A German Jesuit priest has been granted Vatican permission to assume a university leadership position to which he was elected earlier this year, reversing an earlier decision to withhold permission because of the priest’s progressive views on homosexuality and women.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Catholic Education granted Father Ansgar Wucherpfennig, SJ, the previously withheld confirmatio, or Vatican license to lead the facutly. He immediately resumed his duties as rector of the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology, a Jesuit-run institution in Germany where he now is serving a third-term in that position. La Croix reported:
“But the [education] congregation apparently reconsidered in the past few weeks after Father Wucherpfennig promised to uphold Church teaching.
“In a declaration to [Jesuit Superior-General] Father [Arturo] Sosa, the 52-year-old rector committed himself, as a religious and a priest, to upholding the Church’s authentic Magisterium, presenting it ‘completely and comprehensively’ and making it clear in the future when his critiques of the teaching are only his own personal opinion. . .
“Father Sosa said he forwarded Wucherpfennig’s declaration to the Congregation for Education and added that the rector would now publish the results of his research on both issues ‘in loyal and creative continuity with fundamental church doctrine.'”
Wucherpfennig rejected claims that he recanted his positions on homosexuality and on women deacons to gain the confirmatio. He explained in an interview:
“‘No, I did not recant. . .My declaration was addressed to the Jesuit superior general, Father Arturo Sosa, who then passed it on to the Vatican”. . .
“‘I declared that (in my lectures) on the question of the diaconate for women and the moral judgement of homosexuality I take the relevant church teaching into consideration and convey it correctly and fairly, but I also pose my own questions on both topics and discuss them with my students. . .
“‘Moreover, as a Christian and an academic scholar, I also expressed my hope that church teaching on both these points would change and develop. That, in my opinion, is not recanting but belongs to the business of science – namely, to present other opinions correctly first before questioning or criticizing them.'”
The priest also shared that, at the request of Fr. Sosa, he will be further researching both topics. Wucherpfennig is set to teach a course of “identity and sexuality” next term, during which he will discuss homosexuality and the development of church teaching. He may also publish a book on women deacons at some point.
In an article published before news broke of the Vatican confirmatio being approved, Wucherpfennig commented on the larger ecclesiological questions involved in his case, noting the widespread support he earned from fellow theologians and German church leaders. La Croix reported that the priest said he was never able to respond to the Vatican’s criticism of him, which stemmed from a 2016 interview:
“‘Communication proceeds over so many different instances and levels. That is why I am so frustrated. Surely it cannot be that objections are raised against me and yet I can only ever take a mediated stand?’ he complained.
“He accused Church officials in Rome of undermining academic freedom and scientific research or scholarship.
“‘That means bringing one’s own positions and research questions into conversation with the Church’s teaching and, accordingly, acknowledging the Magisterium. But, at the same time, it is showing up those points which are worthy of criticism,’ said the Jesuit, arguing that this is the only way theology as a science is conceivable.
“‘Otherwise all we would have to do is literally spell out the pope’s sermons,’ he said.”
On the specific issues of homosexuality and women’s equality, Wucherpfennig noted the growing divide between societal views and church teaching. He commented, “Not everything we find (in the Gospels) goes back to the historical Jesus, but was written down in a roughly 50-year-long process of tradition. . .I think it is important to take the foundations of our faith seriously in the light of its historical development.”
News of the Vatican permission relieved church leaders, many of whom in German had come to Wucherpfennig’s defense like Limburg’s Bishop Georg Bätzing and Jesuit provincial Father Johannes Siebner. Alumni and donors of Sankt Georgen also expressed their approval, calling Wucherpfennig an “irreproachable priest.”
Though the situation involving Fr. Wucherpfennig has resolved peacefully, at least in public, that it happened at all highlights a disappointing reality. The possibility still exists that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would pursue unjust and secretive investigations against theologians and pastoral ministers. Despite Pope Francis’ efforts at curial reform, and though Vatican officials may not act as frequently or as severely as it has in times past, they have retained the power to punish free thought.
Reversing the initial prohibition against Fr. Wucherpfennig is a positive step. Better would be the release of transparent, public guidelines about why, when, and how theologians can be investigated. But best of all would be a new attitude at the Vatican which embraces rather than condemns the many beneficial contributions which theologians offer in service to the People of God. It is time to end the Inquisition once and for all.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 29, 2018