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. Cando

    "A little rebellion every now and then is a good thing." – Thomas Jefferson. If the church does not change it will find itself more and more irrelevant. Perhaps the difficulties in the Vatican would be better served by a two party system.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      A two-party systrm? Then the birthers would really go to town...

      June 6, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah cuz that has worked so well for America

      June 6, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  2. Matty

    Guess it is time for Pope Papatine to dust off the Malleus Maleficarum again. Free-thinking women have always been a threat to this ancient old men's club!

    June 6, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  3. Lorena

    The Catholic Church is a joke. Women are treated like garbage and the Vatican needs to get real. Open your eyes people the church is a criminal organization

    June 6, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. Larry

    The catholic church and its male leaders would be wise to not messing with the nuns. After decades of ignoring, contributing to and condoning the molestation of children by male priests the world is tuning away from the catholic religion. Nuns are one of the only redeeming positive aspects of that religion. Lose them, lose the world.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • albert

      I wouldn't put Nuns on that type of pedestal. They helped bring Hitler to power just as much as the Priests. They condone the Pagan practices of the Catholic church. They meddle in politics, and don't think for a second that they didn't turn a blind eye to the molestation and other abuse of children. Remember, silence is agreement.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  5. Fladabosco

    Either you believe the man with the pointy hat and a house so huge it's its own country is the unerrant word of god or you don't.

    If you don't why are you a nun?

    June 6, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  6. Buc59a

    Damn... Nunz Gone Wild

    June 6, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  7. Elisabeth

    Why does it say that comments are not pre-screened when I have written things that do not post? Are we being censored?

    June 6, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • LinCA


      You said, "Why does it say that comments are not pre-screened when I have written things that do not post? Are we being censored?"

      CNN uses WordPress blogs for their opinion pieces, and they use automated censoring that looks for words, or fragments of words, that are considered offensive. If your post doesn't show up, it most likely had a forbidden word in it.

      Repeat posts, even those that were previously censored and not displayed, will show a message stating that you posted it before.

      The following words or word fragments will get your post censored (list is incomplete):

      To circumvent the filters you can break up the words by putting an extra character in, like: consti.tution (breaking the oh so naughty "tit").

      June 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      The programming is twitchy, that's all.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I thought there were only seven words you couldn't use. Things have sure gotten complicated since Fr. Carlin was alive

      June 6, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  8. albert

    Read Revelation 18: 4 – 22 . From a scriptural perspective, the Catholic church is out of touch anyway. They have introduced many man-made, and Pagan traditions. The Bible actually prophesies that "Babylon The Great" (the empire of false religion) will be destroyed. What we have been seeing over the past several years is no coincidence. The world governments are growing sick and tired of this religious plague.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Revelation is even crazier than Leviticus!
      7 headed dragons that spew water and eat pregnant women?
      Swarms of armour clad locusts with the face of a man, the hair of a woman, the mouth of a lion and the tail of a scorpion, all wearing tiny crowns?
      I get that the author was embitterred, having been exiled to the middle of nowhere – but he really should've been more careful about eating the local mushrooms.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Interested48

      And sick and tired of listening to quotes from a book written by Bronze Age nomads!

      June 6, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • albert

      Revelation uses illustrations. The things you mention are not to be taken literally. Stop listening to your priest/preacher.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      The Rapture has already come and gone. Sorry we missed you. Maybe next time.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • albert

      Just for the record, the Bible does not even mention the word "Rapture" Maybe you should know a little something about the Bible before posting a comment. Many of you here are confusing religion with what the Bible actually says. Even the Bible speaks negatively about religion. Romans 10:2, 3, 2 Timothy. 3:2, 5, Matthew 7:21. It makes a difference when you actually read the Bible as opposed to listening to Priests/Preachers

      June 6, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  9. Sheldon

    Hey, didn't Nostradamus say this was going to happen??? Their was a book that surfaced in Europe. It contained several drawings that illustrated the seer's now infamous predictions. One of the drawings showed a group of women turning their backs on the Pope. I think the next prediction is that the Pope goes into hiding....scary.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Fladabosco

      Wow, a book that predicts the Catholic church will PO a bunch of women at some point in history.

      Did Nostradamus predict the pope-mobile? That a member of the Nazi Youth would eventually be the pope?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  10. jj

    Seem to me the Pope is....nun the wiser for this course of action....Doh!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  11. jj

    We'll have nun of this foolishness.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Nahit

      Chris Posted on You could use wood putty/filler. You'd probably need to sand the vanisrh off 1st to get it to adhere better and apply it in thin layers (so it doesn't crack when drying) but it should work. Once it's dry you can sand it to give you a perfectly smooth layer to paint.

      July 29, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Vera

      I enjoyed your post over there! If you want to unnrastedd the no follow issue more, check out .@Jeanne and Trinity thanks for tagging me! While there are lots of silly memes that go around, this is a good one.@John good idea. I do have my most popular in the sidebar, which accomplishes this purpose too.

      August 1, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  12. Jackola

    The Vatican is obviously still living in the dark ages.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Aqeel

      facebook is surely friatrstung in many ways. i dislike much of what i see, but in the end it is not about the tech it is about the fact that it is widely used and accepted, and therefor convenient. i'm sure that there are linguistic scholars that have complained bitterly that English sucks and went out and invented another language we just don't hear from them much.i will miss you on facebook. John

      July 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm |

    If the Vatican did the right thing and held priests accountable like they are trying to do with the nuns, many churches wouldn't have priest.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      According to the victims groups, who have been persuing the abusers they declare that the percentage of Priest who are in question is maybe 4 to 7% of active Priest.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Many churches don't have priests now, due to major declines over the past 40 years. That's why deacons have been taking over. And many of them are women.

