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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. Charlotte

    Stop dropping money in the collection plate? Let's stop giving them billions in tax dollars. Fascist, misogynistic pigs.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      The church existed before American taxes were levied

      June 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      Standfortruth–did you know that 18 of our founding fathers, presidents, and statesmen were Atheist? Wow imagine that- Atheist Fighting and procuring laws to protect your right to believe in any religion you choose. making sure you have your freedoms. Guess their a big part of your life like it or not!

      June 7, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  2. CGV

    Who cares!

    June 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  3. ron

    “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action" Wow! Sounds like about 99%+ of the world's population is intrinsically and gravely disordered according to the Catholic Church. I wonder if it's more grave and disordered than pedophilia?
    These old patriarchs keep making fools of themselves world-wide. I've known this is their stance but I'm mildly surprised that they are actually renewing it for the world to take in. 🙂

    June 5, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  4. james

    The Catholic Church, my church, is supposed to be universal and all embracing. The rules Rome have put in place over the centuries are often not from the teachings of Jesus but intended to cement power & control in the hands of the hierarchy.

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

      Ditto, James
      I converted to Budhism several years ago. The Catholic Church is too corrupt to be called a religion. The final straw for me was the pedohile cover-up and the Vatican's role in smuggling Nazis to South America.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  5. 60minuteman

    So the Catholic church DOES have a War on Women.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  6. LouAz

    -ucx 'em ! Make them wash and iron their own dresses !

    June 5, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  7. Andrea K.

    Although I have not been a practicing Catholic for most of my adult life, I did attend Catholic schools for 12 years. My admiration for the nuns has grown over time while my opinion of the priests has plummeted. Maybe the church could thrive/survive if the nuns were in charge. It certainly couldn't be worse!

    June 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  8. Kindness

    For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    June 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • c-dub

      You are a raving lunatic.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Ruby

      Nicely done, but you do realize, don't you, that most of these people will not understand what you have said?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Akira

      Mental masturbation should be a sin.

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

      "Nicely done, but you do realize, don't you, that most of these people will not understand what you have said?"
      I understand it. It's sophisticated, indoctrinated, sectarian sophistry and socially reinforced illusion.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      I prefer to live in reality. I was Catholic and when I realized the bible was written by men to uplift and promote men while leaving women behind, I left the church and shun all religions. I am a free thinker or Atheist if you choose. The bible was written by man to promote their status, wealth, power, and control of women. Did god not find women important? Why are all the deeds and greatness given to men? I find this appalling. And thats why men hold all the high places in religions, while women hold lowly places under the thumb of man. It's quite apparent to me that men like Harris, Hitchens, and Dawson have come forth as hero's saving me from the ridiculousness of Religion !

      June 7, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  9. Ken in NC

    Vatican bust American Nuns for telling it like it is while they hide, move around and protect Priest and Bishops that play with little boys. I would hate to call the Vatican hypocritical but that about best describes the Vatican in it‘s crackdown on Nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  10. rmahone

    Yeah....protect those pedephile priests and go after the women who make more sense......gotta love the Catholic Church!!!!!

    June 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  11. E. Mullen

    I no longer listen to anything which comes from the Vatican and the hierarchy in general. They do not live in today's world and have no idea how normal people live. Most of the things they are against are man made rules and my God was and is a most forgiving God. They should clean up their own house and not worry about the good sisters who do good works everyday.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  12. Alex

    Ratzinger you disgust me. You pedophile protecting, Nazi youth, Hypocritical MONSTER

    June 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  13. Maputo Jorgenson

    The Church is the worlds greatest land grabber –

    June 5, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  14. BobS

    I think Catholics should stop dropping money in the collection plate until the Vatican backs off the nuns.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  15. Dave Angus

    For years western powers have been driven to irradicate the Talban's Ideology of women as subservient followers..and yet the Western Powers think nothing of a male dominated religous organisation whose ideology reprimands free thinking women...Hmmm...somtimes I wonder about the politics and what is right for who......after all it is not like the Roman Catholic Chruch has a lot of money and power....hmm food for thought....

    June 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  16. John Drego

    What "Holy See"? Am I supposed to bow my head in reverence? If the "Holy see" is suffocating dissent, then he is a Despot.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  17. Deb

    I am still confused why people are not leaving the catholic church or any church for that matter. What a joke.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Find out.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  18. Kevin

    The Vatican should be burn't to the ground. A palace of pedophiles.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • CGV

      If thet happened. that would be the real Good News!

      June 5, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  19. capnmike

    First these Vatican Monsters fill young innocent girls' heads with their ridiculous lies and blather about non-existant "god" and "devil" and "saints" and all that other crap, then when they have them so brainwashed they are willing victims, they have the gall to "control" them for the rest of their lives? What PIGS!

    June 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  20. Karl

    The Catholic church is a business, and as with any business MONEY TALKS. I urge all the Catholics to stop supporting their church for one year. Then you will get a different message from Rome. Remember just 50 years ago the mass was in Latin and you got to see the priests butt during mass. Not now, because people did not like it.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      I urge you to stop supporting overpaid athletes.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      Athletes earn their money, god doesn't.

      June 7, 2012 at 2:23 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.