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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. Nick

    fogive me if I huve speling erors. Not eesy to type with one hand. Guess I I'm doing wit my othur hand?

    June 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Petting the dog?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Barff

      Same thing "MOST" of the men are doing.

      June 12, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  2. 111Dave111

    “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” the church said in a statement.
    The report also said the nuns were too focused on social justice and not enough on opposing abortion, euthanasia and same-se(x) marriage.
    [Pope] Benedict spoke [.about..] becoming smaller but more devout.
    “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. When there’s a perception that sisters are under fire, there’s a tendency to support them.”

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

    celibacy and male only leadership are so medieval.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      You keep repeating this. Don't you have anything new to say?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      fo-olish @Abbey, No repeats are allowed.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      Anyone on this blog who professes to "NEVER" touching themselves for pleasure, is a damn liar, period !

      June 9, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  3. Andrew

    I was raised Catholic but I really have no respect for the Catholic church anymore.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Lee s

      LOL probably because you were raised to be a "good" catholic.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  4. mike

    cavemen...wake up Christians...STOP THE IGNORANCE

    June 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      You first....

      June 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Lee s

      Oh mark good one, you gonna put some magic spell on us next? How is all that praying working out for you/

      June 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      Magic Spell? No. Ignorance of intolerance from extreme parts of the Church and the echos of intolerance from the extremes of Atheism, just sound so much the same. You have both declaring for the other side to "wake up" when they really just mean change your view and believe as they do.

      After a while it is just intolerant statements from both sides.

      I can only pray for those types, the extreme Faithful and the rabid Atheist, and do as all of us in the middle ground have done for centuries and just try not to get killed in their crossfire.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  5. Lee s

    What do you expect from an ex hitler youth and his henchmen? God wills it. I smell another Schism.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Schisms smell different. I think the wiring in your A/C is burning.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  6. questioning my faith

    Perhaps the Pope should hang up his Gucci shoes, put on some Nikes and work alongside the sisters so he can get a clue...
    http://www.ohiodailyblog.com/content/what-nuns-story-really-about

    June 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Lee s

      While I am very anti establishment of religion, that is a great blog.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  7. The Jackdaw

    Most church leaders are "rogue" because they understand that they need to evolve with society while the vatican is devolving. The sooner church dies, the better.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  8. Clian Kocol

    I am not impressed with Catholic using money from members for super fancy churches and for involving in politics rather than spending money to help poor people. Catholic Pope, Bishops, Fathers, etc are very selfish and greedy for themselves. Catholic has long history abusing people's including GLBT's civil rights. Shame on them!!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Rob

    The Vatican thinks US nuns are rogue, the US thinks the Vatican is full of pedophiles, I'll take rogue.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      The US does? Even victims groups have declared that the priest in question are in single digits. So how do you get full of Pedos from that.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Barff

      @ Man from Middle River you are wasting your time praying for us. (Atheists). If you know any TRUE Atheists, we do not try to change anyone, If YOU try to change us, we simply like pointing out the way you say one thing, BUT mean another, or answer,"there's some things God doesn't want us to have the answer to". etc. With answers that have no answers. In other words, Inconsistencies. We believe in no God, we don't have to prove Gods existence. You, have the burden of proof, not us. If I told you that I saw a fairy, I have the burden of proving it, buy photo, video, or showing it to you. You have the burden og showing tangible evidence of God, and you CAN NOT !

      June 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Barff

      @Man from Middle River...If you think the pedos of the church is in SINGLE digits, You are a blind as the priests are. Who are you kidding? That's a great example of religions twisting and distorting !

