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Those Crazy Old Vatican Men

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A prominent American nun writes a theology textbook advocating for the moral and theological licitness of same-sex marriage and female masturbation, and for a view of marriage and divorce that contradicts Catholic doctrine. The Vatican takes two years to investigate, and finally gets around to condemning the book.  [1] The New York Times features the story prominently on its website, because, I suppose, it’s really super-crazy that the Vatican’s doctrinal office would say that a nun’s textbook promoting this stuff is morally inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Hide your kids, hide your wife, the Inquisition is back!

Do you know what those latter-day Torquemadas are doing to that poor old nun? Nothing. Seriously, not a thing. The newspaper quotes the Vatican spokesman as saying that the nun will suffer no sanctions from this action (PDF of the Vatican’s statement here [2]). Yet for the Times, this is one more example of the Vatican using American nuns as scapegoats to distract from its own problems. At least that’s what it seems like to me, from this bit:

The statement said Pope Benedict XVI had approved its contents and ordered its publication. It comes as the Vatican struggles to contain a controversy over leaked documents that showed infighting and mismanagement in the papacy of Benedict XVI, who on Sunday concluded a three-day meeting in Milan to promote family values.

What does the Vatileaks scandal have to do with this nun story? In other news, I reheated leftover snap beans for dinner tonight as Venus prepared to transit the sun.  [3] I guess it makes sense to the Times reporters and editors, who have been on a real tear against the Catholic Church lately. Reporter Laurie Goodstein, who co-wrote this latest story, repeated in her piece the other day [4] the “American nuns are being picked on by the Vatican for no good reason” story line without any quotes offering a dissenting perspective. Funnily enough, the nun at the center of today’s story, has tangled with the Vatican before [5], as the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper notes:

Sister Farley has been no stranger to controversy during her career as a Catholic theologian.

She was among two dozen US women religious threatened with expulsion from their religious communities by the Vatican for signing on to an October 7 1984 advert in The New York Times arguing that Catholics should be free to hold a variety of views about abortion.

Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal pro-nuncio to the United States, and now-retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco withdrew as speakers at a 1985 meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious because Sister Farley was also scheduled to speak.

The LCWR is, as you know, the US nuns’ group whom the Vatican’s investigators just reprimanded for, among other things, embracing and promoting doctrines opposed to Catholic teaching — including radical feminist perspectives.

Imagine that: the Vatican expecting Roman Catholic nuns to teach Roman Catholicism. Will those crazy old men of the Vatican stop at nothing? I hope you’re happy, Vatican! Now poor Mrs. Dowd’s daughter Maureen has to stay up late to rehash the same old crap write her next column.

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27 Comments To "Those Crazy Old Vatican Men"

#1 Comment By TWylite On June 5, 2012 @ 12:01 am

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

#2 Comment By Tony D. On June 5, 2012 @ 12:19 am

” I guess it makes sense to the Times reporters and editors, who have been on a real tear against the Catholic Church lately. ”

“Lately?”

#3 Comment By Lasorda On June 5, 2012 @ 12:19 am

Let’s turn the HHS mandate argument around. This sister is taking the Vatican’s money so she has no right to complain! Seriously, this isn’t some humble religious, running a soup kitchen in Kinshasa. This is an Ivy League professor trading on the Catholic Church’s name. Why shouldn’t she have a duty to refrain from undermining its teachings?

#4 Comment By Mitchell Young On June 5, 2012 @ 1:13 am

Wait ’til they bring out the [6].

#5 Comment By Surl On June 5, 2012 @ 1:25 am

Rod…please for the love of all that is holy, stop, stop STOP the pearl-clutching. It’s not your best writing. And most of this stuff is just ridiculous at best.

We, your loyal readers, get that you believe homosexual sex is a sin. We also get that you did manage to adhere to current Catholic sexual mores when you were young and single. I believe that the latter discipline would confer some insight and some compassion for how difficult it is to live a life of chastity, but I think you could touch more souls by writing honestly about the nature of sacrifice than by repeatedly, from the safe distance of a healthy marriage, condemning the real wrestlings of a real group of Christians about the just use of the gift of human nature and love.

