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. wobbles

    what did you expect when they made a Nazi the pope?

    June 5, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  2. polycarp pio

    Jessica your lack of knowledge leaves me aghast, the church is the body of Christ, not a building,what do you mean there was no church when Christ was alive????? HE IS STILL ALIVE. Get with it woman. PP

    June 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Who is still alive?


      June 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  3. MatthewD

    We have seen this before and the result was the Lutheran reformation. There is a difference between "pruning" and chopping down. I guess some history lessons are just going to have to be relearned yet again.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Ann Wilson

    Pope John Paul wrote the rules on birth control even before he bacame Pope. This, alone was one of the most evil
    things ever done to human kind, but particularly to women. Women were condemned to be baby machines and
    had to watch their 10 children grow up in severe poverty in the Phillippines and other Third World countries.
    Hitler, himself, was unable to inflict so much pain, suffering and death as these misguided holy men.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Ann, the purpose of the Holy See is to make MORE Catholics. It's that simple.


      June 5, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Get your facts straight Ann Wilson. When John Paul II produced the Theology of the Body, he addressed both genders, the role of man, the role of woman, the sacrament of marriage and the gift of life. Read much?

      June 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Abbeystone

      The encyclical on contraception was issued in 1968 by Paul VI and contravened the findings of his own commission on birth control.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  5. polycarp pio

    If you dont like church leaders and disagree with church teaching, LEAVE, you still have freedom of religion, there is no perfect church and if there was it would not be once you got there. PP

    June 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Polycarp pio, I thought they trained you not to make snide comments during your catechisms.

      Time for confession!


      June 5, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      sanjose Mike, If you do not have the convictions, if you are not willing to live a Christian life in the fullness of the Church, all he is saying there is the door. You would not like if I criticized your life, family, friends, physique, age.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  6. Cindy

    If it wasn't for the nuns, the Catholic church would have been gone long ago.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      The Saints, Martyrs, our pontiffs, our bishops, cardinals, monsignors, religious orders, deacons and laity ALL form the church. There are many great nuns, but a few think that they can implement changes without the approval of the Holy See.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  7. Bellalou

    Go Rouge, American Nuns, Go Rouge!! The TRUTH will set you free!!

    June 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Are you advising them to use makeup?

      June 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  8. Dave Dawson

    People IN GENERAL are too slow for my liking.
    There are of course many exceptions.
    Are you one of these many exceptions?
    Please feel free to comment.
    I might like you.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  9. Jessica

    Hey Vatican, don't you think you have done enough harm women over the centuries. Leave them alone or you risk losing the parishioners that you still have.

    June 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      Mother Teresa had it rough. I don't know how she ever endured the tyranny of Blessed John Paul II.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Jessica, of course you are right. Oppression and abuse of females is certainly a reality of the church's history, just as it is evidently in almost every civilization throughout history, and still exists in many parts of the world – perhaps even in the church.

      Have you read the report that is discussed in this article? If you haven't I would recommend that you check it out. You might still disagree with the report and It might still raise your blood pressure, but I don't find that CNN belief blog fairly represents what's actually said. It isn't quite as ridiculous as what is suggested here.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      And our reverence to the Blessed Mother Mary, Queen of the Angels, full of grace is mistreated so frequently, completely forgotten about right?

      June 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • your a nut

      Women have go to realize, THEY DONT NEED THE CHURCH ! If you believe in god (as I do not) then you must realize that he is there for you as an individual. You can make your own rules, as the church does, live a good and prosperous life, without all the crap people claim GOD wants. Go live your life as you know is fine with your god. Men have taken this bible junk to the extreme to control women, they have lost the real meaning of life. He is there for you as you deem fit.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • **

      @your a nut

      You are = you're
      (not your)

      June 7, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  10. Scarlet7

    The male clergy of the Roman Catholic Church are in no position to criticize
    the nuns, or anybody else for moral weakness or for failing to follow the
    teachings of the Church. Shame on them

    June 5, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      We need to be held accountable for our actions.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      I don't totally agree, but you make a very good point. Particularly to an outsider, this is a pretty tough sell. Goes to show what the real effects of sin are doesn't it? Men don't get s free pass just because they wear a collar. In fact it can be a condemnation.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • your a nut

      WHATS THE "WE" ? I didn't do anything. Im not accountable for the garbage these religions create. standfortruth, don't speak for anyone but yourself. If you want to be held accountable for child molestation, go for it, maybe thats your calling, or your secret.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  11. charles bowen

