Maike Hickson

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Fr. Ansgar Wucherpfennig www.hessenschau.de / video screen grab

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Vatican refuses to approve pro-homosexual Jesuit as university rector, German theologians outraged

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October 10, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A seemingly paradoxical situation is emerging in the Catholic Church. While the Youth Synod in Rome for the first time officially speaks about “LGBT Youth,” the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) has now sent a letter to Germany, instructing the Sankt Georgen Jesuit Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt that it does not give the Nihil obstat for the re-election of its rector, Professor Ansgar Wucherpfennig, S.J. This priest had made pro-homosexual comments and says he was encouraged by Pope Francis to do so.

Every major German newspaper, as well as the Catholic press, is now reporting on this event, which gains momentum by the immense opposition that is coming from the progressive camp in the Church against this CCE decision. Katholisch.de, the website of the German bishops, shows an especially intense indignation toward the CCE gesture and initiative.

As the Frankfurter Rundschau reported on 7 October, Wucherpfennig had informed the College about the June 2018 letter from the CCE, where Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi has been Prefect since 2015, which was addressed to the superior general of the Society of Jesus. In this letter, the CCE refuses to give approval (“Nihil obstat” – “nothing stands in the way”) to the re-election of Wucherpfennig as the rector of this theological-philosophical Jesuit college. That election had taken place already in February of 2018. The CCE asked the Jesuit priest – who has been the college's rector for four years – to recant publicly certain statements he had made two years earlier, especially about homosexuality and about female deacons.

As he explained in a 9 October interview, Wucherpfennig relied in his statements upon Pope Francis' own similarly liberalizing words about homosexuals. “I relied on that [the papal statements], I had started to think more about this and to develop accordingly a pastoral care and also a theology. And I cannot understand why this is now being thwarted, and that by closest collaborators of the Vatican.” He hopes that the Vatican will change its mind. 

In 2016, Wucherpfennig had given a 14 October interview to the Frankfurter Neue Presse, in which he had made some favorable comments about homosexuality. In the context of his having already blessed some homosexual couples, and in light of the Church's “negative attitude toward homosexuals,” the Jesuit priest then said: “My impression is that they are deep-seated passages in the Bible that are formulated in a partially misleading way. For example in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. Homosexual relationships in antiquity were relationships with strong dependencies and servility.” “Love,” he continued, “should be a free, egalitarian relationship, not one with a disparity. My thesis is that that is what St. Paul really wanted to say.”

Wucherpfennig also said that he opposed the rule of excluding the “remarried” divorcees from Holy Communion, and he showed himself open to discussing the matter of celibacy. For him, “the male societies that have established themselves in the Catholic Church with the help of celibacy” are “problematic.” 

It is in this context that the German priest proposes that good changes would come “when celibacy would be abolished  and also other conditions for the priesthood.” For him, Pope Francis' idea to reflect upon the female diaconate is not enough: “Is it good that only men can administer the Sacrament of Penance – that is to say, the reconciliation with God?” In Wucherpfennig's eyes, “that strongly limits the possibilities of conversations unto reconciliation. Here, I have serious questions.” 

When pressed, in September of 2018, to recant these statements, Wucherpfennig refused to do so, according to the Frankfurter Rundschau, which quotes passages from his response to the CCE.  The Jesuit priest – who as a pastoral assistant to homosexuals in Frankfurt argues in favor of more acceptance of homosexuals in the Church – replied that the “harsh rejection of same-sex partners is very wounding for those concerned” who are often “deeply rooted in the Catholic Church.” “Not against my own convictions” will he act, was the priest's reply to the CCE. He considers the objections of Rome to be a “misunderstanding of some of my statements, with which I am standing fully on the foundation of Catholic doctrine.” Thus, Wucherpfennig had still hoped to receive from the CCE the necessary Church's Nihil obstat

It is not clear who brought this conflict to the attention of the media.

