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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. BScatolakis

    Death rattles of a corrupt, foddered and evil old boys club.

    June 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  2. BScatolakis

    The Vatican has nothing more to do than to censure American nuns? What a tragedy! This pope, nicknamed Herr Holiness by many disenfranchised and disillusioned, is pathetic and a coward. Rather than censure nuns why not open the priesthood to marriage and married priests. This might reduce the corners in which the pedophiles can hide unless.......
    well the whole damned thing is an old boys club and as far from the teachings of Christ as on can get in the same plane of existence. Shame, shame, shame!

    June 14, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  3. Dzerres

    I'm with the nuns. Start a new catholic church of America! You don't need that Nazi Pope to tell you what the truth is – read it for yourself. I'm betting there's nothing in there about buggering little boys – even in the back by Leviticus or Revelations!

    June 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  4. onesidedcoin

    Dan,
    He/she was calling the pope a nazi. Many feel that way.

    June 14, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  5. 1sidedcoin

    DAN,
    He was calling the pope a nazi. Many feel that way about the catholic church/pope.

    June 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  6. Really?

    Why isn't the Vatican this passionate about catching, outing, and prosecuting child rapists and abusers? Hypocritial fools. I'm not sure how anyone can take these people seriously.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  7. Nazi Pope

    Screw the Vatican and the Joke, I mean Pope. Nuns are the true followers. They are the ones living the word and not raping our children.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • prediction

      The truth will set you free.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • dan

      im not a cathlic but when you stereo type people all it does is show how ignorant you are. usually people who point there finger are guilty in the first place. also i noticed you call yourself a nazi what a disgrace to yourself. do you know what hitler did? or are you still playing ignorant

      June 14, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  8. pensimmon

    I think nuns live lives more closely related to Christ's teachings than the priests and those in the Vatican do. The Vatican is a PALACE, and crammed full of priceless works of art. Nuns lives in cells in a convent in poverty, caring for the sick, then underprivileged and little children. They work hard but have little to no personal income. Who is more nearly living a Christian life??? I'm not Catholic, but do admire what nuns do, compared to the behavior of priests, bishops, cardinals, popes and all the other "princes of the church".

    June 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Dalanije

      Well said Pensimmon.

      June 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • onesidedcoin

      spot on.

      June 14, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  9. Farkel44

    2000 posts from people who believe Heaven is on Earth....or don't believe...but spend all their time and effort commenting on something they don't care about. The truth is down deep.....it eats at you....and you can't help it.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • paulamcgregor

      Farkel44, what are you talking about?

      June 15, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  10. DC

    Oh, but it's ok to molest young boys and keep it a secret and protect the pedophile priests.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  11. Older Sista

    I'm always surprised that people who scream that God does not exist fill up these pages with hateful rantings. I mean, there's 35 pages of comments. Why do they bother? Why not just shrug and turn the page? There's lots of people I don't give any attention to even tho the whole world seems to adore them......people in sports or entertainment. I don't target articles about them, I turn the page and think, "Ho hum." I'm even more surprised that I take the time to even try to begin to teach some Christian truth on here. My son chids me but what can I say? Hope springs eternal.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Dzerres

      Because you get a tax break to push this nonsense, that's why. You can believe anything you want to (except buggering little boys) and if you don't do it on my dime, I DON'T CARE.

      June 14, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  12. goofygooberin12

    I love how they condemn these nuns for being like Jesus–focusing on helping the poor and the downtrodden. Apparently it's wrong to help a homeless person find a job and get on his or her feet again, but it's right to stand outside abortion clinics and terrorize 14 year old girls. Christians complain that everyone hates them, but the fact that they completely bring it upon themselves is totally lost on them.

    June 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Older Sista

      I seriously doubt that any nun has ever stood outside an abortion clinic and terrorized a 14 yr. old girl. Puhleez. If they were there, they were pleading for her to give the baby up for adoption. I sure as hell wish they'd been there when I walked into that butcher's palace when I was 19.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  13. mique

    You go,girls!

    June 14, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  14. Jack

    Hello everyone. Say if you have some time please visit my web site... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 13, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  15. maximus80

    I think it's likely the nuns will end up breaking away from church and forming their own organization. That what religious groups do. They get into disagreements over one rule or principle and split apart over it. It's like cells dividing...

    June 13, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  16. Chris

    Think about this one:

    The Judeo-Christian god, as described in the Bible, is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. He creates our souls and sends us to Earth as a testing ground. But, why the test if he already knows what will happen? A great number of people on the face of the earth have been born, lived, and died as atheists (not to mentions believers of other religions). This deity knew before creating them that they would never believe in him, yet he created them anyway, knowing full well that they would be destined for hell. This is not the work of an all-loving god. So he is not omnibenevolent which means the bible is wrong, so why believe any of it if any part of it is wrong? Just one of a long line of biblical errors.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • backatya

      @Chris...good job.

      June 13, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      Offering his creatures free will is a form of benevolence, if you choose to you view it that way. Also, the Bible makes clear the consequences of sin. This warning and instruction is benevolent, if you choose to view it that way.