#6 Comment By Harold Stassen On June 5, 2012 @ 2:48 am

Does this woman look very much like the Dutchess (drawn by John Tenniel)in “Alice in Wonderland”?

#7 Comment By Eliot On June 5, 2012 @ 6:21 am

Rod,

I agree with you: the RCC must be expected (and allowed) to condemn works by prominent members of its community when they are contrary to the institution’s orthodoxy. But how can the exercise of its judgment be viewed outside of its own internal controversies? Especially when people who closely follow the RCC – such as yourself – have acknowledged just how significant the current financial controversy is? Regardless of how one views the RCC, it has to be accepted that it’s moral authority suffers when it fails to lead by example.

#8 Comment By Mont D. Law On June 5, 2012 @ 8:52 am

For the past sixty years the Catholic church has struggled with the fact they have no way to compel Catholics obedience to Catholic doctrine. I don’t see that this attempt will be any more successful then anything else they have tried. Everything about modernity, car culture, the ascendancy of the nuclear family, the expansion of educational opportunities and increasing homogenization of the entire culture conspires against them. Unable to exercise any meaningful authority over their flock they are reduced to fighting a rear guard action, bickering with the government in the courts and trying to unsuccessfully enforce doctrinal purity in the small populations they still control.

It must be galling for an organization that brought King John to heel and divided the new world between Spain and Portugal to be reduced to this. But like it or not religious belief is optional now, religious practice even more so. It is destructive to promulgate rules you clearly can’t or won’t enforce. It is destructive to insist a corrupt hierarchy can define orthodoxy. The Catholic Church may do as it pleases, but I can’t see the process they have chosen will achieve the results they want.

#9 Comment By Bugg On June 5, 2012 @ 9:04 am

I will nevrer understand like Sister Farley. If you do not like Catholic teachings on sexuality that much, leave. Doens’t seem like much an an Inquisition at all. But of course nobody expecte the Spanish Inquisition.

#10 Comment By Saint Andeol On June 5, 2012 @ 9:35 am

All this talk about sassy nuns who play by their own rules makes me want to go watch Sister Act.

I say either play by the rules or leave, before we see too many headlines with variations on the pun “breaking the habit”.

#11 Comment By Roland de Chanson On June 5, 2012 @ 9:47 am

One look at “Sister” Farley will tell you why she champions lesbianism and masturbation. It’s a question of odium theologicum for a paternalistic hierarchy, I reckon.

#12 Comment By Jaybird On June 5, 2012 @ 10:04 am

I will nevrer understand like Sister Farley. If you do not like Catholic teachings on sexuality that much, leave.

Yeah, I’m pretty much on the same page. I left when I realized I really don’t buy much of anything the Catholic Church teaches, and I’m a lot happier. I’m just baffled that anyone thinks they will ever change Catholic teaching on these matters.

I do think it’d probably be a major emotional and psychological hurdle for these women who’ve spent their lives as part of a religious order and have so much of their lives tied up in that identity to abandon The Church over these issue, but it can be done.

#13 Comment By Rod Dreher On June 5, 2012 @ 10:13 am

Rod…please for the love of all that is holy, stop, stop STOP the pearl-clutching. It’s not your best writing. And most of this stuff is just ridiculous at best.

I regret that you feel this way, but for me, it’s not about gay marriage per se. In this case, it’s about the most influential media outlet in the US making such a priority of its view on sex and sexuality that it engages in what looks to me like a campaign against the Roman Catholic Church. That’s not nothing.

#14 Comment By Andrea On June 5, 2012 @ 10:26 am

I tend to agree that this particular topic is getting a little old. I find your perspective on other topics far more interesting. However, it’s obviously your blog.

This nun sounds like a relic of the 1960s/Vatican II Era and it isn’t particularly surprising that she has been called out by the current establishment. Neither is the article in the Times particularly surprising, given the prevailing attitude of its editorial board and veteran reporters.

I’m not sure that I’d call the nun a “radical feminist.” What’s your personal definition of that rather fuzzy term?

