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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. dina

    Interesting, the Vatican did not make this much fuss over their child raping priests..This is just a good old boy network that does not want to give up its power to a woman. Long live this nun.The church needs to wise up. This is 2012 not the middle ages. These men in the church just don't want to give up the power to control people with mindless religion.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  2. Vince

    YAWN

    June 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Ken

    The Catholic Church is taking it's last breaths of air and a better world is on the horizon. Italy will claim the Vatican and childrens minds will stand a better chance to be free and reasonable.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Just what are you smoking? I want to get some for myself. It must be pretty terrific to come up with gems like this.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • 4thand26

      Amen brother!!!

      June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  4. David

    If you could stand Jesus side by side with Church, the difference would be wealth.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  5. Cheese Wonton

    It is not possible to be a moral, responsible citizens and simialteneously a Catholic. The two are mutually exclusive.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      This is just a lot of judgmental nonsense that amounts to little more than fancy name calling.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Brett

    maybe nuns are finally getting a voice and are telling the dictator in rome that they have had enough. Suppression of women's rights are what the catholic church is all about.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      If they're getting a voice, then they better say something fast. Their median age is over 70, and the number of US nuns has dropped 70 percent in the last 40 years. They're disappearing rapidly.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  7. new gawker

    Nuns who care about the community are rogues but child raping priests are pillars of the church.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

    Thanks Benny Boy. You just made her the most popular author in the country. See how that works.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Not true! Ms. Farley's book has only gone from nowhere to #16 on the Amazon bestseller list–in three days. And it was only #14 yesterday.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • cruickshanks

      It's #1 in religious books on Amazon, #16 in books – all.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  9. Bible just a theory

    HILARIOUS for CELIBATE CARDINALS and the POPE, who have never had SZEX (the word is apparently censored from the forum) with women or men or sheep or participated in any other szex act (or at least they're NOT supposed to!), to consider themselves the "authority" on the subject! Religioin – it's so-o-o-o FUNNY!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      And a less provable theory than global warming.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  10. Harry

    America should break from the Catholic Church period. They are a haven of pedophiles who won't even police their own priests. Not only that their history is full of human rights violations. Most recent would be their use of 4,000+ slaves provided by the Nazi's during WWII in Germany.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Harry

      OH and the Pope is a former Nazi to boot. Not much surprise here!

      June 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Take a deep breath and contemplate for a moment the Dresden firebombing, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  11. arlette

    A bunch of Patriarchal narcissists afraid of the Feminine Divine

    June 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Like ^ !

      June 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Joe - Wilmington, DE

      Well said!

      June 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Hear This

      arlette,

      Perhaps true, but actually, there is no evidence of "Divine" beings of any gender (including neuter).

      June 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      I always love it when people use the word "narcissist," but I don't think you know what you're talking about. You're just slinging slang.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  12. Joe - Wilmington, DE

    Does the term “acts of grave depravity" apply to child molesters as well?

    June 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  13. romaestlux

    Women have been involved in the Catholic Church's abuses. Ever hear of the Magdalene Laundries?

    June 6, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  14. Acts of grave depravity

    Man they (the catholic church) are good at making you feel disgusted with yourself.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Katiejo818

      Yes, it's called "Catholic Guilt."

      June 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Joe - Wilmington, DE

      Why feel disgusted about yourself or generally guilty for having "impure" thoughts? Impure as defined by whom? This is a male-dominated organization flexing its muscle in order to maintain the millenia-old status quo to the exclusion of women's rights. You should be proud to be a part of a movement toward female inclusion and the recognition of not just women's rights but individual rights as well.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  15. y22nxdf2

    Mmmh...are US truckers going to switch to mudflap nuns now?

    June 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  16. wcb2009

    This is exactly why my family stopped going to church back in the late 70's

    June 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  17. Stan

    So wait, this all male organization, which is being led by a former Nazi, is lacking tolerance? That's odd.
    The great tragedy is that ANYONE pays heed to what this misogynist, racist, intolerant club of perverts has to say.
    And unfortunately, they do. When the pope says it is a sin against God to use a condom, millions of the faithful in Africa do not...and look what happens. AIDS spreads like wildfire, and millions get sick and die.... And the Nuns, who are not even a part of the church, go out and do the Godly work of tending to the sick and dying...
    And when they speak with a voice of compassion and love and respect for everyone, they are scolded by these dirty old perverts.
    WHY does anybody listen to them? I really just don't understand.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Johnny

      The Church is against condoms, as you say, and so you say the faithful do not use them.

      If they are so faithful, so devout and obedient to the teachings of the Church, how do they spread AIDS?

      June 6, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • y22nxdf2

      Ahh Johnny, Johnny...you are the embodiment of everything that is wrong with religion. In another time, you would have been happy to burn witches and sew rats into sinners' bellies.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  18. mcore

    If only the Pope had been as vigorous in reprimanding the hundreds of child-molesters within the Catholic priesthood. Instead, he goes after the one group within the Catholic Church that does all the real work: the educating, healing, feeding, nurturing. Way to go, Ratzo!

    June 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • You Said It!

      Beat me to it.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Yep

      It's obvious that they rather punish women because they are women then punish child molestors. Anything to protect the church. The catholic church is sick, how people can still go and listen to what they say is beyond me.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • OOO

      I think it is more about control over the church. They have been able to keep control by hiding the child molesters. Now a "rogue" bunch of nuns pops up - they need to squash them to keep control.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Awakened

      I agree! Is the church offering $20k for each of these nuns to leave the the church like the offered the suspected child molester priests? No, the Vatican will just "prune out the nuns as they are dispensable second-class citizens" (like the Pope suggests in not so few words). Why on earth did the Catholic church offer the pedofile priests $ to go away? They said because once a priest, the church has to provide for them...how about turning them to the police and let the prisons provide for these disgusting perverts???

      June 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  19. Larry W.

    The nuns won the battle for our hearts and minds a long time ago. The Church heirarchy lost whatever claim they had to be moral leaders by their disgraceful tolerance of and cover-up for pedophile priests. If bishops want to be seen as the authentic spokesmen for ethics and morals in the Church then they need to prove that by example, not merely by their positions.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  20. SafeJourney

    Evolve Catholic Church or die.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Katiejo818

      Maybe they will create an "American Catholic Church" ??????

      June 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.