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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. Rob James

    I didn't know that Sarah Palin was a nun. Must be as she is the leader of anything "going rogue". She is just that kind of a maverick.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Palin is a maverick in the way a biologist who believes in the literal interpretation of Genesis is a maverick. AKA Retarded.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Rob James

      You betcha!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  2. solowd

    It was okay when priests were raping little boys, but it's totally out of line for nuns to not hate gay people.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • David Rudmin

      There are no higher rates of Pedophilia among Catholic clergy, than among any other denomination's clergy. The only difference is that the media REPORTS our transgressions.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      No David, the problem is your church has and is still protecting priests which they know have molested children.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Lissa

      David, the fact that priests aren't allowed to get married (which is exclusively a catholic practice as far as other denominations go), is one of the reasons why this happens so I'd say while it does happen elsewhere, Catholicism is taking the lead here.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Lissa there is no correlation between celibacy and pedophilia

      June 6, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  3. wolfpackbob

    FYI, it is the Roman Catholic Church. Not the Peoria Catholic Church, or the Schnectady Catholic Church or the Tinley Park Catholic Church. No different than any other faith. If you do not believe in the tenets and rules find another or start your own. Pretty simple concept.

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

      And as with most "simple concepts", woefully inadequate to encompass the realities of ilfe within the Church. There have been disagreements and struggles and changes throughout its history. If every time there was a disagreement people simply gave up or started something different there would be nothing left. The ultra-militant rigidity of 'love it or leave it' has no place.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Catholics do not believe in just quitting. We don't believe in aborting unwanted babies. We don't believe in dumping irritating spouses. We don't believe in persecuting wayward priests. We don't believe in excommunicating rogue nuns. We believe in repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and community. Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  4. youreright

    The Papa calling the nuns rogue?? Wow!

    June 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  5. Elisabeth

    All of these articles make it sound like it is the majority of Catholic sisters who are 'under fire'. Most U.S. sisters that I know and talk to do not agree with the same things the Vatican does not agree with in this organization. A sister I know here was part of the evaluation process and she agrees the organization needs to be reformed. If some sisters break away and form their own organization to do what they want, they will find that the majority of US religious sisters will not go with them.

    The vast majority of young sisters entering religious life today are NOT against a reform of this particular organization (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) but no articles mention that at all.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • David Rudmin

      Exactly. It was a contingent of liberal academics speaking for the WHOLE council of all 57,000 nuns in the U.S. That's not representation.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      YAY ELISABETH!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  6. Code

    The nuns are rogue and the clergy is pedophile. I guess that is what they mean by a match made in heaven.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  7. big banjo

    as far as masturbation goes you are damned if you do and damned if you dont.....there is not one single normal adult on this planet who hasn't done it or does do it regularly........the catholic faith and church is so screwed up only an idiot would follow and believe their teachings.........dont believe anything the catholic church or any other religion has to say , they are ALL myths and contrived stories to control those simple minded fools who would believe it.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Lissa

      While I agree with you as far as the catholic church having many non-sense believes, I'd have to say that the rest of your comment is also very simple minded and not very clever. You can't be so sure that all other teachings and beliefs by any religions are myths, I'm sure you haven't studied any and all in depth or researched so much to proof the latter part of your statement. Not blieving in anything doesn't make you smart my friend.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Elisabeth

      If that were true, the Christians would have given up on teaching that a couple thousand years ago. Do you really think our culture is the only and final authority on what is healthy for a human person? We've managed in a short time to destroy health and evironment on an unprecedented scale, and yet somehow our modern culture is the expert on everything? What you say only reveals about yourself and the people you accept as authorities.

      Many people DO accept traditional Christian teaching in this area and live it quite peacefully and happily. Maybe they just don't feel like broadcasting it....obviously.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  8. TJeff1776

    I am of the opinion that a woman's body is her own property. IF she wants to bear children, then do it. IF not, then abort. IF she doesn't own her body, THEN who does...the State. Of course, this fly in the face of certain bigots, but who tha hell cares what they think.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Topher

      Do you really think it's OK to murder babies?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • David Rudmin

      "The Body is made for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." I Cor. 6:13.
      "You were purchased for a price; therefore glorify God in your body." I Cor. 6:20

      June 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Primewonk

      @ David – Your random meaningless bible verses are irrelevant. We are not a theocracy. Whatever your version of a god wants, needs, desires, or demands is irrelevant, because just like all the other gods we've invented, your version has no standing in our secular laws.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Prime we're not talking about U.S. civil law. We're talking about the tenets of the Church and man's relationship to God through his body.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  9. notawingnut

    Folks, the Vatican is *not* out of control. They are *enforcing* what they believe the Bible states. They are being consistent with their beliefs. Either believe what is in the Bible or leave the Church.

