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. Steff

    isn't it time for the Vatican to close its doors? The Catholic Church had a good run but time for a going out of business sale.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      I'm sure they will take this under advisement. Ask again in a hundred years to see what the committee has reported back.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  2. asdf

    These nuns have lost the way! They should care less about actually serving the poor like that loser Jesus wanted, and more time focused on gays, abortion, and taking large payoffs from mobsters to be buried under Vatican City.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  3. asdf

    Church trying to stop people from reading...where have I heard that before?

    June 6, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • FiveLIters

      I thought they were trying to stop nuns from fapping...did I miss something?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  4. Ted

    Too bad they won't crack down on all the priests who are raping the alter boys.Instead they are protecting them.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • asdf

      From your collection plate to their legal defense team.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  5. Reason & Logic

    Why do we give one hoot about what the Vatican says? They covered up the abuse of young boys and girls by priests, they keep treasures within Vatican City that if sold, would provide resources for the needy that they instead ask their followers to provide, and they preach the contradictory stance of no abortion and only the rhythm method for birth control. Seriously, they want us to listen to them?

    June 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  6. Reality

    Putting the kibosh on all forms of Christianity with a prayer:


    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

    June 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Mythology is not healthy for children or other living things

      Apostles Creed.....Didn't he fight Rocky?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Reason & Logic

      Either that or he was an alien conceived by artificial insemination and used his extraterrestrial powers to perform what people thought were miracles and then he was revived by ETs (angels) after his death and then taken away from this earth in a mother ship.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bill the Cat

      There's FALLACY in them there hills...

      June 6, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Reality

      Twas Apollo Creed but maybe a name change would be good considering the mythical nature of said Apollo.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Johng

      I am grateful that Jesus' teaching and Church has done so much over the centuries to bring the ideals of love and forgiveness into the world. All of our noble modern values (including tolerance and the intrinsic rights of all men) are progeny of Christ's influence on our world. The disparaging and bitter tone of your "creed" convince me that we still need that influence.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • urgross

      this sucked the first time you posted it. please write in down on paper and stick it where the priests like to give it.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  7. kathat0

    My whole childhood experience with nuns was them hitting me, yelling at me and punishing me in horribly humiliating ways. It was at a small catholic school, and I can tell you I left my faith there and so did most of my classmates treated similarly.
    Frankly I don't understand how they have survived and I am not interested in what they have to say.
    The church was the same then- they dwell on problems that concern a small percentage and ignore the looming truth.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Matt

      ...seriously?!?!? These nuns are trying to speak out against the very ignorance and lack-of-rights that you suffered from....they're attempting to be a voice of reason amid a sea of naive, close-reading, over-analysis of the Bible....

      Oh, and I, too, attended Catholic school.....and it was equally unsatisfying for me (as a practicing Catholic)...

      In this case, my friend, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater....

      June 6, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • kr

      Your exeperience is not everybody's experience. I love the sisters who taught me. They encouraged me to do great and noble things in life. I just wish they return wearing back their habits and veils though probably in simplier, more practical designs.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  8. 900rr

    silly silly religious people ...

    June 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • thejet1962

      II agree, I have my beliefs but completely lost faith in going to a church many years ago. Just can't trust anyone there anymore. Such a shame. Pray at home. You don't need to go to a special building and give your money to them to get to heaven folks!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  9. im for the nuns

    For me, it is a not a tough call. Support the nuns who are working with the poor and marginalized or support the Church who is becoming more out of touch with their followers. WWJD.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  10. Portia

    It boggles the mind that the Vatican would knowingly try to cut down these nuns, because from what I know, they are the main reason the Church is still in business after the scandals forced so many priests out and kept many from joining...the nuns are the heart and soul of the Church...they are the real source of help for parishioners in need

    June 6, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  11. midranger

    The Vatican was going to send this out earlier but nobody could find a telegraph office!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  12. Old Man

    It's not just the Vatican that thinks the US population has gone off the deep end. I have travelled outside the US extensively over the last several years, and we are looked at as a country that has lost its way (and core values).

