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. Bob

    The purge of Marxists begins.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Are you calling the nuns marxists?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ajk68

      Yes. And many of them are.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Bob

      Many at their core are indeed Marxists. That's ok, but it doesn't jive with their bosses.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      And what is your evidence that they are marxists? I'm wondering whether you actually know what a marxist is, or you merely heard the word and thought it sounded like a good one to sling around at people who disagree with you or the church.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Apatheist

      You clearly have no understanding of what a Marxist is....

      June 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Pander Bear

      Bob, you need to take ALL of the pills that you are prescribed, even if they make you fuzzy headed. They are necessary to combat your delusional paranoia.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • KMW

      I would say these nuns are Communists and should move to China or North Korea where they would be VERY welcome.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  2. BobFromPA

    This is another example of why I renounced Catholicism when I was 15. I am now 56 and still can't believe people follow this crock of crap! I hope all the nuns rise up and rebel against the Papal Nazis!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Nitrous

      Bob, you chose to leave of you own free will.....

      Isn't free will what has brought you to where you are today....

      June 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • ruwacky

      BRAVO, BOB....You will never win because they create a new crazy answer based on nothing when they are cornered...

      June 7, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  3. ApocalypseNotNow

    Waiting for the Vatican to step up its crackdown on pedophile priests....think I'm going to be waiting for a while....

    June 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  4. Lenny Pincus

    So the Hitler youth wants to "prune" impure elements of the Church. He could start by removing his own brain.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • ME II

      Yo Lenny,
      What's his de facto forced membership in the Hitler Youth got to do with anything?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Joe

      Yo, Lenny, Yo Yo Yo Yo Yo stick it up yo .....

      June 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  5. Jax66

    I think this is just another way for Pope Bendict to assert his misogynistic strategy to destroy the positive role of women in the Church. The next things to go are women lay ministers and girl alter servers. The legacy of John Paul II, and the message of peace that he lived, is gone.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • ajk68

      No. These nuns are running amok and have been for years. Anyone who knows the Catholic faith knows these nuns are way out there.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • derp

      "Anyone who knows the Catholic faith knows these nuns are way out there"

      Did you see the video, Nuns Gone Wild?

      June 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • ruwacky

      Why do you think the scholars who wrote the bible had in mine? To keep women out of the picture and promote man...These lame practices hold our society back. Religious people are so stupid to think we could not possible figure out right from wrong, good from evil, and evolve into a civilized people without the bible.

      June 7, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  6. Montello

    Let the Inquisition begin

    June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  7. Father Touchmewrong

    Yes, stop those nuns! They are molesting our children and being generally rotton! Wait.....lets forget the first part guys, I dont want to look like I am setting a double standard. Jesus hates double standards....

    June 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  8. IsaacNewton

    Those pesky nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. m

    YAY NUNS!!! Stick to your guns and ignore the criminal pedofiles in Rome. The "men" in Rome are not in charge of your souls!!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • ruwacky


      June 7, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  10. Bill S.

    No masturbation? No wonder so many serious Catholics go insane. Suffer for the Lord my sheep!!

    June 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • just sayin

      Yes that is a sin but r a p ing young boys is not and actually cherished by the Catholic Church.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Father Touchmewrong

      No "self-help" leads to suffering sheep....if you catch my drift.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • ajk68

      The Catholic Church and devout Catholics deplore child molestation.
      The fact is that there are subversive elements (including clergy) within the Church that promote it. These nuns are aligned with the subversive movement.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Drew

      Actually members at the highest levels have participated in the cover up. It isn't a "subversive element," it's the inst itution itself trying to avoid bad press

      June 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  11. TonyH

    The catholic church and most religions are as corrupt as any billion dollar corporation.
    They "prey" more on children and protecting their ghoals/rapist then anything remotely moral, yet alone christian.
    Excuse me but ... go to hell.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • ruwacky

      Why is everyone forgetting that many years ago, the priests were raping the nuns, impregnating them, and forced secret abortions on them, and burying the bodies of the babies? Many skeletons of babys and fetuses were found inside the Vatican and right outside the walls. When discovered the Pope declared it was the townspeople burying their babies there to be close to god.....YEAH RIGHT ! The Vatican is an expert on covering up their atrocities.....

      June 7, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  12. Nitrous

    Tom Hanks can save us all from this dilemna. He leads the Church of the Academy Awards. With one more movie of religous fantasy, we all can get a good night sleep.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  13. TamarS

    Cracking down on American nuns is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action! Since when is dissent a problem? Sister Margaret A. Farley will now make a lot of money as millions of Catholics order the book from Amazon or thier remnant neighborhood bookstore. The Hole See just doesn't see how it shoots itself in the foot so regularly. By the way – it's not just American nuns. It's nuns in Argentine, Brazil, Ireland, Poland, etc.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • ruwacky

      Even if she would make millions, I can't see her just jet setting, vacationing in the Caribbean, and eating caviar. I think she would us it to help others, unlike the Pope who revels in mass riches while the starving people of the world have little to nothing.

