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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. David Rudmin

    We don't need nuns preaching "self-pleasuring" to be morally neutral, as Sister Farley did. C'mon Kantians! Where are you?

    June 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      You have the right not to read or practice anything she preaches, therefor don't deny her of her rights...

      June 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Tam

    The church is irrelevant. I doubt if too many thinking people listen. Trouble is, the ones that don't think still do.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  3. David R. Scott

    The catholic church is just a haven for pedophiles and molesters. the pope is an ignorant lying bigot. The church hates WOMEN, GAYS AND ANY ONE WHO DOES NOT WANT THEIR CHILDREN MOLESTED! TO HELL WITH THE not christian at all piece of crap catholic pedophile church!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      This kind of rant doesn't actually help move the discussion along. Replacing one sort of bigotry with another never does.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      ...YOU GO DAVE !! Blunt, but correct!

      June 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  4. Stan

    This is just a consequence of Vatican II. We now have a new generation of zombies who pass themselves off as "catholics" who not only are anti-Catholic in their behavior but defy all basic Christian/Biblical standards. Most of them are the product of the progressive nuns who have infiltrated convents throughout western society since the 1930s and given the green light for a full-on assault by the Vatican II subversives.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Tam

      So go back to the Middle Ages – sounds like those are your centuries.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Drew

      If it weren't for your co-option by these progressives you might still be burning people alive.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Stereotyping is so convenient, and so wrong. And an arch-conservative outlook isn't the whole story so far as Christian doctrine. I happen to favor leftist thought myself. And the nuns didn't teach it to me. I'm just an old, white guy who decided radical feminism was good all by himself, and what the bishops think doesn't really worry me too much.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  5. Look at all the Nazi gold in the picture

    The Vatican is just sitting there, plump, well-lit, filled with gold and jewels and valuable doc.uments and protected by Swiss mercenaries with the latest gadgets.

    Anyone wanting a billion dollars in gold and jewels just needs to invade this tiny area within Rome, sack the Vatican, and receive the thanks and grateful wishes of billions of people throughout the world.

    And if they wipe out all these priests, I think they would also get a large number of medals and thanks as well.

    Italy could do it the easiest and the money would help their economy to the tune of trillions if they did it right.
    Or maybe some Muslim country would love to see the Vatican razed to the ground.
    Or perhaps the Jews would like reparations for the Holocaust from the source: The Vatican.
    There is gold in the Vatican that was stolen from Holocaust victims. The Pope at the time fully supported Hitler and helped many Nazi war criminals escape to Catholic-dominated countries, even taking in Ratzinger himself who served as a Nazi soldier – the records are there in the hands of the Jews now. They should take this guy down and take down the Vatican, liquidating this Jew-hating organization once and for all! The money would go a long way to help all Jews, all of Israel, for the horrors visited upon them by Catholic Nazi Germany.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      I will pray for you.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      Phew, for a moment there I was afraid you might do something that would have a tangible, noticeable effect on the world, Standupfortruth.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Not me. I am only a humble servant.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • KMW

      I am sure you will find as much gold in Jewish temples as in the Roman Catholic Church, probably more. I have not visited a Temple but I do know that the Jews give lots of money to their faith. It is a cultural thing. To Catholics, they give money from their heart. Catholics are very generous and will help everyone regardless of their religious affiliation.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • counturskeletons1st

      He's a nut...suftt...he's praying for everyone like he's gonna save the world, I think God appointed him judge and jury while he's absent from humanity!

      June 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  6. Chrisnot

    C'mon boys and girls.., the church has made a lot of progress. They haven't burned a heretic in quite a while.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  7. blake

    The Roman Catholic church has got a broad spectrum of theological and internal practical problems to deal with. Better start dealing with them decisively or the mass exodus from your ranks will continue. Sadly the exodus is primarily into godless secular humanism, not into vibrant expressions of following Jesus.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Drew

      You know, it wasn't until Humanism arose in the renaissance that people began to really act like Christians

      June 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      If secularism unleashes our ultimate virtues then why do the arts suffer so? Where is the next Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Bernini, Michelangelo, Renior, any of the Dutch Masters. And where is the next Norman Rockwell? I guess a crucifix in a mason jar full of urine is the best that atheism/secularism can deliver. No beauty there.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  8. JohnReedjr

    Go you girls!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  9. Sherron

    Why are people still ignorant enough to follow this church? Why does anyone want to be a nun or priest? So they can be controlled all their lives by hippocrits? Get a brain people.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      I will pray for you too sister Sherron

      June 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Richard

      Hypocrites

      June 5, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  10. Paul

    Nuns have positively influenced me more over my lifetime than any other clergy. Until women are elevated in stature in the Church and allowed to lead parishioners as leaders, then the Catholic Church will never progress and will keep declining. Women's point of views are desperately needed in the Catholic Church.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Pray for Mother Angelica

      June 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  11. Trey

    They just want to deflect from the scandals involving priests and little boys....I have an idea!! Suppose you put THIS much effort into weeding out the pedophiles and punishing them, instead of moving them around where they can strike again.....oh, wait....that would make too much sense...

