A Nun’s Guide to Sex: The Latest Vatican Scandal

The Vatican and a U.S. nuns' organization are going to war over one Sister's controversial book and a scathing rebuttal from Rome

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Nino H. Photography

Nuns visiting St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

As if the Vatican weren’t already knee-deep in scandals, the Holy See is now at odds with a group of American nuns over one sister’s book on sexuality. Demurely titled Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Sister Margaret Farley’s 2006 treatise has nevertheless drawn the ire of the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, which said Monday that the work poses “grave harm” to the Catholic flock for its comparatively progressive positions on homosexuality and masturbation, among other issues.

Farley told the Associated Press that she never meant for the book to reflect official Catholic teaching but, instead, wanted to explore sexuality across religions, theological doctrines and human experience.

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A prominent theologian and professor emeritus at Yale’s School of Divinity, Farley is a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order, a group represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) — the largest organization of American nuns.

The indictment is the latest flashpoint in a years-long conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR—a group that the church has characterized as “radically feminist”—and comes just days after the LCWR publicly challenged a recent two-year-long investigation of its activities by the Vatican.

In April, the Vatican declared it had found the organization guilty of contradicting the church’s teachings on sexuality while failing to publicly espouse “the right to life,” and announced it would task three bishops with overhauling the organization. The nuns have been less than happy about the prospect of three men taking control of a group for women, and have called the church’s accusations “unsubstantiated” and its investigation “flawed”, arguing that the crackdown has only “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community.”

The LCWR’s struggle has garnered the sympathy of many American Catholics and provoked nationwide vigils and protests in defense of the nuns. In the latest retort to Rome, the New York Times reports that a group called Network — a Washington-based social justice lobby not formally affiliated with the LCWR — is organizing a bus tour across nine U.S. states this summer, stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and healthcare clinics run by nuns, in order to highlight the importance of their good works.

Farley’s book isn’t the first to stir up trouble in Rome recently. The Holy See has been up to its elbows in scandal since the May publication of  Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi’s book, Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, in which he exposes Vatican corruption and mismanagement, as evidenced by dozens of letters, memos and cables leaked from within the office of the Pope.

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