      June 14, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • RGCheek

      It is amazing how much anti-Christian bigotry goes on on this webasite in the comments section, and that bigotry is accompanied by the most astonishing ignorance I have ever seen among people that think that they know something about Christianity.

      Chris, there is nothing about God's omniscience that precludes free will, nothing at all. That god knew it does not make God responsible, nor does it preclude God creating the sinner though He knows the sinner will be damned. For there to be free choice there must also be those who take the wrong choices or else it isnt truly free.

      God might also have other plans for redeeming those not saved in this life though that is entirely outside Biblical teachings.

      In other words, stop getting all your misguided notions from atheist versions of a 'Chick Tract' and try to really learn about the subject before blowing your ignorant screed all over the internet.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Older Sista

      No one is predestined to go to hell in the way you present it. We all have a choice. Our future is not set in concrete or carved in stone. God holds out His hand to us right up until the moment we die. He never made hell for mankind, it was for the devil but if we follow the devil.......People should read C.S. Lewis...The Problem with Pain would be a good start.. Look. Do this , get by yourself and say out loud, "Jesus, IF YOU'RE REALLY THERE, would You please let me know....so far, I haven't been able to believe anything I've heard. Thank You." That's all. He understands. He's not insulted if you're not coming in all rude and belligerent. He walked with mankind for about 33 yrs. He understands us and our doubts and fears. But I found out....He's innocent of all the charges we bring against Him. Please, talk to Him. GOD DOES NOT WANT ANYONE TO END UP IN HELL. JESUS DIED TO PAY OFF YOUR SIN DEBT. HE LOVES ALL OF US, MORE THAN WE LOVE EACH OTHER.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Dave

    A few questions should help shed light on the relationship between religion and rational thought.

    The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:

    (a) Children’s fairytales;

    (b) Medieval mythology;

    (c) New age pseudo science; or

    (d) Christianity

    You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:

    (a) historian;

    (b) geologist;

    (c) NASA astronomer; or

    (d) Christian

    I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Christian

    I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am

    (a) A gifted psychologist

    (b) A well respected geneticist

    (c) A highly educated sociologist

    (d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.

    Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions

    (d) A Christian

    The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:

    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they are morally obliged to believe on pain of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is a composite god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or

    (d) All of the above.

    If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am

    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker

    (b) A mafia boss

    (c) A drug pusher; or

    (d) A Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister or Jewish Rabbi.

    What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:

    (a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;

    (b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;

    (c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or

    (d) All of the above.

    The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:

    (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;

    (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;

    (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions to distribute condoms; or

    (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • backatya

      @Dave....BUT,BUT, BUT, IT's Gods will...blah...blah...blah...blah

      June 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • inanutshell

      @Dave But God said you will never understand why or how things are to be, only thru him shall you gain knowledge, in other words he only tells on a need-to-know basis. That's why he rocks...hahah

      June 13, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • JohnnyC

      Thanks for the series of strawmen...

      June 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • RGCheek

      Thanks for showing you dont know the first thing about Christianity, Dave.

      For example, you say that there is a 70% likelihood of Christians not believing the Earth is older than 10,000 years old?

      Criminey! Not even the majority of Creationists are Young Earth Creationists, and most Christians accept evolution but believe it was how God made life as we know it.

      In other words, you dont know what the hell you are talking about, not in the least.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Older Sista

      So why all the passion? You don't get all worked up about Jack & the Beanstalk.

      Jesus demonstrated the reality of an unfathomable God whose omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence you can't concieve or understand. Well DUH. No foolin' Jackson. I have a relationship with Him, you have an argurment. AND me thinks YOU think more highly of yourself than you ought. Man's wisdom is God's foolishness.

      June 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Freewoman

      I loved that! Thank you

      June 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  18. Atheist

    How dare the wimminz think!

    June 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  19. Skip

    ithe catholic church is dying before the world's eyes because they continue to promote oppression, bigotry and even hatefulness. they claim to love like jesus but he would be ashamed of the catholic leaders if he were alive! the pope and catholic leadership (all men of course) will continue to point fingers and blame others and cry to the heavens as the church continued to shrink and die; never realizing or admitting that they are the ones to blame! anyone else feel like laughing out loud??

    June 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Milton

      Now, that's not fair. The Catholic church isn't completely bigoted. For example, they are extremely tolerant of pedophiles.

      June 14, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • JohnnyC

      The Catholic Church is in a state of renewal. Vocations are up in many parts of the world, including America, particularly among the devout and traditional religious orders. The Church will not "die" as you suggest because God guaranteed that the "gates of Hell would not prevail against it" in Matthew 16:18. It is not a "club" or another human organization. When you oppose the Church and what it stands for, you oppose God. This says nothing of legitimate reform carried out for centuries by the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and Pius X.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Maria

      David, Thanks for chiming in. And tanhks for pointing out the importance of knowing State laws when it comes to this stuff. I hope each person would take the time to familiarize themselves if they do not know already. Great advice!

      July 31, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  20. joe

    "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
    ...Stephen F Roberts

    June 13, 2012 at 2:16 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.