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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. Jim C

    The Catholic Church knows it is becoming irrelevant

    June 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  2. Bernadette Kohl

    They react quickly when nuns speak out, but slowly or not at all when priests ACT out. The Catholic Church needs to get their priorities in order. It is an organization more concerned with protecting pedophiles, than human rights.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  3. FactChecker

    I hope this pedifile business doesn't distract them from cracking doen on those evil nuns!

    June 5, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Cyn507

      No chance of that. They've been turning a blind eye to that bit of perversion for decades. Guess it's ok for the men.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  4. Howie76

    The vatican views the US as a loose cannon and they are using the nuns as their example. I am sure there is an economic aspect to this as well. Bunch of dirty old men over there.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  5. flip1

    Lets try a few drones aimed at the pope.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  6. Jerry

    Crackdown? On nuns? Are you kidding me? The Catholic church is truly lost.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • flip1

      The RC church was lost on the day it identified itself as different from what Christ was preaching. The Vatican is nothing less then thuggish when it feels it must go after the very group(s) that have been on the front keeping the faith from seeming like a group of tired, old boy buggering men whose main concern was to fill the collection plate-and their mouths with c@m. Now there're are at least 10 years behind the times in their Taliban-like attack against the only group that-they believe-is too weak to fight back.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  7. Dave in Canada eh

    The real question here is "how many children did these nuns molest?"

    June 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  8. Bible Fun

    “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action"
    I'll buy the first round of drinks in Hell... don't worry, I'll save up. There's gonna be a LOT of us!

    June 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      OMG. You mean you're not Master of your Domain?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  9. jamest297

    How does the nuns' version of practicing catholcism differ from the mainstream hierarchy? After all, it is the nuns that provide the backup secsual release for the priests after they are done with the little boys.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Kristie

      The church's option is that women are only to be seen and not heard

      June 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • counturskeletons1st

      did you buy your brain at K-mart? I thought so.

      June 7, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  10. Marc from Florida

    The vatican has put its foot in the holy water, big time. I wouldn't be one to take on the Nuns. As I see it, as it is with most women, they really run most things and out of sympathy allow men to think they are in charge. Tinkering with those understandings is lethal!

    June 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  11. jamest297

    As I read these posts, I am reminded of the immortal words of Mayor Richard Daley (A devout Roman Catholic) and to paraphrase him: "The Chicago police are not here to create disorder, they are here to preserve it." That's exactly what the catholic hierarchy is up to.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  12. richey

    I have been a Catholic for 63 years. From the Bishops on up to the Pope they have NO idea about what the Catholic Community is doing and practicing. The NUNS are the only part of the Catholic Church who practice the true religion. Bishops, Cardinals and the Pope are clueless. They are more interested in power playing and protecting pedophile priests.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Do you feel this same contempt for priests when they are administering communion or confessing your sins?

      June 5, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • your a nut

      standfortruth..do you hate women? it appears so. I think the only reason you try to appear so holy is because you like the fact that the bible promotes men. You have a problem with women being your equal, when I see they are really your superior.

      June 7, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  13. jamest297

    There is nothing more one needs to know about Catholics, religion and belief in god. This says it all. Just stand back and be silent for a few seconds and you will feel it too –

    June 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  14. Aardie

    The Catholic Church still has followers after countless horrific crimes so I'm sure they will survive this, too.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • publiusx

      Yeah, kind of like the United States still has a lot of followers despite keeping blacks in slavery for centuries and enforcing Jim Crow laws for decades. Brilliant observation.

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

      As do the followers of social democratic policy (a major religion in its own right) trying there best for "social justice", a misstatement if there ever was one, but the followers keep coming.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  15. ski

    Thank God for the Catholic church. The Church, its beliefs and teaching are all that stand between in the way of complete societal collapse.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Loki Laufeyson

      LOL

      Silly mortals.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • richey

      If you think the Catholic Church is the only thing blocking a collapse of our social system, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can let you have for a good price.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • flip1

      I would rather see society collapse.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • your a nut

      actually it's uneducated men like you, holding society back with your promotion of religious woman haters.

      June 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  16. JeffinIL

    I hope the Pope has some knuckle guards. He's messing with the wrong crowd.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  17. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    If you don't like them your choice is to find another church. This pope is not going to back down nor did the one before him on issues of gays and lesbians.

    Is the church wrong, probably, but it is their church and their rules. If one doesn't like the boss – quit.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Lagos

      Thank you for displaying a lack of understanding of Catholic history. This sort of thing has happened many times before on many different issues over many centuries, and has not always resulted in the Pope getting his way 100%.

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

      How thoroughly modern of you.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Vic of New York

      Good name "BONEHEAD". And like your namesake Dick Cheney, I guess it's one thing to stand against gays as a matter of principle, but lobby to allow your lesbian daughter to legally marry on the other.

      I come from the school of "We the People...". We the people ARE the government. We the people ARE the Church. And as it states in the Declaration of Independence, when a power no longer serves the people it's time for the people to declare themselves free and Independent of that power. The Pope can keep his Vatican – but we the people don't have to pay donations to a pack of male child molesters that thinks somehow wearing a tiara makes them infallible.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Neeneko

      @Lagos – true, but historical times where the pope backed down were because he was countered by other forces, forces that controlled money or had influence with armies. In this case the church holds all the cards, there is nothing economic these nuns can do since unlike past revolts they can't take church resources with them.... the church made damn sure that ownership under US law ment they control everything.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Squirrell

      So Vic - that's fine. Choose your own church. The Nuns, by their choosing, have agreed to follow the Pope's rules. Unless they want to be uncloistered. Persecuting them is like beating your own kids. They don't have a choice in the matter, and the only way that something will get done is for enough public outcry (that results in a big enough financial penalty).

      But the Vatican's pockets run deep...and their tentacles reach into a LOT of high places.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • flip1

      Like if you dont like the country you live in, leave. What a dok.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  18. Romach

    The attribute of evil is Irony, – The Pope was in the Hitler youth,
    Give me a child till his 7 and I'll give you the man – Winston Churchll.

    The Pope covers up the crimes of Pedophile priests, but Ironically is angry at compassionate Nuns.

    This for sure is the religion of the devil!

    June 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • The Contentious Otter

      I don't think I'll ever go back to the Catholic Church, but if Catholic Nuns were to form a new church based on compassion and service to the needy, I'd be eager to join. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

      The Nuns should tell the priests to go "engage in a gravely disordered act upon themselves" and start a new church with a female clergy.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Ruby

      Right on Otter. I like it already and would join in a minute!

      June 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • flip1

      You just finding this out!

      June 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Death to the Nazis!

      He was not only in the Hitler Youth, he served in the Nazi army and likely killed his share of Allied fighters and helpless civilians.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  19. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    Nuns are being persecuted because they will no longer put out for priests.

    June 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  20. Sam Yaza

    dude i love hearing this stuff the Tyrant Gods losing his fief,... game over "Cretins"

    rebirth of the Goddesses 2012
    celebrate life don't morn it

    June 5, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Sam, you're not fooling anyone. Face truth. You're anti-social.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:07 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.