Vatican Criticizes American Theologian's Book

The Vatican this week strongly criticized a book on sexual ethics by Sister Margaret Farley, a prominent American Catholic theologian. The rebuke from the Vatican comes as leaders of an organization of American nuns are in their own dispute with Rome. John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, talks to David Greene about the disputes.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, same-sex marriage is just one reason the Vatican has issued a strong criticism of a book. It's written by a prominent American Catholic theologian, Sister Margaret Farley. That rebuke from the Vatican comes as leaders of an organization of American nuns are in their own dispute with Rome. And to understand what's behind these tensions among Catholics, we called up John Allen, senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter.

Just a note for our listeners: Part of this conversation deals with mature themes.

JOHN ALLEN: Sister Margaret Farley, who is a member of the Sisters of Mercy, has for many years been among the most distinguished writers on Christian ethics in the American Catholic Church.

And the Vatican issued this week a very strong censure of a book she published in 2008 called "Just Love," citing its treatment of masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and divorce and remarriage. And in every case the criticism is that Farley has a too permissive position on those questions, as opposed to the more restrictive position that is embodied in official Catholic teaching.

GREENE: And is her book really in disagreement from front to back with the Catholic Church? Or is the Vatican picking out a sort of pieces that they don't like?

ALLEN: Well, look, I knew Farley will argue that she is operating from within the Catholic tradition, but may be stretching the conclusions that the church arrives at a little bit to, in her mind, better reflect those underlying values. Now, the Vatican would argue that she's basically misrepresenting Catholic teaching.

GREENE: Now, I know that the Vatican has been very critical of the leadership of nuns in the United States for some years now. Can you give us the background and tell us where this tension comes from?

ALLEN: Well, I think most people would say that nuns, particularly in the United States, have long been at the vanguard of the reforming spirit in the church unleashed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which would mean things like a strong commitment to social justice, more modern spirit in the way that they live their vocation.

And while in principle, that the Vatican would encourage all of that, in some cases, I think the Vatican believes that some religious women in the States have gone too far in sort of buying into the gospel of secular liberalism, and tossing overboard the traditional markers of Catholic faith and practice.

GREENE: And, John, you mentioned traditional markers. I'm interpreting that is some of the major tenets of the Catholic agenda. I mean on gay marriage, abortion.

ALLEN: Yeah, that's absolutely right. The Vatican issued a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious - which basically is a kind of bill of indictment - suggesting that there is a culture of dissent within this group on things like the church's ban on the ordination of women as priests; its opposition to same-sex marriage; and also radical feminism by which they mean basic opposition to the kind of hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church.

GREENE: I understand that the Vatican has not only criticized and challenged them, but has assigned a few bishops to actually take over the organization, in a sense?

ALLEN: Yeah, in a sense, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is now under a kind of Vatican receivership. They have appointed three bishops in the United States to lead them in a process of what they're describing as reform. Now, at this stage, I think there are real questions about whether the leaders of this group of American nuns are actually prepared to go along with what the Vatican wants.

They have issued a public statement citing what they see as a serious lack of transparency in the process; that is, they don't know who their accusers are or how all of this got started. And they've also suggested that, in terms of substance, the Vatican's assessment of the group is just flat wrong. They've indicated that they are going to send a three-member team to Rome to meet with Vatican officials on the 12th of this month, to try to see where things go from here and if the difference can be patched up.

GREENE: And, John, just so we sort of put these tensions in perspective, are there a lot of countries in the world where the Vatican is having these sorts of debates with some of their own? Or does the United States stand out in a way?

ALLEN: Well, the Vatican clearly doesn't get out of bed in the morning thinking just about the United States. I mean, the 67 million Catholics in this country represent just 6 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.2 billion. But that said, I think there is also no doubt that the Vatican is aware that the United States is special; that is, because of the media in this country, because of the influence of the United States in world affairs.

What happens here matters, and so it probably does pay a special attention to what's going on in the United States that many other countries don't command.

GREENE: We've been speaking to John Allen, senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter. John, thanks so much as always.

ALLEN: You bet, David.

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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