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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. Karl

    Its time to do some house cleaning, not only with nuns but also with the lazy good for nothing priests. The catholic church is out of touch with reality, and Catholics in America are sick and tiered of it. I give them 10 more years before the last catholic church in America will shut its doors.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Mike Greenwell

      is it the nuns out of touch or the priests out of touch. Well we know the priests are touching...but the nuns are with the mainstream of society – trying to rationalize a religion that is based completely on faith without so much as a inkling of it based in reality. Based upon a religion that's leader hasn't spoken an audible word in over 2000 years – based upon a series of books that should be used more of a guideline then actual laws. So now – who was it that was out of touch?

      June 5, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • ruwacky

      I give it 500 to 1000 years and all religion will be dead. Our kids are getting to smart to believe and continue this stiffling bull*hit.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  2. TheWineDon

    Pope Benedict XVI promotes "growing the church by pruning". This implies that the church is an arboretum, not a flock. Cain was a farmer as opposed to Abel, a herder. Jesus' metaphors were as a shepherd, not a cultivator. Just a thought.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Drew

      Very interesting

      June 5, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      On cultivation, Jesus also said "I am the vine, you are the branches" so what is your point?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  3. Dennis B Navarra

    The former Nazi Youth Pope Benedict is back to his old Fascist Ways in trying to suppress freedom of opinion among the Catholic Faithful. Hopefully, given his age, he will die soon.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Karl

      We could only be so lucky.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Are you a catholic? Did you make your first communion? confirmation? RCIA? Because wherever you gained your knowledge, it is lacking. Take the initiative.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  4. John the Atheist

    Yet another bold move by the Catholic Church to alienate itself from modern reality. The Vatican has been refusing to move forward since the days before the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Mary - a recovering Catholic

      this organization needs to be gone! they've done more damage than good and it's time for a reality check. They protect pedophile priests but criticize nuns for having an opinion contrary to their own?

      June 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  5. Iceman777

    I find it amusing that the Vatican condemns Catholic Nuns but refused to condemn all the pedophile priests. Conservative woman haters at their finest.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  6. Solutions at hand -pun intended-

    More mastur.bation, fewer pedophiles... Way to go.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  7. PatKazoo

    I'm totally on the side of the good sisters on this one. I'm writing as a 70 year old, life long Catholic, who so far continues to write checks to the American church that they keep cashing. Much more stupidity out of the jerks in Rome could prompt me to start sending my money to the nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      You insult the Holy father yet you consider yourself Catholic. Keep your money.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • ruwacky

      Pat, please send your money to a animal shelter where the dogs appreciate it much more than the church. standfortruth will pray for you since god left him in charge while he is on hiatus. Everytime he opens his mouth he casts judgement on people like he is the perfect human. I'm sure CNN will nominate him for sainthood shortly. But really your money is being wasted by these deviates instead of helping the less fortunate.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  8. Gpower

    Nuns should get out of the Vatican hierarchy. The Vatican used the Nuns as second class citizens probably even worse than Arab countries treat their women. Hello Nuns, go form your own church.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      A poster child for the protestant reformation. Who is in the middle ages now?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  9. Keep your hands on top of the blanket, children

    ..."“Mastur.bation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” the church said "...
    It's only because those old geezers can't get it going anymore.

    In other news: the catholic church has finally completed its cycle, not of the church year, but its journey back to the middle ages. Vatican sources say that its diplomats are consulting with former Bush aides Cheney, Rove and Yoo to reinstate legal ways of torture, waterboarding, electricity induced insanity, and so on. The church denies that there are plans to reintroduce burnings at the stake because of concerns about polluting the environment and air, god's resources given to his church.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  10. Theend

    The Vatican has pedophiles, a missing teenage girl, an extra set of bones in a mobster's crypt, a crooked ex-banker, a butler slipping incriminating information to the Italian press - and what do they do? Crackdown on American nuns... It makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

    June 5, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Drew

      It does actually. The vatican has always blamed the rise of "secularism" for its own shortcomings

      June 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • whisnms

      Divert and deflect, divert and deflect...hey, it works for politicians right?

      June 5, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  11. Randy McDandy

    The Catholic Church is based entirely upon false premises – including the most important, which is the Papacy... The claim that Peter was the first Pope is totally a sham, based on a bunch of weird wranglings of the Greek language... I'm talking about that scripture that says "...you are Petros, and upon this petra I will build my church"... Just go check out http://www.freetowne.com/pppk – you'll see what I mean...

    June 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  12. Troy

    Crack down on Nuns, but cover up for child molesting priests, makes no sense to me

    June 5, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  13. DarthWoo

    Considering that the Bible itself basically says that women only exist for the pleasure of men and that they should be subservient to them in all things, it would seem that standing up for themselves to any extent is a sign that women are acting contrarily to the Church. It would be nice if they could see that and take their leave of what was obviously designed as a tool for the dominance of males, but I suppose if they can't, they deserve what they have.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Read Theology of the Body and then make an intelligent remark.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • ruwacky

      YOU ARE AN A*S*S*....A se*ist pig. Hiding behind the bible to make yourself feel superior, The Bible was written by man for their own use. The hid behind the threat of a god to achieve power. They were cowards and you are their Coward God. Let's see what happens the first time a man treats your daughter like a pig., oh well youd probably relish in the fact.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  14. Greyhound37

    Keep those missives coming, Vatican.
    Proving just out out of touch and outdated you are on a daily basis.
    If only they'd evolved, maybe they'd still be relevant. Oops, used the E-word.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  15. Joseph

    Another reason the belief in death-denying myths is harmful to society and to individuals alike. It's the twenty-first century, folks, the authors of the major religions didn't know what a molecule is. Tragic to follow such nonsense.