    Recovering Catholic, now a Buddhist, sad to see the Catholic religion so mired in the middle ages but they will never change like the Muslims they worship a myth.......The Bible is a control on the masses .....Moses had to do something to control the slaves hence the Big Ten . The Begining of the great Conspiracy...and the beat goes on and on and on.... Best to the Pope.... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    June 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      It is obvious you never had deep roots in the Christian faith

      June 5, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • uralowlife

      standfortruth. you are a TROLL. All I see on here is you trolling looking where you can insert your crap on religion. Sicking in a negative whenever someone has a different point of view. You turn more people away from God than you recruit for him.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  12. sa

    The male hierarchy within the Catholic Church has lost it's moral authority to criticize anything much less the holy sisters. May they persevere and show the Church the true light.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • it is


      June 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Alabama Jew

      The pope lives in a fairyland of denial of the truth.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  13. EVN

    End state support of the church via tax exemptions and this hypocritical ilk will soon be relegated to irrelevance where they belong.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      music to my ears

      June 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      The Church founded by Christ shall prevail.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Derek

      I couldn't agree more. Especially when churches become PAC's ... and you watch ... because they do it every election.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  14. Florist

    This is totally bizarre. The nuns are the only thing worth a darn about the church. American nuns are extremely dedicated and no-nonsense. I've never met one that I didn't think was sincere and useful to everyone around her. Priests? Not so much. Most of them are corrupt, to be honest. And this is apart from the mol estation allegations even. Nuns are the ones that have kept the church together and kept people from leaving it completely. And now they are maligned for doing their jobs? Totally, totally bizarre.

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

      So do you attend mass presided by these priests that you are quick to condemn or do you keep the sabbath of reading headline news?

      June 5, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • uralowlife

      you don't have to attend mass to be with god. uneducated dimwits think you have to be in a building, spewing your sins to a man behind a curtain, or gods not interested.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  15. slickteigkcmo

    Ok , the big fractures in the Roman Catholic church have been predicted, so here we go, the priest abuse, the leaking of papal papers, the crack down on our dear , angelic sisters, all forcast, so it will come to pass that the church will fall apart,this may be the last or 2nd to last pope, the church is cracking wide open......BUT those of us Catholics who follow Jesus as our leader , not human men, will endure, it Jesus' teachings, his love, his words that wil save us and protect us in the times ahead, obedience to our Holy Lord, the priests were sent to help not hurt his followers, so when they hurt us in physical, spiritual ways, we must turn to Jesus only. He created Christianity, the men of the church did not, they do not hold the power, only Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit, the HOLY TRINITY, no man can be God, so , we go forward, love our good , kind, loving Sisters ( who care for my mom, who was my aunt and my cousins) I love them and thank God for the dear angels on earth, known as nuns, it's ok , we have God himself t thank for them and He alone will lead us, take care of us, when no "man" can anymore. God bless our sisters and good brothers, they are truly in Christ, his Holy Church, it is the people not a building or religion!!!! Amen

    June 5, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Mike Blackadder

      Sounds good, but becomes difficult when it comes to the sacraments- baptism, confession, marriage, confirmation, communion, anointing of the sick.

      Many priests, bishops etc are also good people. I'm sure that not every nun is the perfect model of Christian behavior as well. I don't think that your sweeping generalizations capture the real dynamic of the church.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Jessica

      While I agree with most of what you have said " He created Christianity, the men of the church did not" is not true. It was the followers who created the church. There was no "church" when Jesus was alive

      June 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • uralowlife

      thats all said and done Mr Blackadder, but men put themselves in the positions for all you say, women were not allowed to hold such status. So until you realize your a women hater, you should keep your mouth shut.

      June 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  16. Mike Blackadder

    ".. the Vatican issued a major report condemning the groups that represent most American nuns..".

    The report did not condemn the nuns. It pointed out specific things that it thought was a concern and plotted a course of action. How is this a condemnation? So if your boss calls you in and provides some constructive criticism about one of your columns then he is condemning you? Unbelievable.

    "The report also said the nuns were too focused on social justice and not enough on opposing abortion, euthanasia and same-[s-ex] marriage."

    That's not what the report said. It congratulated the nuns on their work in social justice, pointing to their many accomplishments and efforts in this area. It didn't suggest that they are too focused on social justice, as though they should care less about social justice.

