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. Pope Poop

    More Papal Poop from the "good old boys" in dresses... get rid of this farce on Humanity! Catholics its time to rise above and change your church or leave it behind.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  2. CSX

    Thus saith the Lord....all others are demoncrats.

    Don't agree with God? Join the Unitarians.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  3. Pinkflam

    "America’s nuns have gone rogue"
    Man, there's nothing scarier than a rogue nun!!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Wake up

      A whole league of Jedi Nuns with 4 foot rulers in their belts beating of the Lord of the Sith Darth Sidious ...LOL

      June 6, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  4. OMGod

    God and Jesus could settle all this "lack of faith" by just coming out of hiding. For me...if there was a god he would banish religion. ALL of them.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • CSX

      He did, his name is Jesus. He attacked the men in robes and said they of their father the Devil.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  5. Closedmind

    Seems these evil nuns are following the words of Christ and not the pope, they must be stopped!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Say you have an organization. Say there work to perform. A careful plan is devised to accomplish this important task. People are brought in and trained. Everyone is committed and focused. Suddenly an important segment of your team begins to deviate. They've lost sight of the forest for the trees. The work they are doing is good and valuable and from outside it even looks like they are correct, but they are pulling in a different direction than what is needed. Your response is?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • sbp

      Sorry, Bill, but any company that refuses to take feedback from its employees and rigidly adheres to a completely static "company policy" is not going to be successful. See any good typewriter companies around?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      sbp spiritual truth is not a market. Markets change, truth doesn't, sorry

      June 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • runutz

      Bill you are the one that portrayed it as a corporation. Truth is truth, but you haven't any proof on God, so your so called truth came from the brains of small-minded men.

      June 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  6. Scott

    I really can't think of better proof for the atheist position than the Vatican. Why would God need the help of any man? And what man wouldn't want to associate his cause with god like power?

    June 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • runutz

      If God was real he would have no need for us. Man created god to force the people, especially women, to submit to his power, wealth, and stature. i don't see how so many educated people were fooled for so long

      June 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  7. Rolph

    The pope is just slightly less relevant than Howard Stern in today's society.
    The riches of the church compared to Buddhist monks is the reality of the power they seek and the lives they wish to control.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • CSX

      Peter said gold and silver have I none.
      He was adorated by Cornelius and he stopped him.
      He also stated he was just another elder...........

      June 6, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  8. MIchele

    Well, the US thinks the Vatican is a criminal organization. The Vatican should kiss the feet of the nuns, they are the only members of the Catholic hierarchy who still command any respect. (Likely because they are the only ones who deserves any respect.)

    June 6, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Scott

      The work of the pure heart is a thankless job in an unjust world.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • kr

      Michele: The US do not think the Vatican is a criminal organization. Only you and some probably 3% US anti-Catholics.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • runutz

      kr .........Oh yes the U.S. does think the Vatican is a criminal org. And with the discovery of a mobster bones and an unidentified young girl, you are a fool if you think theres no connection !

      June 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  9. Eduardo Rey

    If it comes down to the women in habits or the men in dresses, I'm betting on the women. This is just another in a long list of misogynistic actions by the hierarchy. American Catholics (and others around the world) have long seen through their "do as I say, not as I do" facade and, at best, ignore the hierarchy, or, at worst, walk away from the Church. We dearly need a new Pope John XXIII to open the windows and clear out these musty old patriarchs.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  10. bugmenot

    Methinks that by bashing nuns, the church hierarchy think it can deflect public attention away from the pervasive pedophilia problem.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      They're not actually that clever. They really DO have a problem with women who don't subordinate themselves to what men think. And, of course, many women in the Church inexplicably go along with this. They buy into doctrinal positions that are really just a smokescreen for power struggles.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • !=Sheep

      You mean the problem that RCC clergy molest children half as often as Protestant clergy? Check out the insurance statistics.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  11. Rev. Rick

    Quoting from the article, "........Benedict spoke often about growing the church by pruning – becoming smaller but more devout before expanding."

