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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. Wrenn_NYC

    If you study the history of the Roman church you will see that it cyclically crackdowns on the female clergy. There are accessible historical records going back as far as the 11th century of such breaking the religious rule of convents and placing them under control off the nearby abbots (thus taking away control of the property from women) on a regular basis.

    The church as long held that women are far less than men, and should be under their rule and guidance. Aquinas held that women were 'misbegotten males'. That in a 'state of innocence' there would have been no need for women to be born, that the first man and woman would have had sufficient offspring (all male) to populate, and no one would have died (Aquinas' view of 'the Garden of Eden').

    You can't make this stuff up.

    (Not and get it published. I edit for a fantasy sci fi publisher... I wouldn't buy it).

    June 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • jj

      I don't think that's a valid point when comparing to today's situation because going way back in time, most of all society's were treating woman like 2nd class citizens. Even not going back that far...it would be difficult for woman to have property and really needed a man to have a life. Heck, a hundred years ago they couldn't vote in this country.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  2. jj

    Rogue Nuns...this is getting good. They need to get some really bizarre new habits to wear...and special dark sunglasses. Nothing Americans like more than a good dose or irreverance.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • sam stone

      New habits and dark sunglasses....wallking like the boys in Reservoir Dogs

      June 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  3. HenkV

    The Vatican is learning from Obama: distraction. Get away from the real issues like their pedophiles.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  4. AndrewR

    At least they arent touching little boys...just sayin

    June 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • jj

      And you know that how?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  5. JD

    Maybe if the priests did a bit more masturbating they would leave little boys alone.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Agreed. Nuthin' wrong with jackin' it.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  6. shelly

    Rogue Nuns? How about focusing on the child molesting priests instead. Sheesh

    June 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  7. Joe

    So, the Vatican no longer cares about social justice, just political points. Good of them to finally admit it.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • marjee123

      Call for the IRS to take away their tax free status. If they want to enter politics, let em just make em pay those taxes like everybody else who is in to politics.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Dudemon

    Kadavergehorsam Über Alles Herr Ratzinger

    June 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Sieg Heils.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  9. EdL

    I wonder what percentage of Unied States catholic nuns are lesbians.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Probably the same percentage that have v.aginas.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Mazzata

      Does it make a difference?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • bigdil

      Probably slightly lower than the number of priests who are gay.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • mary

      Definitely lower than the percentage of priests that are pedophiles

      June 6, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • hippie power 69

      and that matters how??

      June 6, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  10. Carroll

    People argue that the bible tells it all... I've got news for ya, The Bible, The Koran, The book of Mormon, I don't care which Book you choose to argue because EACH AND EVERY BOOK was written by the Hand Of Man. There books were not written by a God or a Saint, these books were written to keep people AFRAID.

    So you folks on your High Horse Bible... take a long ride on a short pier. Wake up and smell the coffee, get out of that Dream World you're in and See with Your Eyes instead of some yahoo on a Bible Preaching Crusade.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • marjee123

      You are so correct. That is the same as people writing books today. After all you are correct, in the fact that the so called people who wrote the Bible had no standing other than being men with their own opinions.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  11. halleluljah

    Rev. 18:4

    June 6, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • JD

      Do you really expect us to leave the computer to look that up?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      It's just the passage that says, "Come out of her so you won't share in her sins." I suppose this is supposed to apply to the nns. Don't worry about it. Revelation is full of junk like this and is fodder only for Hollywood and Millenialists.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  12. ruetienne

    Everything still comes down to the basic question, for Christians at least, was the man Jesus actually a God? Sounds like a fantasy to me. Most of us believe what we believe because we were taught from an early age, over and over, that our religion was the one and only true one. That's mind manipulation, brainwashing, and nothing more. That goes for everyone....Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. We smirk at Mormons when they talk about Joseph Smith's ridiculous claims, but have no problem believing Jesus rising up to heaven or changing water into wine. We're astounded by Islam's claim of Mohammed rising to heaven from the same rock from which Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac, but have no problem with stories such as raising Lazarus from the dead. It seems that good men who walk this earth and and become natural charismatic leaders beome godlike to their followers and thus, over time, bigger than life, bigger than reality. Seriously, do you really believe in all the stories you've ever heard of an afterlife? I can't quite fathom it.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Balls McGhee

      it is easier to spread lies than to spread the truth.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I dunno Balls, I think it's just easier to spread lies people want to believe, like there is an all loving deity and an afterlife. I mean, it sounds nice, so people will believe in it rather than accept reality.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Mazzata

      All religions are morally outrageous and intellectually contemptible.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • richunix

      Well written. Bravo!

      Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      June 6, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Tim

      Thank you for helping to prove that atheism is a religion.
      Why? Read the story then your comment. Your comment
      is completely 100% off-topic. Why did you feel compelled to post it even though it has no relation to the topic at-hand?

      June 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Tim

      Going off topic in a thread means atheism is a religion? Wow, it must have taken a team of retarded goats to not figure that out.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Nigel Goddard

      I agree with you your observations. One step further the love mentioned in the "Holy" books is the only thing of value.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  13. mary

    The Vatican’s censure of nuns who educate and inform paired with its ongoing protection of perverted child rapist priests is an egregious bias against all women and children. This illuminates its nepotistic, elitist filled ego which must be what’s blinding them to the fact that the Vatican is what’s providing the ever abundant supply of reasons for Catholics to abandon their religion entirely. The people of the world need to censure the Vatican and provide comfort and compassion to its victims.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • DT

      Very well said, spot on.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • marjee123

      Extreme religious beliefs in the world is mostly the cause of all the conflicts today. A lot of people who say they are so so religious are really people that want to control. They realize that people are gullible and want to believe that there is a heaven and they play on that. Every one in their right mind knows that the God that the republicans talk about forever speaking to them is all a lie. If there was a God do you think he would run around talking to people. Does he have a cell phone where he calls them up. The laws and actions of these republicans who call themselves Christian belies the fact that they are following the dictates of any God like person. The God in the Bible they love tells people to love their neighbors, to held the poor and the needy. AND GUESS WHAT REPUBLICANS AND NOW WE SEE THE VATICAN ARE TELLING AND DOING THE EXACT OPPOSITE. The Vatican chastised Nuns for helping the poor and ministering to the sick. They want them to go out and protest that there are gays in this country. Now look closely, which two actions does their Bible tell them to do.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  14. Carroll

    The Vatican is simply worried that the Truth is coming out. They've known for as long as the abuse has gone on for and are ashamed that the truth behind it all will simply come out of the wood work.

    The church, people go to war because of the Church. Just think if there was No Religion... what would be the point of most wars? They'd have nothing to go to war for. It's there to keep people under a Thumb.

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

      People have gone to war for a lot of other reasons. Africa still enjoys a lot of civil wars and ethnic cleansing that has nothing to do with religion.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Bobber

      It's sad when the RC church could pick between some spotless holy men and decide to elect a man with ties to the Nazi regime, one of the worst in killers and abusers in history, to choose to be Pope. It shows they aren't thinking right in the first place. Maybe they like to live by the old advertising cliché " Controversy is good" They seem to embrace it. They lost my vote.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Carroll

      I didn't say EVERY WAR... just the Religion ones.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  15. sonotso

    Here is a predication: In ten years, the fiscal support for the Catholic Church will be greatly diminished and will result in a vast reduotion of the size and influence of that church. Organized religion in general has made God out to be a clown; talk about biting the hand that feeds you. It is sad that organizations that could do so much good, do so much evil and self service. As for the Nuns, if it were not for them and women in general, there would be no church. The men walk around in their pointy hats and act pompous and do wrong while the women do all the work. It was fascinating to watch the Catholic Church debate on Mother Theresa's status as a Saint while making up crap for Pontiffs to get the status. Perhaps the Nuns should start a new Church, one based on service to the world; many Catholics would join in. No Pontiff, no Cardinals, highly reduced molestation rates, no sitting on vast treasure while the world suffers, no gold and silver; just hands on good work.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Won't happen. Nice try.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • SV

      @Nikkingary
      Why not? Just you because you wish for something not to happen, it is not going to be stopped. Stop feeling like you are God.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  16. Picard1

    The Catholic Church is so out of step with modern times it is comical and sad at the same time as is Islam and Judism. I do believe in god but man-made organized religion is the most destructive weapon in the history of mankind.

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

      Implicit in your comment is the assertion that modern values are the correct path for humankind. Not from my view.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  17. brown

    Damn The Church!

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

      Amen to that!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  18. G

    I really do not understand why we tolerate the vatican. They protect child abusers and downgrade women and have no intention of treating people like 'all men are created equally). Are people really that desparate for salvation. There are alternatives (ex-catholic)

    June 6, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. Nobody

    "raising eyebrows in Catholic circles because she is one of the country’s most respected female Catholic theologians."
    Since when is Sr. Farley "one of the country’s most respected female Catholic theologians"? This book has been a problem ever since it was published. CNN, your agenda is showing through again.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Louisiana Man

      err. its complete absolution for the pedophile priest and their hierarchy monsignors who protectd and transferred these predators to other parishes....sought and paid for help for these dearths....none for the victims..

