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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. BD

    Your Popeness, I was asked to relay a message from my friend Relevance. He asked me to let you know you won't be seeing him again.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  2. desstro

    FU Vatican, FU Mecca and Especially FU Mormons.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. The Atheist

    The Church is correct and the nun is wrong. The church does not have freedom of thought let alone freedom of speech. If you wish to be part of that organization you are not free to think nor speak your mind, only believe what you are told to believe and repeat what you are told to say. If you disagree with that, don't join or leave that organization. Organized religion is not nearly as noble as most western societies that believe everyone has a right to their own thoughts/beliefs.
    The Atheist

    June 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • freeb

      Do you always refer to yourself in the third person? You need to watch the "Jimmy" episode of Seinfeld to see how silly you look.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Frank

      I agree. I don't understand why one would join a cult to not follow the cult's dogma. Why join in the first place? Of course I realize 99% of Christian sheep didn't have a choice but were indoctrinated into their cult from childhood.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      I speak my mind all the time with Church officials. They may not like it, but your notion that suppression is rampant is nonsense. Get your facts straight and quit announcing nsubstantiated biases.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Matt S

    What the hell happened to the Catholic Church? When did they go totally bonkers?

    June 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      1123 A.D.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      Was not yesterday they went bonkers.Go way way back on all religions to understand all had to change to live in this world.As they killed people and left otherdisess to survive they got stronger and smarter.Disease was the best weapon the churches had to get rid of the weak.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  5. Sunflower

    The Catholic church has been a rogue organized crime syndicate for 2000 years!!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  6. veep

    That's funny, I thought the Vatican had gone rogue?

    Where is Cardinal Law?

    June 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  7. sir_ken_g

    The nuns should leave and lever the Catholics with only a bunch of old pedophiles.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  8. jorge washinsen

    What we have here is a failure to communicate.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. Josh

    "Vatican thinks U.S. nuns are rogue"

    US thinks Vatican officials are all backward retards. So, there!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      We do? Sounds like when Al Sharpton declares that "we" African Americans feel a certain way. Amazing that you speak for so many of us in the USA society.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  10. desstro

    These two religions Islam and Christianity needs to be banned. They are by far the most voilent and power hungry religions. The world would truly be fortunate to ban these religions or they start having unholy off springs like Shia sunni mormons etc.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • sp2011

      But Jehovah of old testament of the Jews, like Allah is a Jealous god, and wont let an other gods come before Him. He even destroys cities and all its inhabitants including infants if it displeases Him.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • jorge washinsen

      Right on.Both Religions together almost wiped humanity off the face of the earth and each agree along with the other 10,000 recognized religions that there is only one God.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mark From Middle River

      Ahh... ban groups that do not share your view. Are you looking to just mass grave us or are you going to fire up the gas chambers again?

      Maybe you should have lunch with the Pastor that wants to put all Gays and Lesbians in quarantine .... yall certainly speak the same language of wanting to destroy groups in society that are different. 🙂

      June 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • BOO HOO

      @sp2011...Oh that's the all loving God everyone is raving about !

      June 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  11. Todd

    Just another CULT pushing it's ways. I am Catholic, do I pratice, not really anymore. When I got three different answers to the same qustion on baptism and they stated that it does not alter, it is canon law. I called them out on it, but our Dicoese still wants my money every quarter. What a sham. Seems the Catholic faith is working hard to push people away. Here come the othe other CULTS

    June 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • HippoP

      Your not catholic like you are Irish, or German. You don't practice anymore. So just say your are no longer catholic.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Todd

      How about Part time Catholic. I go to church on holidays and use SOME of the beliefs, only SOME, to raise my children. The Catholic religion, faith, cult, needs a face lift in the modern age more. people, times all change and we adjust. Let a priest marry, why not. doesnt affect the parishioners at all and I doubt if that many would really care.

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

      The Southern Baptists are always looking for a few good ex-Catholics. You might try knocking there. Any negative biases will be received with applause.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      yeah, you're not Catholic

      June 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Todd

      Your pushing of disbelief and claims that I am not Catholic feels as though I am being pelted with stones. I am a Catholic, and pratice my faith how I see it to be. The only one I need to answer to is God alone. Let him and him alone judge me on my day. What I provided are my opionions and encounters with the Catholic Faith. Not my place to judge another Catholic.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      Aren't you shocked by all these so called religious people who are so quick to slit your throat. go figure.

      June 9, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • BOO HOO

      @HippoP...I am blacK and I used to act white, but I don't anymore. I AM STILL BLACK.

      June 12, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  12. sp2011

    CNN is having a fun time with this story

    June 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  13. Rabbit One

    the vatican is a wolf pack of greedy criminal losers who have perverted the simple humble mythologies of the bible

    June 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Wow, you must be a really righteous person, maybe even a prophet. Such judgments! We'll be saving a soapbox for you in the park. Do stop by.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  14. Jerry

    Well said Steve

    June 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  15. mike

    As a truth seeker I usually bash religion, but I've come to understand at the end of the day joke's on them

    June 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • sam stone

      no, at the end of the day the joke is on those who have followed it, and society in general if the religiious joke influences public policy

      June 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Mike Mazzla

    You better be careful vatican..you can take advantage of little boys but you do not want to f–k with a nun.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  17. Babak from LA

    I am a muslim from Iran. Nuns thought me english when I was 8 years old at a local church. I saw them care for the sick, teach us kids English and do a whole lot of good deeds .... I am 50 now and live in America. I am so gratful to them for giving me a chance. Right or wrong, I take a side... I back the nuns.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Babak I'm glad you found the nuns. Many people think fondly of them and the Vatican is not against them. The Vatican is simply voicing concern that the sisters are so busy bailing water that they are ignoring the leak in the boat. Life, se x uality and family relations are paramount to true social justice.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • youdon'tsay

      Bill...the hom o phobe.!

      June 9, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  18. CM

    I went to Catholic school for 13 years and this is by far the coolest thing the nuns have ever done. You go girls!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  19. Monique

    Go Sister, Go!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  20. Anonymous

    Yeah Vatican! Let's "pound" those nuns...while your priests "pound" our little boys!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:28 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.