      June 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  10. EgoSumLamia

    See what happens when you allow a women to get an education, horror of horror's they find out she can actually think. Back to the kitchens and the sick rooms, women aren't suppose to think, nuns are suppose to be Vatican chattel. Stay strong sisters, show them who really has the balls.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  11. dc

    The church doesn't play the game. Thus they are in no position to make the rules

    June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  12. kevin

    so, priests can molest children for decades but nuns are "going rogue" for teaching masturbation? at least one pedophile priest was killed in prison. their answer is "we didn't know what to do" or "there was no policy to guide us". attention nazi pope: please shut your mouth, you are a meaningless person.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  13. Freedom From Religion

    The "leaders" of the Catholic Church have a lot of nerve to accuse any America nun of being "rogue!" I've never heard anything about any "rogue" nun anywhere, anytime . . . ever!

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The Vatican didn't actually call the nuns rogue. CNN inflated the headline to demonize the Vatican and spread dissension

      June 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      OKay @ Bill what did the church say about the two female theologians and authors, Sister Margaret A. Farley and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, and, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the nun leadership group?

      Was it worse the rogue?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • mothernature

      that's like a priest calling his fellow priest a pedo!

      June 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  14. Norm

    My goodness. I wish Fox would open up it's comments area again.
    The filth that has invaded CNN is just disgusting.

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

      All you had to mention is "FOX" and your ignorance spews forth.

      June 9, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  15. Will

    Typical BS from a church that continues it's downward spirl relegated to the dump heap of history as moronic and non estential...no church comes between man and god and certainly not the Catholic Churg Skip To My Lou theology.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  16. areacode612

    “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” – Ok, now I'm confused.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Presuming your question is genuine. The reason is that the Church views se x as a sacred communion between two married people. Any activity that displaces that intimacy is disordered.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Lee s

      @bill so how is being a puppet your whole life working out for you?

      June 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Lee well for one thing I am able to dialogue with people without resorting to derision

      June 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • mothernature

      @areacode612. Maybe your not masturbating enough, It clears the mind and soothes the body.

      June 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • mothernature

      @Bill Deacon... that's as ridiculous as saying they can't urinate separate. It's a normal act, that almost 100% of children do. And Bill, I am willing to bet, YOU did too.

      June 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Deb

      @Bill Decon...who are you kidding? In many of your blogs, you do the exact same thing...... MIMIC RELIGION.

      June 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  17. 111Dave111

    Gotta love it! I kept getting cen-sored, my mistake, quoting from the article they hate S-E(X)!

    human s-e(x)uality

    teachings against ho-mos-e(x)uality

    Christian S-e(x)ual Ethics

    masturbation and ho-mos-e(x)uality

    “ho-mose(x)ual acts” as “acts of grave depravity.”

    book about s-e(x)ual practices

    think about s-e(x)ual ethics

    abortion, euthanasia and same-s-e(x) marriage

    Filed under: Catholic Church • S-e(x)uality

    June 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • 111Dave111

      It appears that
      “ho(m)ose(x)ual acts” as “acts of grave depravity.”
      is the worst.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      It's just a glitch in he programming. O maybe someone is hitting the Report Abuse button.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  18. Steven Colo

    "Your Excellence! Over in America, the nuns are showing independence and the priests are molesting small boys!"

    "What??!?!?! The nuns are showing independence? That must be STOPPED!"

    This is sad. John Paul II made the Church relevant and brought it into the 20th century. Benedict has managed to make it irrelevant and creaky again.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  19. NamDebra

    Here's an interesting point, the Catholic church will ex-communicate someone for teaching or spreading information about religion that is contrary to Catholic doctorine, but bounces priests accused of mol- est- ing children from parish to parish, until it happens so many times someone is finally brave enough to say something/do something about it/bring it to public attention, after which the priest is finally removed/suspended. Hmmmm...

    June 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. Steve

    Why would anyone listen to men that really do not live life but stay secluded from society and follow teachings like a cult. Men that only have one love in life: the Church (definitely not God).

    June 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • kr

      I Corinthians 7: 32-34 states, "An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband."

      June 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • sam stone

      listening to celibate men about s-e-x. good idea

      June 6, 2012 at 1:35 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.