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. 1234LISA1234

    It is a known fact that christianity is the biggest fraud ever imposed on the poor and illiterate by the few. Taking advenage of women, children, is not what humanity is about in other countries. Islam and Nazi Germany are based on the New Testament, This new testament was a combinartion of the methods used by Alexander of Macedonia and Mitraism . There are religions that explain where we came from, where we are going, and help develop respect to women, children, the poor and the uneducated through the study and understanding consciounsness and it's role in a human body. There are many books written on the subject. One book for biginners, who are interrested in self knowledge is "ARIGO"..The world becomes a friendly place to live in and help others.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Gordo

      You are the biggest fraud.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And of COURSE, you, Gard'oh, are a brilliant source of knowledge, aren't you?

      Oh, don't even bother. If you were, you wouldn't have stayed as Susquehanna, you little chicken[shi te. You'd have grown a pair and transferred to a school that would be a challenge instead of a refuge.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • oneofakind

      clap...clap...clap Lisa...also read up on Harris, Hitchens, and free thinking. They did more for me than any priest ever did.

      June 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  2. Robert Iacomacci

    The crack down is only 48 years too late.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  3. ketracel

    How come the Vatican is "cracking down" on nuns but have protected the men who are proven abusers? Priorities!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Because the child abusers are in mortal danger from their crimes and sins which contradict church teaching while the nuns are subverting that teaching. It really is two separate issues. The one has to do with mentally ill criminals, the other with willful disobedience.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  4. Dale

    How come the Comments section on every article concerning Christianity is not set up like the standard CNN Comments sections, where you can hit Like, and sort by most popular?

    June 6, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • JasonKL

      Because it's a "blog". I agree likes would be nice, though.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Gordo

      I'll tell you exactly why, and this coming from the boyfriend of an assistant editor at their main office. CNN is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) anti-Christianity (they're anti anything that Fox news and the GOP would be pro). By setting up the comments section like this, all the atheist haters can post practically any insults they want, and not have to log in with their real ID. This is a fact, actually.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Bwhahha. Oh, really, Gourd? Do tell. So only atheist can post without any log-in? Only those you hate can post without your say-so? Boo-hoo, too.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • oneofakind

      Gordo, your so called facts are gossip, just like the bible. get some nads and grow-up, boy

      June 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  5. ipmutt

    Chatholic hate ranting from mainstream media. It is non stop. It is biased. It is a good example why the way this stuff slants the preporting, you can not trust it to be accurate.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • sam stone

      feeling a bit put upon? too bad

      June 6, 2012 at 4:20 am |
  6. abcontador

    I can not even begin to tell you how much religion disgusts me – it is holding humanity back and wasting resources. Down with the church!

    June 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  7. JasonKL

    The idea of nuns focusing too much on "social justice" and not enough on preventing abortion is strange to me.

    Social justice efforts ran by nuns – like diaper drives, low-cost daycare, food pantries, wishing trees, etc – for low income mothers are far more likely to prevent abortion then all the picketing in the world. These young ladies often choose abortion because they are scared and overwhelmed with no support structure. Nuns offering a loving, caring helping hand through their assistance programs make them so much more likely to keep their babies, because they don't feel as alone in the world. Social justice is far more effective in this then standing outside planned parenthood with signs. Nuns should be supported and lauded in these endeavors.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • DTR

      Why do you simply accept CNN's claim of "social justice" over other issues?

      When Simone Campbell and the LCWR support the government of Iran, is it "social justice" even though they show no compassion for the millions facing the threat of nuclear holocaust? I applaud the bishops for standing against anti-Semitism.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  8. Mike Blackadder

    The Vatican's report doesn't condemn Amercian nuns.

    It doesn't say that they are too focused on social justice as though they should be doing less social justice. It applauds the works of the American nuns in the area of social justice.

    CNN has an interesting way of twisting the facts to make it look like Catholic men are evil. Like I said before; who cares they're obviously preaching to the choir anyway.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gosh. It's just SO HARD to imagine that some Catholic men are evil.

      Look at all the good they've done by discriminating against women and gays!!

      June 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Tom, non-Catholic men discriminate against women and gays. Perhaps Catholic men recognize that there are differences between men and women and there are differences between gays and heteros. Do you agree?

      June 5, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Well, honey, i'd love to discuss this, but I have no idea what you mean. Perhaps you should re-submit when you're sober.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      Yeah, that whole pedophile and cover up thing was just taken out of context

      June 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      You don't know what I mean when I suggest that men and women are different, that it is legitimate to hold the position that men and women have distinct and sometimes different roles?

      Why is this difficult to comprehend?