    June 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. stanton

    THE UNHOY ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IS JUST THAT UNHOLY WHEN THEY ALLOW PEDOPHILES TO DO THE THINGS THAT HURT CHILDREN AND THEN TURN AROUND AND TELL NUN'S NUN OF THIS NUN OF THAT AND NUN OF THE OTHER!!!! I'M SO GLAD THAT THEY CAN'T GET AWAY WITH BURNING PEOPLE AT THE STAKE ANYMORE!!!!! THEY JUST DON'T GET IT JUST LIKE THE REPUBLICAN TEA POTTY HORRAH FOR ME AND TO HE– WITH YOU!!!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Yet it is ok for your dentist, doctor, coach, teacher, family member, neighbor to continue in their practices. One of them may have this affliction.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  13. Eck

    Really boys? You are hopelessly out of touch with the teachings of Christianity. Just because you say it is so, does not mean that it is really so. Does God talk to you personally? And by the way, judge not lest ye be judged.

    I am a woman and a former Catholic who only steps inside of their churches for weddings and funerals. Plain and simple, the boys don't like girls unless the girls know their place. The curia has proven itself to be irrelevant. I wish them the best of luck.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      I'm a Catholic and a guy (an old, white, testy one) who completely agrees that the Vatican has fallen off the dee of the earth. They're making the Republican War on Women look like a children's outing. And they're also making Ms. Farlry's excellent work on ethics a bestseller (#16 on the Smazon bestseller list, last I checked).

      June 5, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      You will be in my prayers of intention during tomorrow morning's rosary.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  14. bisayani

    Hey if you can't follow the rules, leave.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Drew

      The Catholic Church needs dissent, otherwise it's moral development would be hopelessly stunted

      June 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • stanton

      THE SAME GOES FOR THE CRIMINAL'S WHO HAVE RUINED OUR ECONOMY AND DEREGULATED EVERYTHING ELSE THAT THEY CAN GET THEIR HAND'S ON AND THE WALL STREET BANK'S AND WALL STREET AND NO INSIDER TRADING ALLOWED BY OUR CONGRESS AND SENATE!!!!! THESE SO CALLED LAW MAKER'S OUGHT TO FOLLOW THE SAME RULES THAT EVERONE ELSE HAS TO FOLLOW!!!!!!!

      June 5, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      Not on your life! The ladies happen to be right.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • matthewstevenkelly

      Exactly what my wife and I did. We were both raised Catholic, and had 16 years of Catholic education. We left the church three years ago. Best decision we have ever made.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      HOLY CHRIST, standfortruth do you fu*king work. It seems all you do is pray for everyone else. No one is asking for your prayers, so do something productive for mankind.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  15. hillbilleter

    This is another reminder that this new Nazi-Spawn-of-Satan lookalike Pope has no understanding of real people and their problems. He isn't the only Pope in the world, so why can't the U.S. just have its own Pope? Somebody who actually understands real people.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Mello

      Post your picture and let us rail on what you look like and assume to be.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  16. mo

    i am not catholic, but i can read.
    the article states that the vatican is cracking down on rogue 'US' nuns. the article does not imply that they have forgotten about the priests.
    feminism is not all that it's cut out to be. true women, as men, should have rights to do as they please. however, feminism seems to be more concerned with role reversal. witness the current us environment; wherein men have become women. i have been told (from acquaintances who have children in grade school), that young boy's self esteem is being depressed in order that young girls may feel better about themselves. look at television, and movies... wherein you now see the weak, worthless, bumbling man portrayed alongside the strong, vibrant woman.
    the message that is being sent to society (and one that i believe is giving rise to the ho-mos-ex-ual epidemic), is that men are useless and irrelevant and women are the mighty and achieving. you now see a lot of men (especially young boys) walking around in a state of confusion. they no longer understand what it is to be a man. and if you try to be a 'man', society looks down on you; the status quo has now given rise to a feminized version of man; in the long run, this will be bad for society.
    Hence the vatican is taking a stand that someone needs to take. i do not speak against the rights of women; but it is not necesssary to transform men into worthless, whimpering mice in order that women have their rights.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • David Rudmin