    June 6, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I wonder how many on here actually heard what you just said

      June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Portia

      And, just what would those core values be...discrimination...anti-female...anti-poor...anti-education...please...do tell us what American core values do those other countries feel we have left behind?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • NotTakingItUpThere

      Those values would be "Strong Family Values and Structure, Education, Employment, Mind your own business, and don't force your perverted, law-breaking will on ohters". But your so much of an "Individual" that you think the world evolves around YOU!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • midranger

      They must not need anything from us, these countries that think we have lost our core values. I think it will amaze you to see how much our core values improve as soon as they need our help again.
      The problem is that people judge America by the internet and threads like this, haven't they ever watched a NASCAR race for gods sake!!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      I lived overseas for 15 years. Everyone I knew wanted to practice their English and get a green card. Anyway, old geezers are always complaining about people losing teir way and core values disappearing. It just means their prostate is acting up.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      Religion aside, what about elder abuse, child, spousal abuse? Increase in violence and drug use in schools, lower education standereds? As someone who works in child services I would agree the old man had a point....not that the vatican trying to rein in wayward nuns is the answer

      June 6, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Choice for everyone

      @ midranger I wish CNN had a "like" button!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  13. MaryM

    Vatican better evolve, just like they have over the years, or die out as a religion

    June 6, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Frank

      Yes, all religions have to finally cave and catch up with the morally superior secular society in order to remain relevant. But, when they do this every time they are admitting that what they believed previously was wrong. It doesn't seem to matter to their followers though.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Howard

      MaryM – It's not evolution the church needs. People need to realize that God has given us rules to live by. We can't change them to what WE want just because we want to live that lifestyle (living in sin). God gave us His requirements – we need to live accordingly. Sin is sin and that doesn't change with the times. I applaud the church for standing firm and yes, the nuns DO need reined in. They are teaching that sin is OK and that the church needs to accept that. NOT TRUE – a lie straight from HELL that will cause people to sin because they have been told the lie by these they hold in high regard. These nuns would do well to remember that God holds them as teachers more accountable for wrongdoing than the sheep in their flocks and change their ways.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • urgross

      Howard, can yo please show me some of the crap you claim came from god. Everyone seems to have something god said, but no proof to show. God was created by man, and if you are so weak, you need another man to tell you how to act and live, thats a sin.."NO ONE" knows the truth and to profess that you do is laughable.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  14. Paul

    Vatican is run by a former Hitler youth, so that tells you what you need to know right there.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • kr

      Paul: Do some more research. Almost every German youth during Ratz time was forced to join that pro Hitler government group. Ratz actually had the courage to defect.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Ted


      June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Graeme Willy

      Hey Paul, I knew you'd come back to help us get rid of all this ridiculous religions... BTW, how's Tara?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  15. twinswan

    Of course they're rogues. As with most religions, where males control and dominate, women who think and dare to express their views are heretical and need to be muzzled.

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

      WOW, you are such a credit to your gender...You must of had a woman make a royal fool of you at some time. Or have the secret desire to be a female..

      June 7, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  16. paul

    poop on the pope

    June 6, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  17. Don

    I'm glad they didn't go after Sister Mary Elephant.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  18. kr

    How can you prune the sisters/nuns when there are not many of them =)? They should return to their community living and wear their religious habits (as symbols of committment) and you'll see more young ladies joining them.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Where can I get whatever it is that you're smoking. It must be really good.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Reason & Logic

      I went to parochial school for 12 years and it always amazed me that the nuns were cloistered in a convent while the priests drove cars, went golfing, attended sporting events, etc. I wonder if making them feel as if they are second class citizens is part of the indoctrination to keep them under control?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • kr

      Nikkin: Church, convents, library, and observation =).

      June 6, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • kr

      Reason & Logic: I used to be a Catholic lay missionary and I saw sisters in their modified habits with simplier veils and went to parties, movies, concerts, operas, etc...I don't think the habit and community living oppress them. The habit and veil, even a simplified one, is a symbol of commitment to God. Most young ladies don't see a difference nowadays between a sister with vows and a single woman devoted to God and the Christian community so most ladies don't join religious life. And many sisters live in apartments today, usually alone, like any other single lady.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • asdf

      So your plan is to treat them worse to convince more people to join? Brilliant.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • ac130u

      They sell that stuff a Church, convents, and librarys?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • ac130u

      Why should a nun be required to demonstrate more commitment then a priest ?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Kay

      This is the 21st century, dear. The days of nuns going back to their habits are long over.

      June 6, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  19. Lex

    Any organized religion that can't tolerate this kind of intellectual discussion and dissent sooner or later is going to be running a going out of business sales. Too many people will view this stuff as silly and trivial and conclude that, if that's what the religion is all about, its time to walk away.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • albert

      From a scriptural perspective, the Catholic church is out of touch anyway. They have introduced many man-made, and Pagan traditions. The Bible actually prophesies that "Babylon The Great" (the empire of false religion) will be destroyed. What we have been seeing over the past several years is no coincidence. The world governments are growing sick and tired of this religious plague. Revelation 18: 4 – 22

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

      Huh? The Inquisition has been around for centuries, and the Church is still in business. Of course, the Vatican did re-brand the Inquisition with a newer, kinder, gentler name, proving that the Chuvh really CAN change.

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

      I completely agree.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  20. Moron

    Cool hat bro!

    June 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
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