersome they are to those question all the answers.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • oneofakind

      BRAVO...Someone who realized that we are just another species, fortunate enough to have the intelligence, strength, and whit to dominate the planet, and nothing more !

      June 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  13. Cheese Wonton

    It is not possible to be a moral, responsible person and a Catholic.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Sure it is. Not all of us slavishly follow whatever the American bishops and the Inquisition have cooked up this week by way of teachings and doctrine. These guys are still accountable and they still have to make sense. Granted, though, things have been tough lately.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Chris Rogers

      You're a first class idiot!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Daniel

      The reverse is true in reference to your statement.

      How many of your live in a smaller town, with a gigantic religious order that we all have to deal with on a daily basis?

      Bet none of you do. Or very few. All most of you have are opinions, with no actual grounding in REAL dealings of situations as such.

      News flash: from a Catholic standpoint, this is necessary. It's simple.

      Like any other business, if you don't want to follow the rules, then just move on. That will happen one way or the other with these nuns.

      Some are Anti-Semitic, others completely refuse to follow Church doctrine. You are either on board with the program, or you are not.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  14. Dan

    All hail the POPE The POPE and nothing but THE POPE,when he makes it clear that abusing young boys by the PRIESTS the are protected by the POPE is stopped.GO NUNS GO NUNS.These out of touch old men that wear the silly hats and dresses just want to be you,but they can not because they are to busy playing reacharound with each other.PARDON MY FRENCH.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  15. Illeagle-j1

    I am sure that the Vatican wants to do away with nuns, they have found altar boys, more willing to bend to their rule.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  16. Mike

    An American schism would be a great development. Imagine Catholicism not overrun by anti-gay, anti-contraception, anti-women zealots. Maybe even the GOP puppets would start to take their cue from American nuns and focus more on social justice issues rather than anachronistic ideologies. One can always hope.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  17. Patti in NKY

    The US nuns are the only sane side of the Catholic Church.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      You forgot he radical leftist fringe in the Church. There's still 3, maybe 4 of us left.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  18. sanjosemike

    Before the pope decides to "clean up" the Nuns, I'd suggest a better start would be to force Bernard Law back to the US, where he should face prosecution for shielding p*dophile priests who attacked children.

    THAT is a bit of unfinished business.


    June 5, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  19. ja-coffalotte

    I thought the Vatican was only interested in crack downs on little boys?

    June 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • oneofakind

      or did you mean down the cracks of little boys? I thought so.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  20. Nicholas in Toronto

    The nuns who run the schools and the hospitals and various charitable groups are the only part of the church that still holds peoples respect and admiration. It is the Bishops who protected the pedophile priests who have damaged the Church's reputation. Which part of this does the Vatican not understand? What do they hope to accomplish, an American schism?

    June 5, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
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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.