However, Professor Wucherpfennig now has the full support of his superior. Father Johannes Siebner, the Jesuit provincial of Germany, shows himself to be “taken aback” by the CCE's stern procedure. “For me, there is not the slightest doubt as to Father Wucherpfennig's expertise, his loyalty, and with it also his fitness for the office of rector.” Siebner also hopes for a change of attitude on the side of Rome, pointing to Pope Francis' own lenient remarks on homosexuality. Siebner stresses that this is a “struggle about statements that are two years old, which, in their substance, today could also come from the Pope himself.”

Without the Church's Nihil obstat, Wucherpfennig is not permitted any more to be the rector of the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology. The official end of his term was 1 October 2018. Since the official start of the semester is 15 October, Father Wucherpfennig still has a sort of merciful “reprieve,” according to the German newspaper. As Katholisch.de reports on 10 October, the Vatican stated to the press that the case of Wucherpfennig is still being evaluated.

Quoting an unnamed source, the Frankfurter Rundschau points to “structures” in Rome that are now coming into play that are the same ones that have already been pivotal “in the sex abuse scandal.” The Church's leadership obviously “still doesn't get it,” says the source which is close to the current situation.

Johannes zu Eltz, the Dean of the Church in Frankfurt – which is a highly influential position – also defends Wucherpfennig. He calls the priest “an honest priest and an incorruptible academic.” “The questioning of his integrity and his utterly unjustified punishment pain me,” he adds. In his eyes, the CCE is here also violating the “principle of subsidiarity,” since both the local bishop – Bishop Georg Bätzing – as well as the leadership of the Jesuits had endorsed the re-election of Wucherpfennig. Rome has here ignored their rights, in zu Eltz' eyes. “How more stupid can it still get?” asks the prelate.

Johannes zu Eltz has worked closely with Wucherpfennig on the question of the Church's attitude toward homosexuals.

As LifeSiteNews reported in 2015, these two men were involved in a process of developing a special liturgical blessing for homosexual couples in the Diocese of Limburg. As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung pointed out at the time: “Wucherpfennig said that he had already blessed homosexual couples, as did other priests, too, but not in a public service. It needs a special sensitivity in order to establish a specific ritual [for the blessing of homosexuals].” Zu Eltz played a pivotal role in this new project, publicly announcing “a first discussion about a Church blessing and ceremony for homosexuals.” He then called it a “question of justice which one cannot suppress.”

Zu Eltz also was a key man in building up a resistance against the Ratzingerian Bishop Franz Peter von Tebartz-van Elst who himself, already in 2008, had strongly opposed the blessing of a homosexual couple by a local priest, Peter Kollas. Kollas had blessed the couple in the Dome of Wetzlar and he was subsequently removed from his position as provincial Dean, even though he remained in his position as the pastor.

At the time of the resistance against Tebartz-van Elst, Johannes zu Eltz – who played a prominent role in that struggle – made it clear that this conflict was mainly a “struggle for the course of the Church in Germany, in which our bishop plays an important role.” As can now be seen – in the fact that the new bishop is supporting Wucherpfennig –  zu Eltz seems to have received that which he wished for. Tebartz-van Elst had been removed from his position as the Bishop of Limburg by Pope Francis in 2013 due to claims that he had spent too much money on the restoration of a set of historical buildings. But observers such as Christian Scheh (writing for the German outlet Vatikan Magazin) pointed out at the time the bishop's attempt to root out some strong modernist phenomena occurring in his diocese. 