    Yes, pruning is needed, but rather than pruning the congregation and the RCC's followers, why not prune the all-male heirarchy of popes, archbishops, bishops and priests, and shed the outdated dogma of the ancient past. Unless the RCC can make itself more relevant, the Church will slowly wither and die. This is already happening as it attempts to endure one moral scandal after another. Jesus had a simple ministry that lasted only about 3 years, but the RCC has taken that 3 years and built a dynasty and a heirarchy of ritual and tradition that Jesus would barely recognize as His own. Jesus' teaching regarding love, compassion and social justice have been replaced with arrogance, wealth, and a concentration of patriarchal power that is neither fair nor just.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      How many examples can you name of an authority structure that willingly prunes itself?

      June 6, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      @ Nilkinggary – Thank you for helping to make my point. Internal pruning will never happen. It will first have to collapse from within.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Jose H.

      Stalin's "Great Purge"?

      June 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Wake up

      These men in women dresses will never reform. The Church, if you can call it that, will have to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ashes once all the hidden records, manipulations and lies have come forward. The PEOPLE will be their ultimate Judges.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Cerapus

      I don't think Jesus would be able to recognize any of the ministries who claim to speak for him. The Catholic Church is only this first in a long line of Christian organizations use god and the bible as a shield while the spew venom and hatred against those they disagree with.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Your derision about dresses shows your ignorance of the significance of priestly vestments. The people will not be their judge. God will as will he for us all.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Wake up

      Same as Christ can't fill a broken vessel due to holes, you get a new vessel. Such is the future of that Church. The PEOPLE who are the true Church will be their Judges. Priestly Hubris is just that. Ever noticed that any communications from above always happen with the people and not the leaders? Children even, why is that?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • urgross

      BILL>>>>blah, blah, blah, blah..they are dresses, they don't like pants because they are hard to get the zipper down quickly.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  12. allens

    the vatican has no moral ground and their opinions are corrupted

    June 6, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      So Sayeth the Prophet allens. Whoever he is.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  13. NSL

    It's just another effort by a corrupt church to try to deflect attention away from their crimes, real crimes.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Wake up

      What I see is a Church that is becoming more out of touch with the same people that they should be ministering to. A Dictatorial Church full of corruption and Criminals who is more interested in Cover Ups than Justice. A Lost Church to the True Teachings of the Christ. See, they have perpetrated a horrific lie about Jesus for 2000 years and it is time to face the unchanging Truth about what they have worked so hard to destroy and hide from the people. It is truly fearful to them. Never mind, one more Pope and that is it! Justice!

      June 6, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  14. sharkfisher

    Why isn't there an equal crackdown on pedefile priests?

    June 6, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Or pedophile cubscout leaders

      June 6, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • urgross

      Bill, ,I swear you must be a pedophile yourself, you are so quick and stern on protecting them.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  15. RLGESQ1

    Yes, they are rogue. But the Vatican has little moral authority to go after them given their own scandals. I feel sorry for the good-guy Catholic priest who is presumed to be gay or a pedophile just because so many of his fellows are gay or pedophiles. All too sad.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  16. Truefax

    Time for a good old fashioned witch hunt!!!! Get out the inquisitors boys, it's time to rend some flesh!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Wake up

      Well, this Vampire of a Pope used to run the Office of the High Inquisitor. Amazing that after all the murders, they still have such a group. A church of the Devil is what it is.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  17. Switters

    There is great specualtion in the Italian press that the pope may have to resign because of the financial scandals going on.

    But they still find time to keep their boots on the necks of American nuns............

    June 6, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  18. Bill

    The Vatican thinks a lot of strange stuff...like we're all going to hell if we use rubbers. They need to get back to scriptural teaching not papal interpretations if they expect to have credibility in the Christian world or even non-Christian! They have had an issue with women since their inception anyway.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      There are a lot of problems with retreating to the "Scriptural authority" position, as the Protestants have found out. Like, what does Scripture really mean, who ges to say so, and what do we do about obvious contradictions, translation problems, and general lapses of Scriptural judgment?

      June 6, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  19. Switters

    The nuns are the last thing of any real value left in the Catholic Church in America........

    June 6, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Prophet


      June 6, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  20. Jomama072

    Maybe they're just not buying the greatest lie ever told anymore.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Wake up

      Ever wonder what will happens once the masses wake up to such a lie? Truth is stranger than fiction and many more people are waking up to it. All it takes is 10% and we are already there. See the fear in their faces?

      June 6, 2012 at 8:53 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.