#15 Comment By Turmarion On June 5, 2012 @ 11:36 am

Obviously, Sister Margaret’s book doesn’t conform to Catholic teaching on sexuality (although to her credit, according to the article, she doesn’t claim that it does). I’d agree that it’s a certain leftover 60’s rehashing of sexual issues for the umpteenth time, and that the Vatican has the right to rule on it (though having never read it, I’d add the caveat that it may have subtleties that are not remarked on here). Also, the NYT is not noted for calm, careful, and restrained reportage on the Church.

Having said that, let me suggest an answer to your question, “What does the Vatileaks scandal have to do with this nun story?”

I feel pretty secure in saying that 95% or more of American Catholics have never heard of Sister Farley–heck, I keep up with this kind of thing and I’d never heard of her until this post. From which I deduce that her influence on the sexual morality–or anything else–of your average Catholic is exactly nil.

By way of contrast:

The Church in Europe is dying.

In the West, at least, vocations are still abysmally few.

As to sexual morality, marriage tribunals in the US rubber-stamp over 80% of the annulments on Earth (out of a billion Catholics).

The divorce rates and general marital and sexual behavior of Western Catholics is essentially no different from that of non-Catholics.

Catechesis in this country is abysmal–almost worse than non-existent.

Recent surveys show that almost half of American Catholics think their central sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, is just a symbol.

The repercussions of the Scandal of ’02 are still rippling out, still not totally resolved, and the bishops, by and large, give no signs of having learned their lessons.

Finally, the Vatileaks scandal threatens to shake the Church from top to bottom.

And given all this, the Vatican is worried about one questionable book by one American nun whose influence is pretty much zip?

One might be justified in being more than a bit puzzled at priorities. That’s the relevance of the Vatileaks scandal to this.

As to the transit of Venus, it isn’t relevant, but thanks for the heads up–I wasn’t aware of it, and now my family is going to try to view it (safely, of course) this evening! 🙂

#16 Comment By MIke On June 5, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

I’m glad the NYT continues to question the Catholic church–both in the U.S. and the Vatican–that’s what the press is there for. The Catholic hierarchy has plenty of opportunities to give its own side–in fact, as we see, you are punished if you don’t give it–so I’m glad for a set of fresh eyes on the Catholic power brokers.

Whether or not this nun deserved a wrist slap, it shows that the church is unconcerned about public relations, which is probably a plus in their ledger. No matter how bad things are, they are always willing to punish a liberal (thus turning them into a martyr), further underscoring how really political things are at the Vatican.

If only the nun had been more like Maciel. She’d have been the pope’s golden boy and punished only when the pressure became too heavy.

#17 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 5, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Well, I’m not at all surprised at the NYT reaction to this business. After all, some bishop did once call for a boycott of the Times and you know what happens when you make journalists mad at you. They aren’t going to stop until they find a way to have Cardinal Dolan hauled off in chains to do hard time in Marion. (and my money is on them finding it)

Look at it from their point of view. Yes, it’s just a dingbat old nun, but what she is saying is on the side of the angels and the evil old costumed foreigners are being, well evil old costumed foreigners. It’s the perfect story. It gets to make them feel good writing it. And it is another drop in water eating at the dam holding the flood from washing away the Catholic Church in the US.

#18 Comment By Dave Dutcher On June 5, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

Turmarion has a bit of a point there. Rather than complain about how the NYT handles the Vatican (and even at its best, isn’t Christianity and the world inimical?) I think there is a valid point to complain about how the Vatican seems to be letting organizational inertia and secular attitudes overwhelm them.

The scandal is not the NYT is annoyed: they’d always be annoyed at something. The scandal is that they let their nuns do things like this for their whole life without correction or caring, and when one of them starts publicly acting on that, suddenly we are shocked.

#19 Comment By Rod Dreher On June 5, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

Well, I concede that both Turmarion and Dave have points. It’s very late in the game for the Vatican to be cracking down on nuns like Sister Farley. Still, the idea that it’s a shocking that the Vatican’s doctrinal office expects a prominent US Catholic theologian to agree with authoritative Catholic theology is crazy.