      June 5, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      The Vatican has a way of talking out of both sides of its face. Look at Humanae Vitae.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Mikey, I have no idea what you're talking about or why you'd imagine I'd care to discuss such matters with someone like you; you hate women.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • JasonKL

      Mike, I do understand the Catholic viewpoint of gender roles – but can you not understand why many females find them very stifling? Accepting a life that feels unfulfilling to you because it is your predetermined "role" isn't an easy thing for anyone. Accepting that you are naturally "subordinate" to someone you may well be more intelligent or capable then simply because of the gender you were born with is also not an easy pill to swallow.

      While it is certainly your prerogative to hold any religious beliefs you wish, I think it's important to understand the effect these rigid roles have on many women, and the effect they have on the rapidly declining numbers of active catholics in America.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Jason, I do understand why women feel that way; at least to a degree. Men form the priesthood and the magisterium.

      However, Catholics are not subordinate to priests. The priesthood is a role. They serve Catholics in the form of sacraments (communion, forgivness of sin) and they are ministers. Women have roles in the church as lay-people and in holy celibate service, like Priests but not exactly the same.

      Catholic women are subordinate to the magisterium when it comes to decisions of the faith. Ultimately the dogma of the faith follows from their decisions, from interpretation of scripture and church tradition. However all Catholics are subject to this, whether or not you are a woman. Technically woman are not excluded from the magisterium according to the law of the church. You don't have to be a priest to be a cardinal. I for one would be very happy to see some female cardinals.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Oh, and Catholic women are not subordinate to their husbands. Ask my wife. I'm surprised she's even letting me stay up this late.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Ok Tom, thanks for bowing out gracefully.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, Mike, thanks for continuing to be a complete azzhole, as always.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, and my sincere sympathies to your wife for having fvcked up by marrying a eunuch.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • JasonKL

      I wasn't aware that women could become cardinals. I agree that the addition of some would be a great benefit to the church – in no small part because it would make female catholics feel like they're a larger part of the organization and their voices are being listened to.

      I am a Trinity Lutheran myself, and much of my understanding of the catholic church is through my wife (who is a former catholic). Most of her objections about her old faith stemmed from her feeling like women weren't "heard", and that they were forced into what are essentially support roles. She never felt fulfilled by the focus on stay-at-home motherhood and homemaking. Which I can understand, she really excels at her career and it brings her more fulfillment then staying home ever could. Ladies have a different range of personalities, and the same defined role doesn't fit all of them.

      If I have any misunderstandings about the catholic faith I apologize, my knowledge of it is secondhand – but this is what led my wife to leave that religion.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Jason, I don't agree that a Priest should be advising women on the particulars of their life choices with regard to work, etc, anymore than they should be advising men. I think that a lot of this isn't really about doctrine, but it's about the culture of the church. It's something that needs to continue to get better or the church will lose a lot more good people.

      Best wishes to you and your wife in your faith with Christ. Sincerely,


      June 6, 2012 at 12:52 am |
    • usaidwhat?

      Just like you bad-mouthing Atheist !!

      June 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Sorry but I have to laugh LOL Tom was totally owned, packaged and shipped off by your intelligent and respectful discussion Mike. My hat is off to you sir.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  9. Marine5484

    And the Catholic church is wondering why people are leaving at an alarming rate?

    June 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Salami

      Vatican is just pushing people away at this rate – those men should be ashamed of themselves – this is not how the Jesus would have wanted his Church to become. It's time for me to move on to another Christian religion.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  10. Steve

    They can reprimand nuns for trying to do good but they can not reprimand priests that hurt kids. This is definitely a church but not of God.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Jez

      So well stated!

      June 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  11. Sandra

    “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.”

    They want women to shut the hell up, and go back to being nothing by incubators that tidy up the house. Hells bells, the Vatican *sainted* a women whose husband knocked her up, knowing it would kill her but refusing to use a condom or other form of birth control, but she committed a slow road to suicide by not terminating the pregnancy, thereby leaving her children motherless, citing "God's Will". And whose will was that that led to the discovery of treatments and medical procedures that would have prevented her death?

    The Vatican and their over dressed pompous dictatorial men should go the way of the dinosaur. The sooner the better. They refuse to step out the dark ages, almost to the point I'm surprised they know how to use electricity.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      It isn't a sin in Catholic church to use birth control or sterilization if pregnancy poses serious health risks (as would be the case for this woman).

      June 5, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • usaidwhat?

      Sandra, BRILLIANTLY SAID !

      June 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  12. bill davis

    Get the Child Abusers, Get the group that promoted excess Children, Get the Group that rejected responsibilities of the family....Religion is a joke, give so that we may be wealthy...

    June 5, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  13. T

    The Catholic Church will fall........They are not God's chosen!!

