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. YBP

    There must be so little storage space left in the closets at the vatican with all the skeletons and the clergy packed in there.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  2. epluribus

    Excomunicate them!

    June 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  3. MS

    You go girls!

    June 6, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  4. Bob

    The pope is out of touch with the modern world.....and always will be. Those of us that ignore the mutterings of that instution are better off for being "thinkers" and not blind sheep followere.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • ScottEriugena

      And how do you come to be in such a lofty position of saying what he world is really like?

      June 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The pope and Christians in general are supposed to be out of synch with the world. Duh

      June 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  5. dajmipiwo

    Horsepuckey. They're cracking down on women with opinions, for doing social justice work instead of politics. You know, like they thought that Jesus guy wanted them to. Oh, and they're unforgivably Americans who do think instead of blindly following the pope. Who, being human, is fallible.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • ScottEriugena

      They're cracking down on an academic work on ethics.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • retphxfire

      The idea that social justice is not a priority is disturbing. The Church continues to ignore the most vulnerable. Corbet tiger idea of helping the children who are here and are hungry or homeless. Go out into the community and admonish those not having more children who will suffer with no help from Church. Close your mind to suffering....like the extremists on the Protestant Right there is no humanity or compassion or flexibility in their views toward the suffering of anyone not able or wanting to give their body and soul to a stifling/unforgiving membership.

      June 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  6. jj

    This is NUN of your business....Doh!!

    June 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  7. Norm

    I've reached the point where I consider Vatican Law and Sharia Law to be roughly equivalent. Both are the result of foreign religious fanatics trying to lord over my life. I do not live for the sake of foreign religious leaders or their "laws".

    June 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • DcottEriugena

      You've "gotten to the point..."? You haven't studied either, have you? In fact, you're speaking from a base of complete ignorance just to display a bunch of prejudices.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • RdWhtNBlu

      DcottEriugena must be a biased Catholic!

      June 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • BOO HOO

      Yoy don't have to do a lot of studying to recognize S*IT as S*IT...

      June 12, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  8. desstro

    Dont forget the vatican stood by when the jews were persecuted. Holocaust was not done by muslims but a by a bunch of vatican worshipping germans.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • DcottEriugena

      Since you've obviously polished off your 12-pack, it might be time to light a joint and mellow out a bit. You're making wild assertions with little basis in fact.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • desstro

      Oh u think the germans were muslims too? Sure!

      June 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  9. Doug

    I'm a bit torn here. I only had one nun I even remotely liked all the way through catholic school. The rest were bitter old hags who never got laid and beat the heck out of me every chance they got. On the other hand the catholic church, especially the vatican, are a bunch of no fun a holes, ironically since that is what they seem to covet the most. So I pick side 3 which says both groups are losers and can't be trusted. You gotta watch them the same way you watch people in a bad neighborhood. Speaking of bad neighborhoods I'd never be caught dead at the vatican. They have bling everywhere, grafitti all over the walls and ceilings, and none of them are in touch with the reality of the real world.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Norm

      At least the nuns aren't raping anyone.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  10. george

    Not that long ago the Vatican believed in protecting pedophile priests without regard for their past or future crimes against children. I could care less what the Vatican believes or says.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Anita Bongtoke

      Can I get an Amen!

      June 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Norm

      Not long ago? They're still covering it up, shuffling the pedifiles off to greener pastures. I'll go back to the Catholic Church when priests can get married and birth control is no logner considered a sin.
      In other words, never.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Norm I think you might want to look at the Anglican Church. They have a spot for you

      June 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Anita Bongtoke

    Rogue Nuns..... HA HA HA ...... .not a word on the men in dresses and 1000 dollar shoes sticking their unmentionable in young boys unmentionables...

    Satanic Cult Period

    June 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  12. john

    The nuns are not molesting children. The entire Vatican can go to hell as far as I'm concerned.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  13. Child of (Project) Apollo

    As Christians, the Catholic Church needs to focus on Christ, especially His love, kindness, compassion and tolerance.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • higgs boson

      you've obviously never read the new testament...let me tell you what you will find if you ever do decide to read it...you will meet a creep (your boy jc) who preaches eternal torture for a segment of mankind...is that you definition of "love"

      June 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  14. normal

    Yes those nuns are rouge. So gross with their brea sts and v a ginas. The catlicks prefer those smooth young boys who dont struggle so much.

    June 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Veritas

      We're not here to discuss your pet hobby! Stay on topic if you can.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • john

      yep..and the holocaust never happend either, Veritas.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  15. MyMotoMike

    "... intrinsically and gravely disordered action..."
    So many comments present themselves; probably best just to consider that statement and its source.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  16. desstro

    The repubs have lost it. They are voting for a non christian nominee, a mormon against their very values of electing a president.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Bob

      "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Christ is mentioned in the name of the church, that makes them Christians. Ignorance will get you nowhere.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • desstro

      Bob Jesus is mentioned in Koran too. Doesnt make a muslim a christian? I know what ignorance is and I just saw it in your comment.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Veritas

      Well said Bob.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  17. mike

    any group that believes a man parted the sea and another man lived in whales belly for 3 days is a group of IDIOTS

    June 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Bob

      Your free not to believe.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Veritas

      I can only tolerate one stupid person per day. Today isn't your day. The next month doesn't look good either.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Scripture doesn't actually say anything about parting the Red Sea. That's a mistranslation. The Greek ("yam suf") translates as the sea of reeds, which God blew back. If movies are your primary source of information, then you're not going to get very far.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • BOO HOO

      @Nilkinggry......who and what, are people to believe when EVERYONE translates the bible to suit their own needs...EVERYONE..At least the Atheist has only "ONE" belief that there is no God.

      June 12, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • BOO HOO

      Well ............2 beliefs...I believe I'll gave another beer !

      June 12, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  18. cgnkc

    There is NO god and anybody who gives money to a church is an idiot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Who needs comedy when you can just read news like this and laugh your azz off!

    June 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Veritas

      That's your opinion , but not a very bright one. To dismiss God out of hand witout any analysis is at best juvenile – at worst lacking in intelligence.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • desstro

      He dismissed god because he hasnt seen one and hasnt seen a proof of on existing. There is even no concrete proof of Jesus. I bet you didnt know that either. But then again dismissing something unproven but popular is better than accepting something based on just faith and propaganda. Ever wonder why Nazis came info picture. Faith cult, etc.

      June 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Veritas

      Turin shroud [virually proven to be the image of Jesus]; Lourdes [Jack Traynor and Gabriel Gargam],Fatima, [the miracle of the sun] Guadeloupe – look them up.
      Just try not to prove you're a victim of the failed American education system with your lack of coherent thought!

      June 6, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • john

      Well said, Desstro.

      June 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • desstro

      No veritas is not proven and that a fact. Go talk to any actual academics in science and history and they will tell u the same thing. Dont talk to religious wackos. There are organizations funding money to prove that he exists. Image of jesus my @ss. How does any look at an image and say he is jesus?

      June 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • BOO HOO

      Yeah let your God show itself and prove his words are his own and I'll be right there son.

      June 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  19. desstro

    Mark From Middle River
    Chruch doesnt share views with me or anybody. They try to impose it. And only way to prevent it is by banning these miserable lonely pedophiles forever.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • A Serpent's Thought

      So lumping the wholeness together is a "good thing"?

      June 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  20. CPW

    Packs of Rogue Nuns running around causing Chaos for the Vatican. Meanwhile another young boy is molested by a preist.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:48 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.