And I agree with Turmarion that the Vatican too often strains at gnats and swallows camels. Still, if the Vatican handled its finances well, and had no child abuse scandal on its books, the NYT and the secular left would still caterwaul about the new Inquisition. The fact that the Vatican has big troubles in other areas does not buy the Sister Farleys of the world a pass.

And btw, one reason I care so much about this stuff, even though I’m no longer a Catholic, is because the same firepower focused on the Catholic Church is and will be focused on all people like me, insofar as we dissent from the gospel of the sexual revolution, which is what matters more than anything else to the American overclass.

#20 Comment By Clare Krishan On June 5, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

I’d be interested in Eve Tushnet’s take on this. Embracing Catholicism at Yale (one assumes in spite of Sr. Farley’s teachings) how does she reconcile her Edmund White predilection – affirmed as recently as yesterday’s NYTimes piece [7] – as just? I’d link to John Heard’s interview to get a ‘taste’ of the palatableness (or not) of malegay catholic POV (femalegay sensibilities may differ as to what they associate with alimentary fitness, I’m not familiar enough with the genre of SSA literary metaphors to know what sensual allegories they equate with carnal consummation) but with professional prominence in the religious media market he’s become a little coy, and his Dreadnought site is now ensconced deep in the Google hive unaccessible to non-initiates, so here’s an online snippet
highbeam.com/2382/article-1G1-162301134/two-hours-before-master-far-contemporary-homosexual (warning for the feignt-hearted: coprophilia leads into other irregularities, not suitable for family viewing)

#21 Comment By Mike On June 5, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

because the same firepower focused on the Catholic Church is and will be focused on all people like me, insofar as we dissent from the gospel of the sexual revolution, which is what matters more than anything else to the American overclass.

Will it really? I mean, the NYT isn’t all that concerned about individuals but instead institutional power. Despite predictions that we are only days away from locking up orthodox and traditional believers, there just isn’t much proof behind it. Yes, the “overclass” may be concerned about institutional power on subjects like this, but the idea that individuals will somehow be punished is no more paranoid than Maureen Dowd’s concerns about the nuns. They are the flip sides of the same coin of perceived persecution.

#22 Comment By thomas tucker On June 5, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

@Mont D. Law: The Vatican knows full well that many people no longer accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, even many who continue to present themselves as Catholic. This is not a revelation to them. Therefore, they have, at this time, chosen the route of notification and education when something is not in accord with Catholic doctrine.

#23 Comment By J On June 5, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

And I agree with Turmarion that the Vatican too often strains at gnats and swallows camels. Still, if the Vatican handled its finances well, and had no child abuse scandal on its books, the NYT and the secular left would still caterwaul about the new Inquisition. The fact that the Vatican has big troubles in other areas does not buy the Sister Farleys of the world a pass.

The impression I’ve gotten is that ex-Catholics and Catholics halfway out the door already are the people most concerned about what the RCC does, by rather a lot. And conservative activists, who consider the RCC a battleship on their side even if obsolete and only effective in Third World conditions.

And btw, one reason I care so much about this stuff, even though I’m no longer a Catholic, is because the same firepower focused on the Catholic Church is and will be focused on all people like me, insofar as we dissent from the gospel of the sexual revolution, which is what matters more than anything else to the American overclass.

The American overclass isn’t obsessed with sex. It has merely recognized that behind the sexual mores facade of social conservatism is an organized effort to keep traditionally tolerated (and even privileged) forms of less-than-sanity normalized and further generations of people procreated to carry on these forms of less-than-sanity.

#24 Comment By Church Lady On June 5, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

I suppose these actions of the Vatican seem inappropriate because mainstream western culture has become founded in the proposition that people should be free to say and argue what they feel to be true, and somehow expect that all our major Institutions should follow that general approach. Obviously that’s not the history of Catholicism, but western Catholics can’t help feeling like that’s a bug, not a feature, of the faith. They feel, so what if this nun argues for SSM and so on? Why shouldn’t she be able to make her case? If she were to break her vows of chastity and marry another nun, sure, that would be grounds for action, but just speaking out? That shouldn’t be a problem.

