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. speedy

    I've never heard of Sister Farley or her book, but I'll certainly check it out now. Thanks, Vatican!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Mighty fine and admirable logic akin to my 3 yr old.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Mike

    Most of the Church's teaching on human intimacy (hopefully that doesn't trip the censors), comes from Agustin and Aquinas. Both were brilliant men and are Doctors of Church. That being said, they didn't have access to modern behavior sciences. While their teaching on the subject should be respected, I believe the Church would do well to take another look at them and possibly reinterpret the teachings in light of what we now know through science.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Try John Paul II's Theology of the Body. It is current and jibes quite nicely with modern scholarship while reinforcing the Church's teaching in a way modern people should be able to comprehend even if they reject it.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Kudos BIll Deacon

      June 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  3. V Manahan

    The Vatican has a "groupthink" problem. See definition below.


    June 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Monstrous

    The prophecies of Fatima are coming true. The Church is destroying itself.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • John 7 15

      Was the final prophecy ever published by those running the church.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  5. Mello

    Of course... Here I was hoping for a positive article on all the great things the church does and this is what the media picks.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Drew

      There's also an article about the priest who tried to protect his pedophile friends at the expense of innocent children

      June 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Kathy

      Of course. All the positive the church has done. All the pedofile priests that were allowed to abuse innocents for centuries – but – of course, it is the media...

      June 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • griz5106

      The headline reads "Vatican Intensifying Crackdown on American Nuns" and you interpreted that to mean an article of positive things the church has/is doing?

      June 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • G

      ..And then your consciousness makes a descent in the comments sections and find Discovery channel scientists who are 100% sure that the supply of their life (and children and family and loved ones) is nothingness itself. Very irritating creatures, these damned souls. Our culture looks up too scientists, instead of saints. Very pathetic!

      June 6, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Just think, a few hundred years ago and they would have burned these nuns alive.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • John 7 15

      Blood thirsty Spaniards..... Extremist Pilgrims ..... and now ....

      June 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. John 7 15

    I am not a theologian, yet when conversing with them, their education speaks for itself through their articulation. God lives in their answers. A sinner like myself seeks a priests, nun, or a reputable representative of the church for guidance. Their lives are purpetual open doors to everyone seeking the truth. And today I believe that Christ is the answer, as the the trinity lives in all of us through baptism. One god in heaven.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • John 8 15

      So very true! Thank you for posting this. It seems our country is quite Godless, and villanizes the Church when it is actually people who commit the sins. God Bless You! So refreshing hearing this from a layperson.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • ﺶCHEﺶ

      Hey buddy if you were born in a Church like some of us; and took Bible Knowledge Lessons academically from 1st Grade thru. to High School and beyond; then you will know that The Lord, God dwellest in THEE as clearly stated in the Living Bible. Hence you don't need some corrupt priest who may be a sinner himself for guidance in your life. You have life problems, you consult with Lord and not some sinner in rope. Don't be misled by some silk rope they wear on Sundays.

      On the other hand, if you became a Christian after you became a full grown adult or became a Christian thru. AmerCIA GOP Party then; I can say with absolutely certainty that you're FAKE Christian. You feel me?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • T-Max73

      To me (and millions of others who actually think for themselves) everything you wrote here is nothing but white noise. As Sigmund Freud once said, "The voice of reason is small, but very persistent."

      June 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • G

      Christ is life and atheism is death. Hallelujah!

      June 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • ruwacky

      ...Crap !! The only thing living in me is me. I take responsibility or negatives I create..The bible is hogwash, written by man long ago for control..Everything in the bible ends up a man..In 60 seconds write down the names of significant men of the bible....now do the same for women (excluding the mention of mans wife)...how did you do, or should I say how did the men fair? Shocked ? you shouldn't be, these are ideals men, who created god, wanted for themselves. And today they still want the same. I saw a few "GOOD" men on here sticking up for women because they to figured it out. You go ahead and waste your precious time on earth, on your knee, praying for hours, week after week, year after year. Add the time up you wasted while I had great times with my grandchildren, husband, and just plain loving life..You better use your HMO and get that bug removed from your rectum !

      June 6, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  8. Tzedekh

    "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." Or they could do nothing and put the ball in the Vatican's court.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Patrick

    Dear Nuns,

    Just leave the RC church. En masse. Join the Church of England/Anglican/Episcopal church. Pull the rug out from under these misogynist pedophile-protectors.

    Wishing you the best,


    June 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Mello

      Your supposed safe religion has people that are guilty of the same crimes.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • david williams

      Yes, leave en masse so the Church can regain its orthodoxy.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  10. New Gawker

    Church sure is strong on it's conviction to stop women and gay rights. But when it comes to raping little boys it's all good to them.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • grady

      You need to search out the true teachings of the Catholic church. There is a lot of respect for woman and their rights; they also understand the struggle gay individuals have in their daily lives. It is about loving your fellow man or woman not agreeing with the sins they commit (on another note, I am a sinner too). You might want to talk with a priest or reflect on the hate that comes from many of those responding to these types of articles.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  11. joy

    To these nuns they react quickly; to the priests raping the children of their church, they did nothing.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Drew

      This is indisputably true

      June 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • queenie

      Exactamondo! Latin for "you got it."

      June 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Mello

      The book was published in 2006. Hardly a quick reaction.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Not a Scholar

      @Mello Some cases of child abuse go back decades. Maybe longer...

