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. Steve

    "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."

    In other words, the church plans on becoming more insular and fanatical before setting off on their next crusade.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Sue

      Interesting point, Steve. Parallels exist in another well known cult, that being Islam. While the current decline of the Catholic cult is a great thing, we should be especially wary of the nucleus of hate that could be its seemingly last vestiges.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  2. Paul

    once upon a time, especially after the Council, the Church showed an openness and appreciation for theologians and the sciences, especially, anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc. now, you have medieval Vatican minds who have no understanding of anything making these sweeping condemnations. these condemnations have no basis in the gospel or the sciences. i am a priest and i am not afraid to say the pope and curia have lost their minds....and souls.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Willie James

      The next Inquisition? Conservative politicians, church clergy, textbook committees, PACs and super churches.....will we be hiding in the woods from the auto de fe?

      June 6, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Steve

      Yes...yes we will...

      June 6, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • MarylandBill

      Once upon a time the Church's theologians were faithful to the Magisterium of the Church.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • msg44

      Then you are a would-be Priest in sheeps clothing. Re-interpreting the scriptures is not gospel and is not the plan.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  3. Jt_flyer

    The Vatican is out of control and imploding from within.

    Nuns have had a huge impact on my life. My earliest fond, memories involve the Nuns at St. Mary's Church in a little town in Western PA.

    It's hard to explain, but Nuns were somehow, more compassionate and understanding intermediaries between the hard nosed, Priests and the congregation.

    If Sister Ann Theresa (who'd be about 110 years olds now) is still out there, she knows how grateful I am.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Danny M

      How is the Vatican imploding? Jesus told Peter the gates of Hell will not prevail on the Church. This is such a minor issue compared to what the Vatican has dealt with over the centuries. She (the Church) is the bride of Christ and will only grow stronger once these "progressives" renew the commitments or remove themselves

      June 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Steve

      Zealots dont care what they are told to do...as long as it is authority telling them to do it.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Jt_flyer

      Imploding was the wrong word and I opolizige for the negativity. The current direction of this Pope will yield nothing but more division. And not just Nuns.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  4. effelbee

    Sister Farley is 77 years old and retired. She is a professor emeritus. The book, which is full of common sense about distinguishing between sin and pleasure, was published 5 years ago. Thanks to the Vatican reactionaries, it is racing to the top of Amazon's best-seller list. What justice for the medieval mindset of the boys in Rome!

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

    No surpirse to me. That is why I will never be Catholic. Women can't be priests? I can't use birthcontrol? Whatever. Too many rules and they live in the past. Come forward and get with the times.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      Christianity is not about what it can do for you but what you can do for Christ and others; J-O-Y , Jesus, Others and You

      June 6, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  6. HelenK

    More misogyny from Rome. That has done more to disprove any belief in God that I once had than any other thing, ever.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  7. Chaos

    Child molesting priests? Coddle them and belittle the victims.

    Nuns have some sympathy against policies of hate? OH MY GOD!!!!!!! They're out of control!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  8. penguin

    "Christianity" is the only one word oxymoron in existence. And "Catholicism" is one of the least "Christian" of the lot. It amazes me that millions still claim to be "Catholic" while not adhering to many of its dogmatic tenements.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I think you mean tenets.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      What specifically don't you like about catholicism?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  9. ralphie

    One of these centuries the North American Roman Catholic (Church) will split away from Rome anyway. All faiths have their "rules" (even Protestent denominations, Jews, and non-denominational churches) which their leadership expects each local church or person to adhere by so that they can say they are whatever (a Catholic, a Baptist, a Lutheran) but at the individual level, 99% of the people take a "cafeteria" approach to the "rules" and just follow the teaching of Jesus in the Bible. I know I do. I am a Catholic with one foot in the non-denominational door.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      The church is split because we want to make God in our image.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  10. BIG C

    Really !! I say to you know where to the little man in the pointy hat and his sand box freinds ... Way to go to them Rogue Rebel Nuns !!!

