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. NickZadick

    fûck your fûcking filter!!!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  2. alltruth

    On why women cannot be preists in the Church

    Frequently the church is referred to as "the body of Christ" or the bride of Christ where Jesus is the bridegroom. This understanding is mystical in nature. The priest stands in "persona Christi" (in the person of Christ). Because Jesus is male and he represents the groom and the church the bride, the priest must be male since he stands in his place (Christ works through him). With a woman as priest, the mystical marraige would be woman and woman which has never been considered a true marriage to Catholics. (Please note: I am not saying that the priest "replaces" God, but that God acts through the priest in Mass, etc.)

    June 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      The metaphor is just that, not a literal description meant to be carried out to the ridiculous extreme you describe.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Lee s

      You really believe god acts through priests? How do you type in a straight jacket? And put down the dern kool aid/

      June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      So when did they prove god was a male?

      June 9, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  3. Seyedibar

    what is with all the vatican stories lately? I wasn't aware the catholics were relevant in the United States any longer.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Some think it is a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the Church through magnification of admitted errors, inflation of internal issues and derision of their values. I dunno why do you think?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  4. ghuggi singh

    iI role palayed with my wife last night. She was a naughty nun and I was the pope.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  5. dogpatch

    The current pope & his corrupt henchmen are the rogues. I had great respect for the last pope, but this guy wants to take catholics back to the bad old days.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  6. yep

    One think the catholic church has taught us,, They are the LAST group that should be telling anyone how to live their life.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  7. Chris

    Just go away....you archaic, useless organization.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Don't read these articles. That will help a lot.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  8. A Serpent's Thought

    Love is fast becoming a token, a sign of third rate thought 'provockers', a wooden nickel's worthiness. Romeo oh Juliet, where for art you two? Dead as a doornail I suppose. Where for art thou now? Love kindly while one still knows how to so love, for the morrows' measures may be unkind abounding toward hatreds and lustings.

    Love as a singularism can only be spread with measured weightiness. Untreasured love is love lost. Treasured love is love held in bondage, therefor Love given freely and passed gently onward does make love a passing away. God rides upon the threads of love. God does know where love grows and goes. Love there and here and over to while never in the knowing of God's riding way(s).

    Love all things,
    A Serpents Thought

    June 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Viagra helps, too.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  9. greg

    Conservatives really like to prune. In the name of keeping the faith pure, the Pope wants to cut off believers not of the same mind when it comes to doctrine, practice. GOPers have done the same thing by purging their ranks of moderates and liberals (yes, there was such a thing as a Republican liberal). Nazis, for the sake of racial purity, butchered by the millions. Conservatives have many valid things to say, and, they very limited tolerance, if any, for differences whether it's ideas or people.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      Intolerance is kind of endemic to being human. Conservatives haven't yet cornered the market on this, try as they might.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Lee s

      Facism is a schizo political system. It probably would work though. If good eugenics was properly employed.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  10. NYKnows

    It is very enlightening to see a corporation like the Vatican work against people so ferociously. Talking with near death survivors, what they teach us again and again is that religion has no role after death, it is like a coat that you take off when you leave this world. What matters on all planes of existence is how humanely you treated others in this life, and that you did not judge them. Seems like the Vatican needs to rediscover what really matters, instead of solely concentrating on the illusion of power and wealth that they seem so sadly focused on. The spirit in all of us is with the nuns in this battle, happy to say.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      I don't think the Pope is reading this. Why don't you send him a letter?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  11. alltruth

    The Church does have the authority to speak on the issue because it speaks to the faithful (and to all people who can understand it) about sacramental marriage as God intended it to be. However, to understand the “why” requires understanding natural law, scripture, reflecting on the incarnation and the nature of God, and the great dignity of people made in the image of God. Since there is much more to it than a simple sound bite, unfortunately it is not understood by most outside of the church.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • yep

      based on their history, including the worst crimes against humanity – cover ups of child abuse, they are in no position to tell anyone, anything.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Norman

      the church lost all credibility a coupel of years ago-teh numbers are falling fast-no sympathy-they deserve to die off-if they advocated condom use, MILLIONS in Africa woudl be saved-so tragic

      June 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      How about god showing his, her, ugly face and telling us this s*it for him, her, self, for a change...I thought so.