And really, there’s not much the Catholic Church can do to her anyway. The days of heretics being burned at the stake is long gone. No one really respects the authority of the Church, when it has so little actual authority, even within the Church itself. It’s pretty much a con man’s game that’s run past its exposure. Everyone is just paying lip service, even the Pope who knows they have to condemn things like this just to keep everyone moving along. But it’s like the Euro, a convention of economics that everyone knows is collapsing and has no basis behind it, but the bureaucrats can’t say it out loud for fear of a run on the bank. I would not be putting my money in the currency of the Catholic Church if I was you.

#25 Comment By Church Lady On June 5, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

“I left when I realized I really don’t buy much of anything the Catholic Church teaches, and I’m a lot happier. I’m just baffled that anyone thinks they will ever change Catholic teaching on these matters.”

Well, there’s some people, I gather Sister Farley is one of them, who actually think the Catholic Church is supposed to be the embodiment and vehicle of Christ on earth, and therefore they stick with it and try to reform it from within rather than leaving and starting up their own faith elsewhere. For them, they don’t have the option of leaving, their sense of duty to Christ requires them to stay and argue for reform and a different set of theological and social/cultural approaches. Some of that may be considered “heresy” but I doubt Farley sees it that way. She undoubtedly thinks that this is how Christ would see things in our age if he were around. And she might well be right on that count. In any case, she’s at least courageous and determined to stand for what she believes is right in the eyes of Christ, regardless of what the Church authorities think. The Church is supposed to be about Christ, after all, and not the ecclesiastical tradition.

#26 Comment By Turmarion On June 5, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

Something I happened to run across. In commenting on Andrew Sullivan’s take on Cardinal Dolan’s [8] to questions the other day, the blogger over at Enlightened Catholicism (whom I follow but with whom I don’t always agree) had [9] to say, my emphasis:

To be honest, I have really serious doubts these men actually believe in what they purport to enact at the Consecration because in their day to day life it seems to have zero effect. I wonder how many of them are nothing more than actors in expensive costumes on spectacular stages. That is a very dangerous kind of speculation for lay Catholics to engage in as far as the hierarchy is concerned. At least with the LCWR sisters I have met, I never questioned that they believed in Jesus Christ. Nor did I ever believe they were engaged in some sort of charade. I may not have agreed with the Jesus they believed in, but never once did I doubt that personal relationship with Jesus was the core that fueled their mission. Not once.

This perfectly expresses something that’s been flitting around in my mind for several weeks but which I couldn’t articulate. Yes, there’s been lots of strangeness, goofiness, and even heresy among a lot of nuns over the last decades. I’ve known a few of them myself. Nevertheless, no matter how goofy their beliefs may have been, I second the blogger in saying that I have never doubted the sincerity of their beliefs. With a lot of bishops, though–Law is the archetype here–I really have to wonder. That’s not a good place to be, for a layman, and it’s not good for the Church; but there it is.

I think this is what a lot of commenters are getting at when they say that the bishops have no right to do this kind of thing. Yes, technically they do; and yes, if a member of a religious order who has purportedly vowed obedience to the Church is defying said Church and its teachings, that’s a problem; but I think there’s been a lot more damaged done by the bishops by the decades of coverups, secrecy, badgering victims, etc. than by anything the LCWR has ever done. I think an honest heretic is preferable, in this light, to an orthodox hypocrite.

#27 Comment By Mont D. Law On June 6, 2012 @ 12:03 am

[The Vatican knows full well that many people no longer accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, even many who continue to present themselves as Catholic. This is not a revelation to them. Therefore, they have, at this time, chosen the route of notification and education when something is not in accord with Catholic doctrine.]

This simply reinforces my point. This organization that could once bring nations to their knees, command armies and convince states cover up the most heinous crimes has been reduced to putting little old ladies on notice.

The major task of all churches in the 21st century west is the same. To maintain relevance with out being able to compel obedience. This is exactly what Vatican 2 was trying to accomplish when it stripped nuns of their habits and sent them out into the world.

In the 50 odd years since then their power has been further reduced. The nuns went because the Pope and the Curia sent them. Now those same nuns stand defiant. And the Church is losing the PR battle on every front.