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

      Hey Mark, what percentage is OK? 2%? 8.35463%?

      I say it's ZERO percent.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Justin

      Held them accountable by shuffling them around so they could molest and abuse more children and women while the Vatican tried to sweep any and all complaints under the rug? yeah ...

      June 6, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "According to the victims groups, who have been persuing the abusers they declare that the percentage of Priest who are in question is maybe 4 to 7% of active Priest."

      Yes and this is based on the amount of people who report said abuse. How many kids do you think are abused daily that say nothing out of fear?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      Fladabosco, While ZERO percent is certainly desirable, it's probably not practical to think that any population numbering in the hundreds of thousand will have ZERO percent pedophile rates. I think Mark's post is trying to illustrate that the rates among Catholic clergy are statistically equivalent to other denominations and demonstrably lower than the general public. So the reality is that while the Church has had a horrific problem, they are no worse than anyone else and probably better than many. But you just keep believing the "news" that the man feeds you. He'll tell you what you need to know and how to think.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      @religion My guess is that the numbers that go unreported are about consistent with the numbers of false reports

      June 6, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  14. jj

    I see a calendar coming....."Nuns of America"

    June 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  15. Pope on a Rope

    Vatican: Masturbation bad. Molestation good.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  16. NorCalMojo

    If the Vatican doesn't get their act together, we're going to have a nun-riot on our hands. Then we're all in trouble.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. bill davis

    The Priest did it....

    June 6, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  18. wishing

    Nuns on Harley Davidson motorcycles. Priests in peaked hats carrying torches. The Catholic Church is in turmoil. It will get better or it will splinter.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • sam stone

      or it will get better by splintering

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

      Yea...."Heavens Angels"...it works.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Topher

      I think this was called the Protestant Reformation.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  19. markusp

    The vatican attacks the nuns simply because they're women. The modern-day middle eastern men treat their women quite badly. The ancient middle eastern men who wrote the bible treated their women even worse. I wonder how the "Gospel According to Jane" might read.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • notanymore

      "The ancient middle eastern men who wrote the bible treated their women even worse."

      You wanna show us that in the bible? My bible says,

      Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.

      In other words, a husbands is to love his wife to the point of willing to die for her.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • albert

      You have no clue what you are talking about. Christians men were taught to honor their wives and to treat them with dignity. i doubt you have even read the Bible.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Jackola

      To JJ – your quote is from the New Testament, which preached a change from old ways.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Jackola

      Albert, you may not be aware that the "Bible" is in two parts – one reflecting the old ways, and the other the new ways preached by Lord Jesus Christ. Marksup is dead-on in his assessment.

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

      You have no idea what you're talking about. Ignorance is bliss, suppose.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      A good Christian woman should be silent, submissive, subservient and filled with shame for the curse her gender forced on humanity.
      Calvin described women as
      "... more guilty than the man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading all to perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame."
      I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church."
      After all – "Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" Ecclesiasticus, 25:19

      If western women bear themselves as haughtily as they've been doing, The Lord will treat them like he did the daughters of Zion in Isaiah 3:18 and take away all their jewelery,fine clothes, makeup, and mirrors. He'll make them bald and rotten smelling before killing all of the men they care about.
      As I Timothy 2:11-14 reminds us, "Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor."

      June 6, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Deb Browell

      ...Doc Vestibule....YOU ARE A QUACK !! IT'S uneducated, vile, racst, JERKS like you that keep this planet from evolving. You and your religious garbage need to stay inside your home and not be allowed to subject others to it. We all have the same rights, but we do not try to force anyone else to agree with out views. The bible is fiction period. And if you re stupid enough to believe that snakes talk, people walk on water, bushes magically burn, women turn to salt and the seas open up, You do not have the right to force anyone to believe in such garbage...Why dont you quit playing with yourself, go do something worthwhile for mankind and keep your uneducated views to "YOURSELF"...

      June 6, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Fladabosco


      If any of you 'Christians' had done any looking..it's EASY to find bible verse that treats women horribly.

      Check out

      I Timothy 2:11-14
      Ephesians 5:22-24
      I Corinthians 14:34-35
      Leviticus 12:5
      Eccles. 25:13
      Eccles. 25: 26
      Eccles. 26:14-15
      1 Timothy 2:11-12
      1 Corinthians 11:3
      Genesis 3:16

      Can you name the 10 commandments? I didn't think so.......

      June 6, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      There's no racism in God's words – only misogyny.
      I'm not uneducated – I'm a doctor!
      I got an STD at BSU and that Sacred Theology Doctorate from Baptist Scripture University is worth more than any "scientific" degree out there.

      Look – the point of the post is to drive home the fact that the Bible is FULL of misogyny in both the Old and New Testaments and those anti-ovarian tenets have been reinforced by revered theologans for hundreds and hundreds of years.
      People like "notanymore" and "jackola" simply ignore the bits of the Bible they don't like becuase the amount of double-think required to hold both biblical ideals and modern egalitarian ideals is flabbergasting.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  20. The Real Tom Paine

    The butler did it.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:44 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.