      June 9, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  12. Ultra

    The catholic church believes women have a place... in the kitchen surving the man. No equality there. The catholic religion was not to kind to the Vikings when the religion came. The people where very much equal until then.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      You're confusing Humanae Vitae with Richard Wrangham. There are no papal encyclicals on kitchens and cooking.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  13. pherrisphain

    I was reading today about the 7 sacraments (Catholics will know what I am talking about). What really struck home is that only 6 are open to women. If sacraments are a conduit for grace, would Jesus have made only 6 of 7 available to women? I think not.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • alltruth

      Very good question!

      Frequently the church is referred to as "the body of Christ" or the bride of Christ where Jesus is the bridegroom. This understanding is mystical in nature. The priest stands in "persona Christi" (in the person of Christ). Because Jesus is male and he represents the groom and the church the bride, the priest must be male since he stands in his place (Christ works through him). With a woman as priest, the mystical marraige would be woman and woman which has never been considered a true marriage to Catholics. (Please note: I am in no way saying here that he "replaces" God, but that God acts through the priest in the Mass, etc.)

      June 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  14. Reality

    What the nun should have said:

    The reality of se-x, contraception and STD control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-
    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. ...

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% actual failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% actual failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    "Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'" (It should be called the Bill Clinton Syndrome !!)

    Obviously, political leaders in both parties, Planned Parenthood, parents, the "stupid part of the USA" and the educational system have failed miserably on many fronts.

    The most effective forms of contraception, ranked by "Perfect use":

    1a. (Abstinence, 0% failure rate)
    1b. (Masturbation, mono or mutual, 0% failure rate)

    Followed by:
    One-month injectable and Implant (both at 0.05 percent)
    Vasectomy and IUD (Mirena) (both at 0.1 percent)
    The Pill, Three-month injectable, and the Patch (all at 0.3 percent)
    Tubal sterilization (at 0.5 percent)
    IUD (Copper-T) (0.6 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Post-ovulation) (1.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Symptothermal) and Male condom (both at 2.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Ovulation method) (3.0 percent)

    Every other method ranks below these, including Withdrawal (4.0), Female condom (5.0), Diaphragm (6.0), Periodic abstinence (calendar) (9.0), the Sponge (9.0-20.0, depending on whether the woman using it has had a child in the past), Cervical cap (9.0-26.0, with the same caveat as the Sponge), and Spermicides (18.0).

    June 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  15. longtooth

    The nuns should be tortured and burned as a lesson to the others. Let's get back to basics. What do these women think the Church is about? Godliness? Wake up, for Chrissakes!

    June 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  16. palintwit

    Remember when Bristol Palin was on DWTS and her buttplug fell out? And the janitor picked it up thinking it was a chew toy?

    June 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  17. Jeff

    The Vatican is too busy telling people what not to do when they should spend their time spreading the teachings of Christ. Instead of trying to lay a guilt trip on people they should be helping people make the world a better place. The guilt trip method usually drives people away instead of changing their behavior. Jesus would not issue orders like the Vatican does, he would love unconditionally and not judge their behavior. This caring almost always has a much greater influence on a "sinner" to become a better person and thus make the world a better place.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You are a victim of what you "think" the Church teaches. Get back with us after you read Theology of the Body and God is Love.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  18. Asturiano

    Nuns are the slaves used by the Vatican to maintain their dominion. How dare the slaves rebel.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Christine

      That just about sums it up, for real...

      June 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  19. alltruth


    Monks started the uiniversity system, they copied the ancient works of Plato and Aristotle (seeing their great value even though they were not Christian) (whether or not they would have been I don't know as lived before the time of Christ).

    ANd please don't use Galileo as the one piece of evidence that argues that the church hates science.

    June 6, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  20. John

    The church is experiencing a slow death. Been to a Catholic church lately? Mostly old people. Very few believe the nonsense they preach these days. Even the nuns are over it. The preists and bishops don't speak up out of fear. They are desperate to survive but everyone with half a brain knows that taking the bible literally is for the simple-minded.

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

      too many nûtjobs are still buying their shyite!

      June 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
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