      Amen.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Thank you mo

      June 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Beam

      Unless the Vatican controls our media here in the USA then you would have a point..but they don't. As a woman I am also sick to death of the wimpy men on TV...I find it sickening and not the least bit funny. I don't see real men, as you say, being put down for it though. If they were, all the pay rates in football would drop alot. But yea give us back manly men on TV and women that don't domain the men. Now as far as the nuns are...I am also not Catholic and have no experience with any nuns but what I have read and seen in the news. I most certainly haven't seen them remotely taking on the feminist roles at all actually. Far from it. They are the one out in the field actually physically helping those in need..they are actually among those with AIDS, those dying of staving and trying to help...those in the worse conditions most of us wouldn't touch let alone talk too...which is why they are so popular....they are actually DOING what Jesus taught...to take care of the last of these....where as the priest...well all we hear is them running mass...and/or molesting children....or covering it up. :/ So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the nuns are so well liked. They aren't trying to run things or trying to 'be a man' by any means. Being a nun means leaving a chaste life. They also don't marry or have children...its not "I am going to work and bring home the bacon buddy!" type of thing. Not at all! Their lives are completely different then most of us could even image. The Catholic church is trying to stand in the stone age and its only going to hurt them more. You would think they would get a brain...but no....

      June 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      WOW how does it feel to go thru what women have for centuries? A few years of experiencing what woman have always gone thru, and you can't take it.. We are not the strongest beings, but we sure are the TOUGHEST.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  17. David Rudmin

    The Vatican has its own system and doesn't operate according to your hyper-liberal, western prejudices and beliefs. That's why it has endured for so many years, and will continue to endure as the world's major religion. Get over it.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Nilkinggary

      It's not enduring real well. Check out the numbers of priests and nuns in this country over the last 40 years. Try and find anyone who can actually listen at confession anymore. Anyway, the ladies are right. The Vatican is misbehaving, not that this is really news anymore.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • KMW

      TO N (what a funny name)

      My Catholic Church has confessions before the 7:30 PM Mass and it often doesn't end until after the Mass is over. People are still going to Mass and confession. It is a Sacrament in case you did not know this.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • counturskeletons1st

      As an ex Catholic I realized that confessing your sins to a priest behind a curtain (who is most likely touching himself) is absolutely ridiculous. God hears you no matter if your in a meadow or behind bars. This practice is a sin to our intelligence and what God stands for.

      June 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  18. Mohamiss Shafik-Kaddir

    If the world humbles itself and submits to Islam , we would not have this problem . Only Islam can bring world peace , human rights , and devine justice . The only freedom man needs is the freedom from disbelief in Islam .

    June 5, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Akira

      You've got to be kidding me. Islam is even more regressive than Catholicism, despite being younger. These Bronze Age deserts -religions have had their chance. It's time to find a new way for humanity to get along.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Bow before me

      Oh please. Syria is Islamic and I don't think it's too peaceful over there right now is it? Your false god preaches to hate everyone that does not convert to following a pedophile dog.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Kevin

      Right. Where and when has this ever happened in the whole history of that religion? It began with violent conquest and has continued that trend for the last 1400 yrs.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH, your as ridiculous as the rest.....

      June 7, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  19. Akira

    The Vatican is doing an amazing job in destroying their own credibility and relevance in the world. If it doesn't find the courage to change with the times, it will face extinction.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • David Rudmin

      Rather the west will face extinction if it doesn't get with the times. Women's lib. is a tiny American-and-European-contained phenomenon, NOT the way of the rest of the world.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Akira

      According to whom? You?

      June 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • David Rudmin

      According to the map at theatlanticcities[dot]com/jobs-and-economy/2012/01/how-economic-development-helps-worlds-women/392/# Put in the dot, where I wrote [dot]

      June 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • ruwacky

      David, you must have been hurt really bad by a woman sometime, because you sure feel the need to put them down. We are your equal if you didn't notice, and unlike you, we had to claw, fight, and die to get there.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  20. Vidyashanti

    Church, as always been on the wrong side of Science and wrong side of natural forces imbibed in human body.
    All nuns should quite Roman Catholic Church and start a new church without the dogmas.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mello

      Ya... because you know that whole scientific theory thing was totally against science.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Mello – haha I suspect your sense of humor as well as history was lost on our Hindi friend

      June 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Because 33,000 or so christian denominations arent enough. I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • ruwacky

      standfortruth-well good for you old boy, doesn't make you right. We all have the right to our beliefs, but you seem to condemn anyone who doesn't agree with you. I will pray for you............hahahahahhhahha

      June 7, 2012 at 1:05 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.