    June 6, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  11. John

    This goes to show that the church is defensive, and looking to lash out against a more enlightened philosophy. The church is afraid, close minded, and destined to collapse just like every other religion that's come and gone over the past 10,000 years.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • David Rudmin

      Enlightened philosophy? Have you ever perused JPII's book "Love and Responsibility?" THAT is true humanism, not Sr. Farley.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Robert

      And who are you to decide that their philosophy is more enlightened? Did you realize that you have JUST repeated the first lie of the devil that lead to Adam and Eve's plunging the whole human race into sin and ruin? "Go ahead... eat. God doesn't want you to have that fruit because He knows that when you eat it you'll be like Him."(i.e., they would be enlightened to know more than that revealed) by God himself. (And it actually started earlier when Satan himself said(as recorded in the Prophets), "I shall raise my own throan above Gods." It was the pride that lead to Satan's fall and got him thrown out of heaven forever.)

      No no. The Catholic church is not railing against "enlightenment." Rather, they are acting as good shepherd. And you sir, are repeating the lies of the devil.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  12. digitalclips

    I like the idea of rogue nuns.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  13. miketofdal

    Americans believe that the Vatican has gone rogue.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • swordsfor500


      June 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      And everyone knows America holds the franchise on spiritual and moral truth

      June 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  14. David Rudmin

    Sr. Farley no doubt KNOWS that masturbation was condemned 80 years ago.; she was simply being wantonly rebellious, as is the currently fashionable habit among modern academics.

    From the Decree of the Holy Office, August 2, 1929:

    Whether masturbation procured directly is permitted to obtain sperm, by which a contagious disease–blenorragia (gonorrhea) may be detected and, insofar as it can be done, cured.
    Reply: In the negative.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • notawingnut

      go play with yourself in the corner ... then wipe your hands.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Steve

      He cant touch his penis...its dirty, filthy and riddled with sin...

      June 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  15. LostinSLC

    Maybe it is time to separate the American Catholics from Rome rule?

    June 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  16. Faith

    They were a part of the cover up....They knew who was going into the rectorys,schools etc. They also participated in the abuse..Look up the magdeline sisters...it was horrific...

    June 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  17. crusader12

    God forbid someone in the Roman Catholic Church would think progressively...

    June 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Danny M

      God forbid we have faithful nuns who are committed to Church teachings! If these nuns dont like it they can leave, what is the big deal? If dont like how my boss treats me at work or believe in the company motto, I leave.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  18. palintwit

    We arrive in rusty 1964 motorhomes.
    We bring our bibles and loaded assault weapons.
    We wear ridiculous clothing and have teabags dangling from our earlobes.
    We carry misspelled racist signs as we stomp all over the White House lawn.
    We love the baby jesus but we love to boink our cousins even more.
    We believe that nascar is a real sport and that Dale Earnhardt was a great American athlete.
    We believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that man walked with the dinosaurs.
    We are Sarah Palin's 'real' Americans.
    We are the birthers. We are the baggers. We are evangelicals.
    We are morons and we are proud.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • digitalclips

      Very good, spot on! I bet the tattoo parlors will be busy putting that on many a redneck back LOL

      June 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Gemt

      Please don't confuse most people who identify with the Tea Bagger's ideals as southern, christian, right-wing radicals.

      I am a southerner (proudly born and raised), I don't believe in any organized (word used very loosely) religion, I don't believe in big government (especially at the federal level), and I don't need the federal government to take care of me in any way – I've been doing it extremely well myself for the past 30-some odd years without a hand out, or hand up. I think unfortunately that the Tea Bag movement was hijacked by a large group of uber-conservative persons who were looking for a way to root out the Democrats they saw as counter-productive to their stringent right leaning beliefs. Please don't paint us all with the same brush.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  19. Dan

    If all women religious in the US stopped doing what they are doing, the Catholic Church would collapse. They do 90% of the teaching, planning, management, and honest hard work while the 'princes' of the church (priests, bishops, etc) do next to nothing. They should go on strike for a week or two (except in care of their fellow human beings) and watch the implosing and see their own power.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      Do not comment on what you pretend to know.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  20. Trixi

    Radical Feminism. They keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what they think it means.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Dan

      It means follow the bishops obsession with a few topics: abortion, gay marriage, euthenasia, and being anti Obama. Basically the vatican wants them to be fully on message and ignore that other crap like social justice, poverty, hunger, etc.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • BRod

      best comment!

      June 6, 2012 at 9:42 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.