    CNN's imaginary stick-man Pope sure is an evil guy. Preaching to the choir anyway so who cares if there's any truth to it?

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

      In the Papal encyclical on human life, the Vatican acknowledged the changing role of women in he world just before slamming the door in their face.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  17. Jimmy Rose

    If the church was only half as dililgent at keeping the corrupt cardinals, bishops and priests in check as they are about trying to censure the nuns, who are really the compassionate ones, then this church would much better off. As an ex catholic, I'm saddened and appalled by the teachings of this church and am constantly surprised at the churchgoers who allow them to get away with their hypocricy.

    June 5, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      Ex-Catholic here too...more and more I am seeing that the "Holy Roman Church" is a corrupt relic of the Dark Ages.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • At death atheists believe

      You can't erase greed no matter how much you think it's wrong..that's not even a "religious" thing,it's a human want or desire if you will.

      Everyone is different,you cant change that..

      June 5, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • JoJo

      "At death atheists believe"? I became clinically dead with a heart attack a few years ago. My heart, breathing and brain stopped and I became unconscious. I didn't believe. I'm here now only because paramedics came and restarted my heart, brain and breathing with paddles before neurological damage occurred.

      June 5, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  18. milman

    considering the CC, this seems about time, you should not be repesenting the CC in any manner, and preaching, teaching, etc., doctrine, ideas, or practices that are counter to their teachings, get smart, fire any person that crosses this line, and ps do not forget the priests who practice boy love, etc., what is good for the goose is good for the gander,

    June 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  19. BP

    Catholic Church = True church of Christ!! Thats why all the unbelievers hate us! Evil tempting them to try to discredit the truth. 1 billion strong!! Sorry but as Jesus says the gates of hell will not preveil against it.He also said we will be hated because of his name! Yes i know there are some bad apples in our church but we are all human. Weed them out and strive for perfection!

    June 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Death to the Nazis!

      The RCC has been a cesspit of corruption and evil for centuries.
      This is not a few "bad apples" by any stretch of the imagination unless you are an idiot.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Jimmy Rose

      Start by weeding out your hypocricital leader, I mean pope. How do these rules apply to the nuns only but not to the countless priests who have molestec innocent children. You call yourself a Christian?

      June 5, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      They kinda lost all credibility with that whole "Inquisition" thing.

      June 5, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • NPRJim

      IF you ever actaully read the bible, you would know how full of it you are. Jesus didn't want a centralized Billion Person EVIL, child molesting, continent raping church and stated so adamantly. The Catholic Church is an embarassment to anyone that truely believes in Christs teachings.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Rallph Smith

      only ignorant morons are catholics

      June 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Jessica

      I don't hate you I just hate the evil things the church does and then see it try to be a moral compass. How about stealing unwed Irish mothers babies in the middle of the night and sending them to America to be adopted? Circa 1955

      June 5, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • StandupforTruth

      People are not perfect. When the ego prevails many sins are committed. Do you validate medicine based upon those patients that use the medicine or the ones that skip it and then complain that it did not help cure them?

      June 5, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      The problem is that the church does not weed them out. It protects them, hides evidence from law enforcement, moves them out of the reach of law enforcement and lets them continue being priests, Bishops, Cardinals. If the church actually had any standards for their priests you might have a point but seemingly you don't.
      Locally a 13 year old girl was made pregnant by a 40 year old priest. The Bishop said he would take care of it, and did't so the parents went to the cops. Within 2 hours the priest had been moved out of the country. The parents of the 13 year old have been told that the church won't pay child support for the baby BECAUSE they went to the cops.
      when your church behaves in a moral manner you might have some creditability, till then No way and I don't care how many pretty dresses your clergy wears.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  20. allenwoll

    It is time to VACATE the Vatican ! ! !

    June 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • slickteigkcmo

      amen, let it fall as predicted, the time is now, allegiance to Jesus himself only, no man can be our true leader, especially when they become unChrist like, abuse children and others, hide their sins, detach from the angels ( our dear sisters who are so Christ like in action) God bless and love, and keep them and us who have God as our only real leader. God only is our true protector, not humans..... the church is His people , not a building or a religion. Christians, come together now as Jesus' true disciples. The times ahead will be difficult and only with him at the head of us, will we surviive, go in peace and love, God bless us all.

      June 5, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
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About this blog

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.