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Roman Catholic Church crackdown on nuns is troubling

June 5, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
How long do you adhere to a religion if you no longer believe many of its teachings? I wonder how many American Catholic nuns who have advocated positions contrary to Catholic teachings are asking those questions right now.

Sister Margaret A. Farley, a Catholic nun and theologian, is being censured for an award-winning textbook she wrote a few years back on human sexuality. Farley, a former professor at the Yale Divinity School, published "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics" in 2006. I haven't read the book, but news reports say it covers different topics from a Christian, not just Catholic perspective. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reviewed the book and came out with a statement criticizing statements Farley made in the book on masturbation, which the Church considers "intrinsically disordered," on homosexuality and gay marriage, which the Church also considers "intrinsically disordered" and on marriage and divorce.

The Vatican criticized Farley for presenting Catholic doctrine as just one opinion among others in the book and warned against using the book to teach Catholics or as part of ecumenical or interfaith dialogue.

The Pope approved the "notification" on March 16 but the New York Times just published a story on it this week, probably because the reporters there see it as a sign of the times. And, from an outsider's perspective, it does appear that the Vatican is particularly annoyed lately by outspoken nuns and is cracking down on more liberal voices in the Church.

This spring the Vatican also announced a crackdown on The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of thousands of American nuns, for promoting "radical feminism" and doctrine that isn't considered to be in line with Church teachings. Some nuns have advocated allowing women to become priests or have suggested the Church relax its teaching forbidding birth control. The group also came out in support of the national health care reform law, which bishops opposed.

The group has been placed under the direct control of a panel of three bishops, who have the authority to rewrite its statutes, its meeting agendas and its liturgical texts. Less time is to be spent on social justice causes like eradicating poverty; more time on speaking on the evils of abortion and gay marriage.

I think American Catholics tend to chafe more than most at this kind of authoritarian regime because we are so used to insisting on our freedoms. The Catholic Church is not a democracy and obedience to authority is one of its teachings. Nuns who don't like what they teach could always pick up and become Episcopalians instead, though I doubt it would be easy for elderly women to leave the Church they cherish and a way of life that has been theirs for decades.

On the other hand, to quote Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Chicago Catholic priest and one of my favorite authors: "Catholic means 'here comes everyone.' " I've always thought that meant the Catholic Church ought to be big enough to encompass many different thoughts and even respectful dissent. Too bad that doesn't seem to apply to these nuns.


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