      June 7, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  14. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    Remember, if you tighten the strings too much, it will snap.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • ajk68

      There are a good number of Catholics who can't wait till all these loopy theologians are finally pruned.
      They've done great damage to the Church.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      You mean the 98% of Catholic women who use birth control? Are you going to prune them too? After all, they are going against the church.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      I don't give up because 98% fail, I stay strong for the 2%. Catholicism is not easy, that is why you are outside looking in while letting Ron Howard catechize you.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • ruwacky

      ..JESUS CHRIST...Jacques and Standforthetruth...No one or no church has the right to deny a woman her worship because shes on birth control !! How would you like it if a woman demanded you have a vacetomy or you can't worship? "NO" one not even the Pope or any church has the right to tell anyone what they "MUST" do to their bodies. The Pope wants to put women in this position, but will he help feed, clothe, supply medical, etc, when the woman can't because the MAN just walked out of the picture and he is still allowed to worship...Get real and quit thinking in a way that holds society back....You sound like women haters...The Pope thinks he has more power than anyone, well I will tell you, God will hear you even if your just lying in the grass, as long as you are sincere. And I'm an Atheists, and have more morals than you.....GO CHURCH !!

      June 7, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  15. Dan in Canada

    What a backward cult. I am so glad II am out of it! I wish the nuns would come to their senses and get out too.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Nitrous

      Sure Canada is a great place to run to, but don't come back here, you will be shot.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • m

      Glad I got out of the cult too! The most criminal organization on the planet and the sole reason for so much unhappiness and corruption!

      June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • ruwacky

      ...Nitrous.....YOU are a jerk, speak for yourself and not the rest of the USA. who left you in charge of freedom?

      June 7, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  16. ALM

    The Vatican may be using these nuns to try to deflect from the very serious issues of pedophile priests that have been in the news and courts. Don’t underestimate how sneaky they are. Orders/Laws for the Catholic Church come from the Pope down to Cardinals and so on. It must be realized by many that the orders for how to handle these pedophile priests came from the top.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • just sayin

      I trust the Pope and Catholics about as far as I can drop a tu rd.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • derp

      "as I can drop a tu rd"

      The two smell eerily similar

      June 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  17. Jim Hahn

    This is as amusing. The Catholic Church with the Rat in charge is trying to reign in the flock. Unfortunately, purity is not an endearing trait and the Church will find itself with a shortage of parishioners to go with their shortage of priests.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • just sayin

      Dying cult

      June 5, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ajk68

      The Church does not measure itself by the number of people in its pews.
      At times like these, there are also towering saints – most of whose names you will never hear.
      I've been privileged to meet a few of these people.

      I knew a priest who had 3000 people in his address book at the time he died.
      He was teaching them catechism, teaching advanced classes, hearing confessions, giving spiritual direction, giving retreats, training seminarians, etc. When he was younger he traveled to several different countries to spread Christianity.
      He never talked about himself – even though he had a PhD in physics before he became a priest, and a PhD in a theological science (don't remember which one). He was a great practical joker. He was like a kindly grandfather to us younger people who knew him.
      I know he set my life on a different course. I know he was greatly responsible for my wife (who I was merely friends with at the time) learning what the Church really teaches and staying in the Church.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      AMEN AJK68

      June 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  18. Mouseman

    Right, so pedophilia with young boys is OK, masturbation not so much. The Catholic Church sure chooses its battles oddly.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  19. Sue

    Organized religion is sooo cute! (NOT.) Just give it up friends, flagellate yourself, put on a smile, and go out and help someone instead of always your SELF and your (cough cough) immortal soul. LOL! Humans are so silly, just because you can think means suddenly you can think up a fantastical being to "create" everything. Why do you need answers? Do they help you (hint hint, you think they do) sigh, in the end all roads lead back to the human mind being the source of all.....all problems, all strife, all conflict, all desire, all wants, all Me me me me me me.........

    June 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Judy

      It does seem to be a group of fools led by a hypocrite.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Nitrous

      Is it OK if I pray for your soul, no one else will.....

      June 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • ruwacky


      June 7, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  20. Starchunks@gmail.com

    This will be the generation that gets to sit back and watch Christianity implode.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Sued


      June 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      2000 years too late but better late than never.

      June 5, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Nitrous

      The Catholic Church will survive ...... Long after all of you are dead ...

      June 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • just sayin


      The Catholic Church will survive ...... Long after all of you are dead ...

      Still dying though

      June 5, 2012 at 4:55 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.