    Having said that, what kind of *wingnut* believes *anthing* in that collection of random ramblings called the Holy Babble or the Quran ????

    June 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  10. Ryan

    If they don't want to take direction from the Pope, then they probably shouldn't be Catholic...

    June 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      the issue is not between the Pope and the nuns. The issue is between the emphasis of the nuns work and the catachism. It is a policy issue not a personal one.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  11. Amy Vazquez

    These "radical" nuns follow the path of Jesus Christ in all of the work they do. As I recall, he too was considered a radical/heretic by the established church. While I could not (for a myriad of reasons) join the Catholic church; I wholeheartedly support these extraordinary women and their committment to serve their Lord while suffering the oversight and opinion of male leaders who prefer a path of reigning in to that of reaching out. In todays vernacular, I say "you go girls"!

    June 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  12. Robert

    Most people here are grossly ignorant, knowing absolutely nothing but the foolishness of this age. These nuns are rogue and the things they are following are not enlightment, but the spirit of this age taught by what the Bible would call, "the sons of disobedience." (i.e., they are in rebellion not against man, but God) The leaders of a church have not a right, but an obligation to act as good shepherds, which is what the Catholic church is doing.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Yeah, they were really acting as "good shepherds" while letting all those children get r.aped.

      It's a joke. Anybody who still buys into the tenets of the Abrahamic faiths is mentally deranged.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • HA25

      HA! Thanks I needed that laugh in the morning. A True Believer speaking of enlightenment based on reading a 2,000 year old book that has neither consistency of message or tone and that has been studied for 2000 years and still thousands of 'experts' disagree on what it means.

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

      Zealots scare me.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • TPN51

      Robert, Spare me the Religious BS. Religion is a abused practice by Priest, Preachers and any kook who has a message of some kind and says it's the word of God and Jesus. The messages coming out today from all religious is 1- against God word and 2- hypocritical, distorted and self indulging. If Jesus was here today he would not condone any of these practices. FYI, I do believe in God and Jesus and what they stand for I just do not like they way churches teach it.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      So TPN where do you worship? Where is your community. How do you serve?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Cynthia L.

      Then. pray for them brother AND STFU!!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • TPN51

      Bill Deacon: Why do you need to go to a church to worship? If God and Jesus lives in you and you are a good person and try your best to follow their ways, what church will teach you that? I am a Catholic by upbringing, I have attended churches of all faiths and denominations looking for answers and direction. For me the truth is in you, not in a pulpit. If I am to spend eternity in Heaven, and it' through the belief in Jesus and his teachings, I'm a shoe in. I just see religion today dividing people not uniting them. How can you support this if your a man of God.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  13. TPN51

    You would think that with all of the controversy surrounding religions today that the the churches of all faiths would do something constructive to gain parishioners and support. Instead they stick to their ideological methods and teachings and have become more of a personal revolution against humanity causing people such as myself never to step foot in a church again. Time changes as we all know, methods of teaching change, technology changed, but religion is stuck on the same principal like a broken record. The Vatican is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the world but it's inhabitants need reform badly if they want to survive.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Robert

      My, that was enlightened. (I'm being grossly sarcastic.) You're simply repeating the spirit of this age in the language of the devil, which is comprimise on all things, including the truth. You have to understand a couple of things here. 1) God has all authority, which He has given to His Son, Jesus Christ. 2) God is merciful and forgiving but He is NOT going to comprimise his holiness for anyone. 3) Part of God not comprimising his holiness is that He will not comprimise his truth. (If you love and follow these truths you are on your way to heaven... if you come to Christ.)

      The spirit of this age in contrast is that we say: 1) No one's going to tell me what to do (which started when you were still crawling. This can be attested to by your parents toward whom you were an unholly terror), 2) I'm not going to comprimise or honor anyone but myself, and who is God to tell me what is right and wrong? 3) You, and the world, make your own version of truth, which changes yearly and which you will not comprimise, not even with God, and you call it "enlightened" though you're blind to see it's lies. And if you follow this path you will one day wake up in Hell.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bullseye Robert!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Akabecco

      Please don't give Robert any weapons lest he begin cleansing the world.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • HA25

      Robert – Stop! You're Killing me! Now you throw out the word TRUTH! HAHAHAHAHA. Seriously – I do not think that word means what you think it means!

