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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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. Nun Rule

    "nuns were too focused on social justice" Jesus was all about Social Justice. Create social justice and it helps many other problems.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      And what would social justice look like without an understanding of the human body, life and family relationships?

      June 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      It would like like the Vatican. The nuns on the other hand seem to have a pretty firm grasp on it.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      Yeah Bill, but remember that pertains to all, whether straight or bi.. male or female, which you seem to have a problem with.

      June 9, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  2. The Hawk

    Hey Pope, as always, organized religion has always been an option in peoples' lives. Excommunication means didily squat nowadays. Clean up your act and start getting your molesting priests in line before you go pointing the finger. Are all priests who are convicted of molestation defrocked and excommunicated? If not, get on the ball.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Organized religion has always been an option??? I guess you got your Ph.D in history, right? Or maybe comparative religion?

      June 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  3. NamDebra

    Jesus was indigent, walking around spreading the gospel with little more than the clothes on his back, which he readily gave up for the needy, whether they agreed with what he had to say or not. The leader of the catholic church, the Pope, lives in a palace, with servants, living like royalty, in a location that is considered a separate 'state' from the country it exists in, with it own sets of laws(claiming their laws are gods laws, & mans laws are irrelevant). All while more & more catholic chirches and charities are closed down from lack of funding, and there are church followers that live in poverty, or worse. The Catholic church has a history of hiding and eliminating(this includes actually killing ppl & or 'ex-communicating) anyone or anything that stands to shake up its comfy state of dominance/authority/doctorine. If the information doesn't justify/re-enforce the current practices of the church, woe be to the one who brings it to light!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      And you're here to offer personal witness and testify about what Jesus was really like, and what the Church is really like now? This forum has more in the way of personal revelations than the Book itself.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  4. Joe

    The more ignorant Catholic-bashing I read in these comments, the more I'm thoroughly convinced they're doing something right. As all 7 deadly sins have become glorified, the more out of touch society becomes with Divine and natural law. Keep reveling dear people, you only hasten your own demise and that of this faulty society - where only perversions and excesses are welcomed with charitable arms.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      The ignorance of some of the people here does not actually make the Vatican right. There are plenty of very good, practicing Catholics who are very distrustful of these pronouncements from the Vatican as well as the American bishops.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • yep

      as a victim of rap-es and sodo-my from ages 8 to 9 by priests, one a bishop today, you can go take a c-r-ap for yourself. The pope and his crew are sc-um of the earth,, con men.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      The Seven Deadly Sins [...] The currently recognized version of the sins are usually given as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. – Wikipedia.

      Not Masturbation, Abortion, Social Activism, Same-Zex Marraige, Uppidy Nuns, Bad Butlers, ...

      June 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • james pfeiffer

      Wow Joe! You sound smugly self-righteous. It is those self appointed monitors of human behavior like yourself who, if one really looks closely, are the sinners who throw stones. How wonderful it must be to have figured it all out...and then have the perverse audacity to lecture us on your own modified set of commandments. The world must be magically simple for someone like you, a saint who looks out for the rest of us poor sinners. You must be a gas to be around!

      June 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  5. Ex-Catholic

    12 years of Catholic schools! The poor nuns are considered nothing more than slaves to the Good Old Boys! Who gave them the "Powers" they assume they have? Did Jesus walk around in silk robes and fancy hats?

    June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  6. S

    Oh no! Rogue nuns? Quick! Everyone hid the rulers!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  7. The Hawk

    Not bad; the Church could incite the crusades and get them going in no time. Now it takes 6 years to read a book and censure a nun. I like the sound of it, rogue nuns. Sounds like a motorcycle gang with their leader, the Reverend Mother Bloody Lugwrench. Their motto, "We're gonna drop you like a bad habit". Habit, get it?