To return to Father Wucherpfennig himself, in a June 2018 article for the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit, he once more promoted the idea of blessing homosexual couples. Referring to Johannes zu Eltz and his January 2018 announcement to discuss such a blessing, the priest points out that the idea is to “make possible a Church ceremony” for those who are canonically excluded from a Church wedding. Here, the “remarried” divorCCEs are now also to be included. This new rite would, according  to Wucherpfennig, not be part of the Sacraments, not “the high form of a Sacrament,” but still would “thank God and ask Him for His blessing.” In that same essay, the Jesuit priest also repeats his doubts about the real meaning of the passages in the Bible about homosexuality. He states that “none of the biblical passages presents homosexuality with today's understanding,” adding that, “in any event, the Bible does not know homosexuality as an opposing concept with regard to heterosexuality.” Wucherpfennig goes on in detail through certain passages (Rom 1:27, 2:1; 3:23sq.) in order to show, supposedly, that there is not any talk about homosexual “love” but only talk of “desires” and that Jesus really welcomes and blesses everybody – even the children who apparently represent for Wucherpfennig those who “count for nothing in society.” It is in this context that he supports the idea of the diocesan initiative to include a blessing of homosexual couples.

In order to grasp the extent of the progressivist indignation against the effective censorship of such ideas by the CCE, one may read what Gudrun Lux writes on Katholisch.de. For her, the removal of Wucherpfennig from his position of rector – nota bene, his own teaching license has not been removed by the CCE – is an “end to freedom” which will, in the end, “render theology as an academic discipline irrelevant.” Lux encourages resistance against Rome. “I wish for us that the leadership of the diocese and of the order [Jesuit Order] remains steadfast,” she comments. For her, Wucherpfennig's comments on the blessing of homosexuals “is not a scandal.” Also one may see that the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), whose member she is, “is in favor of the recognition of same-sex partnerships and their blessing.”

The German grass-root movement Wir sind Kirche (We are Church), in an 8 October press release, goes even so far as to call upon the German Bishops' Conference to resist the CCE which wishes to “implement anew their reactionary ideas with authoritarian methods, to the detriment of the Universal Church.”

Further support for Wucherpfennig now comes also from his superior in the Jesuit Order. In a 9 October interview, Father Siebner stresses that the whole process has not yet been concluded and that the Nihil obstat “has not yet finally been denied.” He regrets that Wucherpfennig has not even yet had a fair hearing in the matter.

Siebner also reveals that the CCE had asked Wucherpfennig to declare in public – best in the form of a similar interview –  “that he now accepts, in accordance with the Church's teaching, that the priesthood is reserved only for men and [that he accepts] the doctrine concerning the moral assessment of homosexual acts.” Says Siebner: “I answered back, saying that such an interview is not possible without creating a scandal. And that I certainly will not try to influence Wucherpfennig in this manner.”

Several German bishops have expressed their support for the former rector of the Jesuit college, in addition to the Diocese of Limburg, these are the Dioceses of Hildesheim and Osnabrück. Several priests from Frankfurt, led by Father Werner Otto, have written an open letter of protest against the CCE decision, saying that Wucherpfennig's statements are in accordance with the Church's teaching.

Commenting on this current discussion in Germany, Mathias von Gersdorff – a German pro-life activist and book author – says that these new statements “show once more how certain ecclesial circles in Germany are willing to ignore the Catholic Magisterium and the praxis of the Universal Church, in order to take a “German separate path” [“Deutscher Sonderweg”].” His conclusion is that “the progressivists are determined to implement their agenda.”

Some observers wonder about the timing of this new conflict concerning the matter of homosexuality and point to the fact that in 2015, at the beginning of the second Synod of Bishops on the Family, Father Krzysztof Charamsa, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, himself had come out as a homosexual priest.

The question is now what Pope Francis himself will do, now that the Vatican is being accused of “wounding homosexuals,” in the words of Father Wucherpfennig. It is to be expected that the progressivist German bishops – among them Cardinal Reinhard Marx himself – who are currently at the Youth Synod will try to influence him. The Sankt Georgen College is the college where Pope Francis had once studied for his dissertation as a younger Jesuit priest.

As LifeSiteNews had reported in March 2018, a French priest claims that Pope Francis had encouraged him in his own blessing of homosexual couples. 

Therefore, this conflict – right in the middle of the Synod on the Youth – might turn out to be a further test for this pontificate. 

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.