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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)
  1. Lee Huebner

    When I was a teenager I went to confession and was told by a high ranking monsignor from the Vatican that I did not need to be in the Catholic church just because I confessed to a very minor sin. I have never gone back to confession since then. I confess straight to God now. Too bad we can't elect any of those in it. Doesn't it bother anyone that every Italian city has a cardinal and here in the U.S. there is not a single cardinal in any southern state. the reason is I was told by an Italian bishop once the Vatican is afraid to have too many American cardinals as our democratic views don't fit with the way the Catholic leadership runs the church.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  2. bergerons

    The nuns should be given an ultimatum. Straighten out, or hit the door (get excommunicated). The Catholic Church received its beliefs from Jesus Christ and does not claim the right to correct Him. The nuns feel otherwise. There is no place for heresy in the Catholic Church.

    We can either follow Christ, or we can follow "the world" (Satan). Those who have posted against the teachings of the Church here have obviously chosen the world. The world won't save them, though.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      How do we know the men in the Vatican are guided by Christ? Do you have some special insights and authority on this matter? maybe the Huns are the one guided by Christ.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • olepi

      Yup, they seem to be way WAYYY more tolerant and forgiving than Jesus was. What could they be thinking?

      Get back to condemning those the "Church" wants you to condemn.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • MK

      I hope every last one of them gets excommunicated. It will be the best thing that happens for them. All that will be left at the parish level will be dwindling priests, as many parishioners that are leaving, the vatican will be left holding its ba-lls.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • runutz

      Who says? You. You have no idea what God said, Someone told you and you obeyed like the good old dog. Religion "IS" slowly dying just like your way of thinking. The new generation of children are figuring out the lies and fairytails they were told.

      June 7, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  3. Justine

    Cover up priest abuse of young boys, but punish those nuns for discussing important issues. The Catholic Church has its priorities messed up. I think it is time for all women to leave the Catholic Church, and take their money with them.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  4. Jokesterer

    "Nuns Going Rogue." Coming to a seedy internet site near you!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  5. WWRRD

    We don't need new nuns. We need a new pope.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  6. olepi

    The Nuns are focusing too much on social justice, and we know the "Church" isn't too concerned about justice. Those Nuns need to start toeing the political line, again.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  7. J Tanner

    More evidence of a church (and a pope) that is losing significance as quickly as a draining tub. Benedict might call it a pruning. Other gardeners might see it as roots being pulled. The Vatican might be upset with the American church, but until recently, we were the only ones practicing. But now our pews are becoming as empty as the ones on Europe. I don't think the Vatican will ever read the "signs of the times."

    June 6, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      25 percent of Americans are nominally Catholic. The Vatican probably thinks that gives them leverage. This ignores the fact that most adult Catholics in this country selectively ignore vast swathes of Church doctrine even though they may not wish to make a public issue of it.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  8. citizenmn

    If you're Catholic and unhappy with this church, then quit and leave. There are plenty of other Christian churches you could attend. The best thing that could happen is a mass exodus from the Catholic church.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Scott

      Well that's the thing isn't it. These cults take them as children, and for the ones that get it into their heads when they are infants, it's very difficult for them to turn away without significant turmoil.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Switters

      I'm 64 – I've already watched that happen once – the pews used to be overflowing

      June 6, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Why is this the first thing Church traditionalists say when cornered. Maybe uou're in the minority and it's you who should leave. Ever think of that?

      June 6, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • MK

      OR if you're unhappy with the catholic church, you could just leave and start thinking for yourself instead of joining up with another cult.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • runutz

      It's not just catholic, it's all religions.....same cr*ap different denomination.

      June 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  9. John Collins

    The Catholic Nuns have a far greater understanding of what Christianity is than the Pope and his right wing cardinals.

    How could they possibly codemn Nuns for focusing on Social Justice, rather than focusing on abortion or condemning people who happen to be gay.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Clian Kocol

      I agree with you....

      June 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Because social justice is only possible when the integrity of the human being is foremost. This means life, morally sustainable behavior and proper relation to community/family. The nuns have gotten the cart in front of the horse

      June 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • runutz

      And you Bill have spewed your cr*p before you ate.

      June 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Jay Dubs

    The Catholic Church is concerned about losing their practicioners yet they cant get with the times, they're stuck with their outdated dogma. I was raised Catholic and was even a alter boy and a Knight of Colombus but when they tell me to help put anti-abortion crosses in the ground on the side of the road I tapped out. Sorry its not my place to preach morality or tell others how to live their lives. I believe in God and enjoy volunteering and helping people but to claim masturbation is dangerous, and not to allow female priests, and case after case of molestation being uncovered and the guilt trip of sin isnt for me. They're only going to lose more and more people if they continue the path their going down.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Clian Kocol

      I second yours!

      June 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. Lainie11

    What's new? These nuns have been running rough shod over every sacred doctrine/law in the church now for over 40 years. This is really old news. Some have even been living common law with Priests They should never have become nuns.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • runutz

      You need to inventory your closet !! Your skeletons are calling.

      June 7, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  12. Big Al

    The Church Is Implodeing

    June 6, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  13. ds

    booooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  14. Mike

    Does anyone really care what a nun does?? gimme a break....just a way to sidestep the system like a priest.....nun this!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  15. NickZadick

    You know, you got to follow the rules when dealing with ancien bronze age fairy tales and the mysgenic fârts who interpret them! It is beyond me that organised religion still exists! You have to be seriously brain dead to believe their nonsense!!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • interested

      agreed!

      June 6, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  16. Clian Kocol

    Pope is fairy tale person!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  17. Vidyashanti

    The flag bearer of love, forgiveness & tolerance call US Nuns 'rogues' tells a lot about Catholicity. Shame on them.

    June 6, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Frank

      Why would that be a surprise? That would be the first thing that would pop into my head.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  18. james

    After an argument with my wife, I said in my next life I will become a catholic priest. To my surprise, she said, so you want molest young boys.

    June 6, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • R. Wiggum

      LMAO. Thanks for starting my day off with a laugh.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  19. mariosphere

    Calling the main American rogue...Sarah Palin 🙂

    June 6, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  20. Donkey Kong

    Vatican. Jerry Sandusky. All the same to me. And I was raised a Catholic.

    June 6, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Mike

      How un-profound.

      June 6, 2012 at 7:57 am |
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