    June 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  8. yep

    the pope and the clergy think they are the only ones allowed to be gay and for-n-i-ca-te with one another.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  9. yep

    The pope is pure crap anyhow. The vatican rules are no different than kids tree house rules, including; no girls allowed and what said in the vatican, stays there, Pukes...

    June 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  10. carlyjanew6


    June 6, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Me


      June 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  11. 111Dave111

    Condoms and masturbation are bad, capital punishment and priest molestation are unmentioned.

    celibacy and male only leadership are so medieval.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • alltruth

      Capital puinishment is not viewed favorably by the Catholic Church in a society where criminals can be removed from society (almost everywhere now). The only case where capital punishment would apply is where the people cannot be safe protected from the actions of a criminal. Largely irrelevant today.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      @alltruth I said – capital punishment and priest molestation are unmentioned

      capital punishment and priest molestation were not mentioned ie notimportant enough to highlight

      June 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • yep

      let's recall history for a moment.. The dark ages put a stop on science, imagine wer'd we be today if they didn't. The black plague enabled people to look at religion the silly it really is, since it proved that praying to a god, just doesn't work.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • alltruth

      Thanks, Dave. You are correct.

      I mention this because it is often misunderstood by those outside (and, frankly, inside) the Church.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  12. jon s

    ISeems to me that the ancient Greek and Roman gods were and are a lot more interesting and just as plausible as talking shrubbery.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      You talk to your shrubbery?

      June 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  13. Me

    Nuns: Tell these evil evil men where to go. Withdraw from the crooked Roman Catholic Church, and regroup to continue to serve those in need. Do as Christ would do, and abandon the Pope and the sinners who allow this "man" to continue to spread hate.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  14. Andrew

    F@#% the Vatican before they f%@% you.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  15. Bob B

    The people that run the Vatican are rouge.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  16. Hooligan


    Nuns on the run

    June 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  17. joe

    “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,”

    It is also recommended by urologists as a way of keeping the prostate healthy.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • derp

      I must have the healthiest prostate in the world.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • alltruth

      No offense intended, but this has nothing to do with the issue. A medical doctor speaks for physical helath, not moral or spiritual health.

      To elaborate, there are countless examples throughout the last 100 years where doctors reocmmended for or against one treatment to only do a 180 reverse later.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • OOO

      OK alltruth,
      but if masturbation turns out to be unhealthy (like something out of the movie sleeper) then so must "normal" s.ex.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      The Catholic Church merely uses masturbation as another way to instill guilt in its membership. Its a guaranteed sin in need of constant cleansing/forgiveness. They know that 98%+ of males(and a pretty high percent of females) will do it anyway so they try to make it a source of shame and guilt. They would make breathing a sin if they could.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • alltruth

      My point is that it is largely irrelevant to the issue.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  18. me


    June 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Flying spaghetti monsters are not actually going to save this discussion from an early demise.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Oh yee of little faith!

      June 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  19. Ben Dover


    June 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  20. Cheese Wonton

    Not that I have any love for nuns. My recollection of them was that they were sadists in the classroom, hitting kids and locking them in closets with seeming glee. The ones I met were almost evil.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Hooligan

      And that's the problem, modern nuns have taken a softer, more accepting approach.

      The Vatican does not like that.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • chefdugan

      Those were the GOOD nuns. Anyone who prays three times a day to some God residing in who knows where, and claims to be a bride of Jesus, needs our sympathy. Those are women who could not get a man, many because they were so unattractive, and who subjegated themselves to men who were too busy molesting children to pay any attention to them. The catholic church is an abomination served by the stupid for the stupid.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Hear This

      In all fairness, Cheese Wonton, I was taught by them for 12 years... and yes, there were a few bullies and tyrants, but I would say that mostly they were dedicated teachers, albeit a bit zombiefied by their religious beliefs. A couple of them were actually nice, fairly cool women.

      June 6, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Hear This

      p.s. thinking back some more... the cool ones were the SCIENCE teachers!

      June 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Who let you out of the closet?

      June 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36
About this blog

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.