      June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  12. fidgetwidget

    The Vatican has no more power than people give it/them. So they censored Sr. Margaret. Big effin' deal. This means absolutely nothing and does not impact the validity of her work in the slightest. Keep up the good work Sr. Margaret.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Mello

      Where does it say the church censored anyone? It was only a reprimand magnified by the words the media is using.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  13. BRUCE


    June 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  14. rob

    The sooner the Catholic cult disappears from the face of the Earth, the better off the world will be.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Mello

      So where will the poor get the billions in help the church provides once its gone? You gonna cover that?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Mike

      The Church is here until the end of time, so please, don't hold your breath.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • T-Max73

      @ Mellow- There are many, many secular organizations that help the poor with food, medical care, and housing and do NOT try to foist their metaphysical ideas on the recipients. The RCC may well do some good for some folks, but you have to balance the good they do with the evil they do (raping little kids and covering it up, preaching the sinfulness of family planning, telling people that masturbation will earn them an eternity of torment in hell, scaring little kids with the idea of a hell). When you get right down do it, perhaps we don't need or WANT their help-it comes at a terrible price. Peace.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • G

      Lame comment by OP.

      June 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  15. ﺶCHEﺶ

    Shame on the Pope and the Vatican cronies for picking on defenseless nums.
    The Pope and his cronies should pick men of their own size.
    Bunch whips if you ask me! SHAME on them.
    LONG LIVE The NUNS of this World. God Bless you ALL and cast hell's fire on those who abuses and suppresses you. POWER to ALL NUMS.

    Maybe you should STOP cooking for these Vatican WHIMPS to stave them!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  16. paganguy

    I love it. The pope in his clown-suit walks around and blesses some people with holy water and reprimands others. At least they can't burn anybody by the stakes.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  17. Kathy

    Are all Catholic males afraid of women, or just the old ones in charge?

    June 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      the old ones in charge are terrified of women. they try to teach their misogyny to the newer generation.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • BRUCE


      June 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Drinky Crow

      I'm pretty sure that it's all Catholic men. At least the ones that I know seem to be that way.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • queenie

      All male Catholics are afraid of women, dislike women, or will never trust a woman. It's part of their training.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • ﺶCHEﺶ

      Yeb, from what WE know.

      Bunch of Wimps if you ask me. These Vatican Wimps should be made to wear Calico under wears. Shame on them. They should pick someone of their own size. POWER to ALL Oppressed NUNS! They have unflinching support in their plight.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  18. queenie

    This article is about Catholics, not Christians, or other religions. It is a didactic male-dominated organization with tons of money and they plan to keep it that way. Who is surprised by that?

    June 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      apparently the women who want to be part of this misogynistic idiot's club.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • ﺶCHEﺶ

      FYI: A Christian is suppose to STAND UP for what is RIGHT and for RIGHT ......................... period!
      So its our inherent BIRTH RIGHT and business to stick our noses in to RIGHT a WRONG. That's why we're wailing from the mountain top so that we could be heard as well.
      You have a problem with that? Holla.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Tzedekh

      The problem is the perception that the church is corrupt. It isn't. The Church is the nuns, the laypeople, the rank-and-file members. The Church isn't the magisterium (the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests). They are supposed to serve the faithful, but instead they have gotten increasingly corrupt, like meat rotting in the noonday sun. It's clear from the Vatican's response that they fear loss of control - to them "radical feminism" is as evil as liberation theology was a generation ago. They fret about gay marriage, masturbation, abortion (arguably an evil, but one they can't do anything about), and euthanasia (is there really a lot of pending legislation that would legalize it?), yet these are things Jesus never addressed. He did speak of social justice and caring for the poor, things the Vatican has accused the nuns of being overly concerned with. I think the nuns should ignore the Vatican, follow their consciences, and continue to do what they've been doing.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Melanie

      I think you meant to say, "not OTHER Christians or other religions." Catholics are Christians too. Catholics were Christians before Protestants were since the Protestants split from the Catholic church.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Querie

      not that this is on topic, but could someone PLEASE point to the passage in the Bible where it mandates that one man (a pope) should be appointed as a leader of the christian church? I don't remember reading anything suggesting that Jesus preached about this (in fact, quite the contrary), nor do I recall reading that he preached about building a massive gilded temple to house God (the Vatican). To say a few things got lost in translation along the way is an understatement. The Catholic Church is losing its numbers - it has itself to blame.

      June 6, 2012 at 3:51 am |
    • 0Patrick0

      To Querie: It's postulated on the passage, "Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my Church." (Forgive me, I'm quoting from memory.)

      June 6, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  19. Sy2502

    How about cracking down on the pedophile priests first?

    June 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      you mean restricting them to 3 altar boys a week?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • ﺶCHEﺶ

      Yeb you may think that should be their inherent paramount agenda of this Pope and Vatican wimps to clean up these RAPISTS within its midst. Instead, these wimps are picking on defenseless Nuns. I bet some of these NUNS may have witnessed some abuses within the Catholic Church. If these Nuns have taken to streets like brothers and sisters do; it's a clear indication that there's something very fishy that these nuns can't stomach anymore. If you can't take it anymore. You WAIL from the mountain TOP and let the chips fall where they may. We're yet to know.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  20. MarlboroMan

    I like Santa.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • ﺶCHEﺶ

      I think you meant Satan ................. Right?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:57 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.