A German Jesuit priest elected to university leadership has yet to receive necessary approval from the Vatican that would allow him to assume the school’s rectorship. Observers speculate this withholding might be caused by the priest’s progressive views on LGBT issues and women deacons. Voices in support of the Jesuit continue to grow, and a compromise solution may be in the works.
Fr. Ansgar Wucherpfennig, SJ, was elected for his third two-year term as rector of the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Theology and Philosophy in Frankfurt. But the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, informed Wucherpfennig’s Jesuit superior that he would not yet receive the nihil obstat, a credential from church officials which says there is nothing objectionable about a theologian’s life or work required for him to be in university leadership.
America reported that at issue are Vatican objections to comments about homosexuality and women deacons made by Wucherpfennig in a 2016 interview:
“In a newspaper interview in 2016, Father Wucherpfennig said he thought references to homosexuality in the Bible were ‘sometimes misunderstood phrases.’ These statements were in response to the interviewer, Thomas Remlein, saying that Father Wucherpfennig had blessed gay couples and asking why the church had negative attitudes toward L.G.B.T. people. Father Wucherpfennig has also said that the women’s diaconate would not be enough to address a shortage in priestly vocations and has said he has ‘serious questions’ about the fact that only men could serve as confessors.
“‘I see my comments on homosexuality and the blessing of same-sex couples as well within the bounds of Catholic doctrine,’ Father Wucherpfennig told the church newspapers of the dioceses of Limburg, Mainz and Fulda on Oct. 9. He refused to take back his statements and said, ‘I do not want to be rector at this price.'”
Wucherpfennig publicly challenged the Vatican’s present concerns, saying “the sharp rejection of same-sex couples is very hurtful for those who often come from the middle of the Catholic milieu and feel deeply attached to their church. . .I consider the objections of Rome to be a misunderstanding of statements that are entirely grounded in Catholic teaching. Therefore, I hope that the ‘Nihil obstat’ will be granted to me.”
The Vatican’s rejection came to Wucherpfennig through his Jesuit provincial, Johannes Siebner, who is backing the priest. He said in a statement:
“I unreservedly stand by the elected Rector Father Wucherpfennig; he enjoys my full trust. His administration of the last four years, his theology, his completely undisputed ecclesiality and his personal integrity do not allow the slightest doubt about his suitability. To be honest, I can imagine nothing else but a misunderstanding. Otherwise it would be an outrageous process. I am optimistic that the appointment can take place soon.”
Siebner also suggested to Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger that the dispute should be resolved because Wucherpfennig’s LGBT-welcoming statements “could today come from the Pope himself.” Interviewed by Katholisch.de, Siebner explained that Wucherpfennig’s comments about homosexuality in the interview ask “the scientifically, fully-justified question of what Paul means when he writes in Romans on homosexuality. . .As a scholar and teacher, it is his job to ask such questions.”
Also supporting Wucherpfennig are several church officials, including the local bishop. Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger explained:
“[Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg] had unreservedly approved the re-election, the bishop said through his spokesman. Bätzing had also made it clear in Rome that ‘dioceses and Jesuit orders are well advised to stick to the proven university management’. The bishop therefore continues to go from an amicable solution.
“The Frankfurt city dean, Johannes zu Eltz, reacted with anger and incomprehension to the actions of Rome. ‘Ansgar Wucherpfennig is a pure priest and an incorruptible scientist. The questioning of his integrity and his totally unjustified punishment hurt me,’ he told the FR. Moreover, Rome ‘without sense and reason’ violates the ‘principle of subsidiarity, which is otherwise preached to every church window’.”
La Croix also reported that Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, a former theologian, spoke openly in an interview for the German church’s official website about the need for theological debate and a review of how Paul’s words on homosexuality are to be interpreted. He told the interviewer, “[If Bible passages were” direct, literally revealed, irrevocable truth, we would have to stone adulterers, blasphemers, fortune tellers, disobedient sons and daughters and people who wash their cars on Sundays.”
Elsewhere, Klaus Pfeffer, vicar general of the Diocese of Essen, wrote, “When does such authoritarian behavior finally end in our church?” Canon lawyer Thomas Schüller said the Vatican’s action was “unique and worrying” because it had been decades since the rector of a university had been denied the nihil obstat, never mind a rector who had already possessed the credential to this point. La Croix reports further:
“The Catholic Theological “Fakultätentag” (an umbrella organization for the 18 Catholic theological faculties at German state universities and the 33 institutes that train Catholic religious-ed teachers), the Union of Catholic Theology Associations and the German section of the European Society for Catholic Theology (founded in 1989) voiced support for Father Wucherpfennig on Oct. 14 in a two-page statement from Berlin.
Supportive statements also came from Catholic theological faculties at Erfurt University and Mainz University.
We Are Church in Germany, a church reform group, said it was “outraged” at the treatment of Wucherpfennig, saying the Vatican was pushing through “reactionary ideas with authoritarian methods.” Thomas Andonie, chair of the Confederation of German Catholic Youth and a delegate to the Synod on Youth said, according to Katholisch.de:
“Here in Rome, at the explicit request of Pope Francis, we openly share our views in the Youth Synod. Yesterday’s press articles [about Wucherpfennig] revealed how to deal with clergymen who courageously demonstrate what young people want from the Church.”
The Synod on Youth is presently discerning how the institutional church can be more welcoming, but any positive words will be severely undercut if the Vatican takes punitive action against the very pastoral workers trying to implement that welcome. The Congregations in Rome should listen to not only Wucherpfennig, but to the many Catholic officials locally involved who know him to be a qualified theologian and a good priest. It is not too late to prevent an injustice and to show the Vatican is truly choosing a different path for the church.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 31, 2018