      YET..when the nuns express their beliefs in halting an out of control population and curbing the maladies that come with it..
      they are rogues..

      YOU GO SISTERS and continue the good work..and let these old outdated relics of the past stew in their own juice..if they have any.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      You're out of touch, or maybe just ignorant. Whether we agree with her work or not, the book has received numerous accolade, awards, and positive reviews from other theologians and professional periodicals.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Tim

      Hate you break this to you, but I think maybe their sole agenda is to sell cars and collect a paycheck. College is *expensive* these days! . . . . 😉

      June 6, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  20. Robert

    Most people here are 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 10:13 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It's called a CT scan. Get one, before it's too late (although I fear we have already reached this point).

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

      Well then I'll see you in hell too, you hypocrite!!!

      June 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • tbrown

      Exactly right.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • rc

      Religious zealots have been making up the "truth" for several thousand years... their "truth" has just become more widely accepted by their "flock".

      June 6, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      How very christard of you Robert!! Using the typical threat of hell on those who are do not agree with your view or worship the same god as you. Please tell us how you are so certain you have the correct god and how you are so certain your god even exists or existed (no using the buybull...provide the evidence of your god-what does it look like? who created it?)
      You're not convincing anyone that your god is so good and loving when you use the threat of eternal torture.
      It is the 21st century child, that book you hold as the truth is 2000 years old...how do you remain so blind to the simple fact that as time moves forward, new information is discovered and yet that book has never changed or been updated to match the time? (note: that was a rhetorical question)

      June 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • mary

      The discussion is not about God, it’s about a group of bitter old men in the Vatican who are actively working to marginalizing women and children.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Cynthia L.

      Robert, this story is about the treatment by the Vatican toward nuns, who have given their life to Jesus AND the church. Nowhere did Jesus say the Catholic Church or, any other church, for that matter, are his personal mouthpieces for salvation. People need to come to Christ on their own discoveries of the gospel speaking to their hearts, not yours, or anyone else's. Period. Stop throwing the stones of destruction. Keep your own counsel. Let others follow love, peace and fellowship without prejuduce and threats of damnation at every friggin' turn. Jesus didn't seem like a fearful guy to me. But, you and the Vatican do. Stop playing the righteous pain in the you-know-what. Opening your eyes and your heart would be a good place to start.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Tim

      The problem as I see it is that the Vatican is continuing to act from a position of credibility when they've lost it and then continue to fail to recognize that. That shows a *continued* failure to understand just HOW BAD that abuse scandal was. In my honest opinion every single second these people fail to have the pope arrested and hand him over for trial, they're doing the devil's work; and I feel there WILL be an accounting for it. There's *real* evidence of racketeering; there's REAL evidence he participated in a major coverup of widespread child abuse for decades. That's VERY serious and in my honest opinion if the church leaders recognized that and understood it (as they've claimed to...) then they'd remove him from his position and hand him over for justice. "Let what is Caesar's belong to Caesar." In my honest opinion that's the real root of the problem. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones; and they shouldn't be shouting "your HOUSE is on fire sinners!!!" when there's rocket fuel burning in their own, next to a keg of dynamite.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • marjee123

      Do you know why the church is trying to control people and politics. MONEY, MONEY AND MORE MONEY. That today is their main object. The want more golden cups on the altar, more jets, and houses and boats and all the good things for themselves and how can they get it , if people knew the truth that most of these preachers are false.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • wishing

      Robert, I believe you are incorrect. Aside from worshiping the One God, and living a Christ-like life of loving one's neighbor, the rest was left up to the Church on Earth to decide: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19 RSV)

      June 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • sam stone

      Robert: Why do you feel that the writings of Iron Age man has any relevance to 21st century man?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • sam stone

      Robert: You really are delusional. Seek help, or at least heavy medication.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Nigel Goddard

      Dear Robert,

      Before you to knock enlightened people, perhaps you should listen to what they are saying. Those who control organized religion and its messages are more often concerned about its own power and prestige than the well being of the followers. Love is the only universal truth that all mankind shares with one another. Religion is more and more associated with disrespect for women and intollarance for others. People are realizing to get to God's truth, they need to cut out the middleman and find the path that best suits them. God bless you.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:14 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.