      You have to understand:
      1) God was made by man to elevate some men and control the rest.
      2) You cannot keep 2000 year old beliefs in spite of everything going on around you, and then insist that because they have not changed that it is True. It's not. The word for it is DOGMA.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Elisabeth

      HA25:

      What is modern or enlightened about your belief (God is created by man..blah blah blah) People have been believing that for far longer than 2000 years. Does that make you a dogmatist?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  14. Woody

    From a former altar boy . Nuns are second class citizens washing the feet and clothes of men just like women do in third world countries . Maybe it is time for the Vatican to here from us ! No more donations to the Roman empire where men do not believe in having children and a family . But rather ? What does a man do with an organ that works and never gets played ? Its time that women are no longer second class citizens but rather a woman pope .

    June 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      May the Lord have mercy on your soul and mine.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Neither myself, Woody or yourself Mr/Mrs Truth (sarcastic moniker I presume) have lords, unless you live in a feudal state. If that is the case, I apologise serf.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      StandUp has a Lord.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Sorry StandupforTruth. A quick look at your other comments would point to this comment being facetious.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Deb Browell

      StandupforTruth.....please change your name because, you don't seek truth, your just trying to bully people into thinking like you do. You must have a pitiful existence, using the web to make people conform to your ideals...

      June 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Deb Browell

      StandupforTruth.....please change your name because, you don't seek truth, your just trying to force people into thinking like you do. You must have a pitiful existence, using the web to make people conform to your ideals...

      June 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  15. swordsfor500

    I so miss John Paul II. This new pope is dragging the Catholic church back into the dark ages.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Don't kid yourself. JP 2 wasn't much better, he just didn't look nearly as evil as Ratzie.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • StandupforTruth

      Cardinal J. Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI was the right hand man of Blessed John Paul II. He hasn't strayed.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Jim

      It was JP II who brought the new Pope to the Vatican and set the tone for all this.
      JP II looked the other way when reports of child abuse were reported to him, esp. when it came to his friends in the Legionares of Chirst! He refused to act on the information and left countless children at risk.
      While JP II may have been a master at Public Relations, he is responsible for setting back Vat II.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  16. David Rudmin

    When I see comments like all this, I just LAUGH. Medieval theology–Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Duns Scotus–would 'stick it' to modern liberal theologians, as a 'sham' pretense. Modern Theologians don't have any solid principles to argue from (formerly the dogmas of the Fathers), and so they come to WHATEVER CONCLUSION THEY WANT TO. That's not a science, not theology, that's just political jockeying: "Believe it, because I say it!" Yeah right.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • swordsfor500

      I would have more respect for the Vatican if it gave away its riches to the poor & suffering. I will not recognize the teaches of men who live in golden palaces as the infallible Word of God. I don't think choking the chicken every now and then is on the same level of sin as living in luxury while many of your underlings and believers practically starve

      June 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • JulianAB

      The key words in your statement are "Medieval" and "dogma". If you think Medieval dogma has greater value than rethinking what other people tell you, especially what the Church (which is proven over and over again (even in Medieval times) to be deeply hypocritical) tells you, I think you have issues.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • David Rudmin

      "The poor you will always have with you." (That would solve nothing) Besides the church already has the biggest worldwide charity organization that I'm aware of: Catholic Relief Services.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • David Rudmin

      No I said "Patristic Dogma," not Medieval Dogma. "Patristic" means "of the Fathers" in Latin. The Fathers are are our closest connection to the teachings of the original church, and when they are unanimous, the church may never ever contradict them.

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

      swordsfor500: What gilded palaces? Where are all these clerics living in palaces? I must have missed them. Are you talking about the Sistine Chapel, maybe? I wonder if all those churches and artwork should be sold of to private individuals so that the poor are permanently deprived of them, and only rich people can worship in beautiful places and feel that art and beauty belong to them?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  17. Bill

    Hard to believe that not a single priest has ever "walked the dog."

    June 6, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  18. HPN

    The Vatican may as well hang it up, people have lost all respect for them due their role in covering up molesting priest. Until they clearly take a hard line and some hard action no one cares what they have to say.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • David Rudmin

      Once people have lost all respect for Modern liberal relativistic nihilism, they will return to those who have held to their principles. I'd stick with the Vatican.

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

      Of course you would. Zealots rarely, if ever, rail against those in authority, generally you would agree with anything they would say.

      Child molesters and murderers and thats who you support...good choice, I guess (insert crazy face)

      June 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  19. whatever

    what I like about America
    is how any kind of people
    from politicians to religious people etc etc
    spit on your individual liberty
    just to follow their own sick agenda

    June 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • swordsfor500

      Umm.... what?

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

    The Man/Boy Love Society doesn't think too much of American nuns either. Go figure. Nuns just refuse to buy the pope's admonition that what happens in the sacristy stays in the sacristy.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I think you've got them confused with the other NAMBLA: The North American Marlon Brando Lookalike Association.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:02 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.