    June 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Steve Sankey

      HERE HERE!!! The catholic church is a complete joke. Having worked for the archdiocese of Philadelphia for the past 12 years, I have seen many disturbing things. Most of which is the complete lack of leadership. "Men" who are in charge are nothing more then mental infants. Giggling incompetent fools who in the real world, would be charged with minimal tasks at best.

      The state of the archdiocese of Philadelphia is a clear indication of the failure within the catholic church. Hey bongard, your part of the problem. stand up and be a man.... for once in your life.

      Giggling failure.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Who is?

      June 5, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • barry

      So, if Catholics are not God's chosen, who is? In the last 2000 years, the Roman Catholic Church has survived evil from within as well as without. I t will survive this too. This two will pass, and the church will be better for it!

      June 6, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  14. Tom

    As a former catholic what pains me is the farce of the leadership of that church. Did they ever go after child abusers like they are going after nuns who are trying to make a better church. The answere is a clear no. Those leaders are hopeless and incompetent.

    June 5, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • JTD

      My reaction exactly.

      June 6, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  15. Abbeystone

    Ms. Farley's book is now #14 overall on Amazon's bestseller list, and Amazon has dropped the price by 15%. Not bad for a book that hardly anyone knew about on Sunday. I want to write a bestseller, too. How much does the Vatican charge to issue a Notification?

    June 5, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  16. Reality

    Another crack in the foundation of the RCC as we march to the following:


    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • usaidwhat?

      Take a bow for that one.

      June 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Reality

    "will there be faith on earth when the son of God returns?' i.e. Luke 18: 8 is a single attestation found no where else in the scriptures therefore making it historically untenable. See also Professor Gerd Ludemann's comments in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 375.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  18. NauticalMan

    Sure, let's go after a powerless nun, six years after she wrote a well recievied book. Depravity? It is Rome and the disgusting old men who are depraved. Give the Church over to the Nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, they've figured out how to distract the masses. If they can get their parishioners to focus on some nun's book, they might be able to get away with boinking yet another choirboy.

      June 5, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • John T

      Anyone who is commenting on this blog who has not read the Nun's book and read the Vatican's position, is just taking cracks based only on their opinion and biases. The Catholic Church is not a republic or a democracy, it is and had always been set up as a hierarchy and the members are expected to follow Church doctrine. I Most of the comments I have read so far are from Church haters and athiests. I personally would prefer it if the only people who threw in their comments actually had some personal knowledge about either of these items, because the article sure did not explain it with any detail.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      oooh, you'd "personally prefer it"? Well, tough toenails, honey, your 'preferences' are irrelevant. Go elsewhere if you don't like it here. I doubt anyone will miss you.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah Tom doesn't require information in order to voice his diatribes!

      June 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  19. cmodrmac

    Catholics have no where to go -that is the dilemma-there is a constant slow flow to the Episcopal Church but the episcopal Church is in trouble as well -where do you go"""- unfortunatley most just stop going period

    June 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • usaidwhat?

      do yourself a favor...watch some videos on youtubee of Sam Harris and Christophers work on free thinking..It may help you figure it out

      June 7, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  20. Mary

    I believe Jesus would feel that social injustice was a cause to stand behind. He did say 'love thy neighbor as thyself'- I don't see a 'but not ....' after this statement – When the Catholic church has priests who are harming innocent children, and they turned a blind eye to this behavior-I wonder what Jesus would say to this! Before you condemn American nuns look at yourself -Vatican- lots goes on behind those brick walls....

    June 5, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • edgalbraith

      Exactly right. Shame, shame on the old boys who think they speak for God. Shame on them.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Mary Catholics don't approve of pedophilia, nor does the Vatican. It isn't a double standard.

      If a nun says that she approves of Catholics using birth control and says so in the capacity of a Catholic nun then this is in opposition to the position of the church. If a Priest ra-pes a child this is also condemned by the church. If a Priest is accused of a crime this does not mean that he is guilty. Or does everyone think that any Priest accused of ra-pe must be guilty? Am I the only one who notices how many people have a hate on for priests and automatically assume that they are se-xual deviants. Politically correct bigotry at its finest.

      June 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      And Mary, just a couple of clarifications. The Vatican did not condemn the nuns. You are repeating the language from this article, not the language of the actual Vatican report.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • usaidwhat?

      Mike, Men wanted these positions so badly they forbade women. Now they can take the punishment for those deeds but in NO WAY does a single soul on this planet have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. Say your daughter was pregnant by a rapist, she is suffering untold agonies from it, Do you think you have the right to force her to have the baby? If you do, get in the sty with the rest of the pigs !

      June 7, 2012 at 5:29 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.