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. FAITH

    But they were a part of the cover up..

    June 6, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  2. Elliot

    I wouldn't be suprised if some nuns started to show up dead in rivers around the country.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  3. Dave Harris

    The Catholic Church's treatment of women would be illegal in the U.S., if they actually had to follow the same laws as the rest of us. But no, behaving in disgusting, criminal ways just proves how morally superior they are. Why does anybody buy into this hypocrisy?

    June 6, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Apart from tax exemption, they do have to follow the same rules as us.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  4. sherman

    ladies, ladies, step right up. Its time to form a new religion where it is generally recognized that in almost every way, our creator made us superior to males. I give you the original religious terrorists, one of the evil triplets of states. Rome! The entire reason that anyone starves anywhere is directly their fault. ICC you are on notice. There be the criminals.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Huebert

      Please tell me how Rome is responsible for all the starvation in the world.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • PDX James

      You do realize that Rome and Vatican City are not the same place, right?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  5. bobby

    Those who choose to become priests commit their entire live to pursue that which has no value or meaning......it is a commitment to waste a life.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Frank

      But their pursuit of children to rape has meaning to them.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  6. lct1119

    GO NUNS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  7. Jimbo

    The church says that jerkin' the gherkin is off limits, yeah that'll stop em. Lol, what a bunch of loonies. I could tell the whole religious thing was a hoax when I was 12 years old, I can't believe people actually think this stuff is real and live their whole lives based off some fairy tale.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah because at 12 your philosophical and spiritual formation coalesced.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  8. Rational Libertarian

    Imagine how many fewer lives would have been ruined if the Catholic Church had better emphasized that "loving children" did not equate with brutal s.exual abuse rather than spending all their time trying to reprimand the few sane voices coming out of the Church.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  9. stateschool

    Maybe the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could give them a float test, or at least inspect their pubic area for moles or freckles.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  10. joshua

    see dr owour a true prophet among us. and read deuteronomy 18 & st marks 16 to confirm. i am talking of jonah quality.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  11. Ms

    Yes they're rogue for not covering up child abuse, and you know trying to help poor people. WWJD indeed.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. Stan

    It sounds like some selection of American nuns should probably operate without official ties to the Vatican. If these nuns publish materials that are at odds with the Vatican, then you can be sure that these are the ideals that they are preaching in their communities in the name of the catholic church. Time for the two to part ways.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  13. Oblivion

    One can only hope that fundamentalism in the Vatican will end up in irrelevance.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  14. Tom

    Catholicism is responsible for a lot of mental illness.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • chefdugan

      Catholcism IS a mental illness. As usual, the women are the only ones making sense and the priests are merely pathetic. That is when they are not engage in child abuse.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Rags

      Almost as bad as Islamism.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • PDX James

      Islamism is just another offshoot of Christianity which is just another offshoot of Judaism. First the gentiles changed Judaism to fit their needs, then Muhammad did the same thing to Christianity. There may only be 1 god, but he sure has a lot of religions!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  15. Harry Baxter

    As time goes by, it appears to be more and more apparent that the Catholic Church is tone-deaf, and that they learned nothing from the Reformation. I say this as a practicing Catholic of 75 years with close relatives who have been Nuns for over 50 years. The Vatican has, at least in my lifetime, regarded all Women, and especially Nuns, as lower-class human beings. Now that the Nuns are asserting themselves, the Leaders feel that they can suppress them with edicts. It won't work. If the church collapses in the near future, it will be this issue, rather than Clerical child abuse, which finally brings it down.

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

      And the 'higher ups' will abscond with the $billions$ they have stashed away.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • else

      I wonder about this, too – I think (and I have no real evidence for this) that at least in America, nuns are far more popular than priests or other Catholic religious men, and DEFINITELY more popular than this pope. I wonder what kind of an effect this kind of attack will have on the already uneasy relationship between most American Catholics and Catholicism as recently defined by the Vatican...

      June 6, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Rags, Just where is it they will abscond to?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  16. Christine

    It's time to crack down on the Vatican. They're entirely too full of themselves.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  17. Simmy

    The nuns who I have come in contact with through Catholic Charities or other help agencies have always been so forthright and gracious. I believe their hearts are really toward Jesus' work of helping people.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      And murdering Canaanites and Midianites.

      That's the Christian ethos right there: Help people, except if they're Canaanite or Midianite, in which case, kill the b.astard.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • marianne

      Totally agree with you Simmy. I went through Catholic School for 14 years...the nuns were so great. Without them, I would have been educated in the Boston school system....not good. The Catholic Church is not my religion of choice any longer...because these nuns taught me to THINK. Ladies, keep up the good work, Jesus Love YOU.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  18. Bill

    Psssst!! Hey Vatican, the Catholic church is no longer working. Hang it up!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  19. ipmutt

    More anti chaqtholic rants.

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

      I'll stop my "rants" when the church stops persecuting gays and covering up child abuse. Until then, they're fair game.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • PDX James

      I personally hate the chaqtholics. I hope they all die.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • CC

      Yeah-I hear they can't spell LOL. If you can't stand the heat stay out of the real world where news is reported and read the 'bible'.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. notatall

    The Vatican needs to get more in tune with Jesus Christ. He would not condone child molestation while turning his back and censuring women, such as his constant companions, Mary and Mary.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      The Vatican does not condone child molestation. Honestly do you people even try to think before you post?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:13 am |
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