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

      Joseph on the contrary, there is no denying of death, there is an understanding that one must die to the world so that one can be born again.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • counturskeletons1sy

      . Standfortruth is so sure that he has his ticket on the heaven train..I'm sure we all know dying is inevitable. But living is most important of all. while he spends his whole life trying to secure a spot in heaven, he misses out on living. His closet must be clean of all skeletons, so he tries to dig in everyone elses closet. you are only fooling yourself, you need to pay more attention to your own life than worrying about condemning others.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  16. julieme

    My dog knows and practices the great commandants more faithfully than any priest or cardinal I've met.... Better yet he is neutered and represents no danger to children.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Tell me, what are the names of the priests and cardinals you seem to know personally? Have you shared with either of them the unique situation that your dog seems to keep all ten commandments? Where does he attend the Sabbath?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • counturskeletons1sy

      WHAT A JERK.

      June 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  17. byangel61

    First of all the Church exists because God wanted it to be a Sacrament of Salvation for all people, It does not exist out of the mere desire of the Pope or Bishops, either of nuns, the Church received a Deposit of Faith, and Revelation by Jesus Christ, and to that we must be faithful, it is NOT a democracy, whether one would like or not. The Church leads the way to Salvation, no one person (human) or group of persons can deliver us from hell to heaven that can only be done by God. One of the many problems that we face is poor preparation on philosophy and theology, resulting on various ideas that from time to time are presented to the public, in the past some of those were called heresies, and the like, but now a days we want "equal" opportunity, it is not about equal, but about truth, is not about fade but the orthodox way of teaching with so far resides in the Tradition and the Magistry of the Church. If nuns or any other group set apart of the Church they become lost and like the branch of the vine that was severed are dry. Let us rather pray that we all find the way back to the ONE and ONLY Church founded by the Lord, which rest with Peter the Apostle, now a days Benedict XVI

    June 5, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Drew

      How convenient that god just happened to deposit his will into a corporation which just happens to be one of the most powerful on earth

      June 5, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Joseph

      How do you know what God wants or doesn't want?

      June 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Drew – ironic isn't it that the religion at the center of all this discussion was started by a carpenter hanging on a cross, forgiving his accusers.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Drew

      It is indeed ironic. I think the contrast between Christ and the Pope must be one of the most ironic in all of history

      June 5, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Troy

      As long as it works both ways, which the church does not do. Crack down on woman and let the men do whoever they want

      June 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • misael m.

      You go to be kidding

      June 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Mello

      @Drew and @Bill Deacon- Forgiving accusers like yourselves and the majority of posters here.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Drew

      I'm not accusing any person, I'm accusing a corporation. Corporations are not people.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Mitt Romney

      Corporations are totally people. Let's put this one up on a cross.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • just sayin

      Did God tell you this or did you read this from the words of men that you put faith in? One you are crazy or the other you are a fool.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Well Said byangel61

      June 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • KASUMU

      a haaaaaahaaaahaaaaahaaaa....so I take it YOU bought in to the kit and kaboodle....being able to regurgitate the nonsense, does not, however, make it true.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • counturskeletons1sy

      WOOWSAWOOH...You and standfortruth need to have lunch together, after which you can spew and vomit your garbage of faith into the gutter where it belongs

      June 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. Alan Lynes

    I am totally in agreement with soundoff. Way to go.
    For the Vatican to decree that masturbation is a grave act, just shows how far back in the dark ages they are.
    Sad that so many people listen to their doctrinaire crap.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Richard

      Actually, supporting masturbation shows just how ignorant of core Judeo-Christian values many Americans are.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Karl

      So I urge everyone to double click and grab your di....c.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      If you don't follow the church teachings why does it bother you that we uphold these teachings? Is it out of Piety that you warn us? Do you really share compassion for us that are reverent?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  19. 02081931

    Religion in any form is a joke and the Catholic Church has become the ultimate Clown College. When people put a fool on a pedestal, they get what they deserve.

    June 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  20. franniemae

    I haven't read a decent article on this controversy yet that has explained it adequately... anyone have a link to somewhere with more detail and explanation and examples of these nuns' supposed sins? These articles are written with such generic explanations of what the nuns supposedly did or wrote... it's ridiculous. I need to go back to reporting. I might be old school, but you damn well knew what the story was about when i got done and you could converse on it!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      frannie, I agree every time i click on the story to see if there is any information all I get is the same old Vatican-bad, anyone else-good routine. It gets boring. What are the issues!!!?

      June 5, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Ha ha ha

      Aww, poor Bill thinks criminals need some loving comments and articles.

      Go die in a fire, Bill.

      June 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Drew

      The only issue is that the teachings and writings of the nuns don't adhere entirely to vatican dogma. They are influenced by science and secular philosophy. Of course thinking for yourself is unforgivable when you belong to a strict religion like catholicism

      June 5, 2012 at 5:55 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.