PARIS – Father Anthony Stoeppel, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Church in Paris, has been awarded his doctorate in sacred theology in the field of bioethics by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Father Stoeppel defended his doctoral dissertation on moral objections to bodily mutilation on May 13.
He is the first priest of the Diocese of Tyler to receive a doctorate in moral theology.
Father Stoeppel was ordained a priest of the diocese in 2011.
“Around that time,” he recalled, Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, then bishop of the diocese, “asked me to go to Rome and study bioethics. I wasn’t particular excited about it – I’d never had an interest in that area – but out of obedience to my bishop, I said yes. I spent the next two years at Holy Cross University in Rome, working toward my master’s.”
Those two years, he said, “provide a wonderful illustration that God knows us better than we know ourselves. I came to love the field of bioethics, and am very grateful to Bishop Corrada for putting me on this path. I’ve studied under some wonderful professors and made some very good friends. And I’ve come to appreciate what a rich and important field this is.”
He had every intention of remaining in Rome after receiving his licentiate, or master’s, and to continue working toward his doctorate. But in 2011, Bishop Corrada was sent to the Diocese of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and, in September, 2012, Msgr. Joseph Strickland was named fourth bishop of Tyler. Bishop Strickland named Father Stoeppel administrator of St. Joseph Church in Clarksville, which put an end to his studies in Rome.
“With Bishop Strickland’s permission and support, I made an agreement with Holy Cross to spend the 30 days of my yearly vacation in Rome studying there, and then to spend several hours a day while back in my parish continuing my studies. Thanks to the marvels of technology, I could write a chapter of my dissertation and email it to my adviser, and then we could discuss it by Skype. So for two years, I spent 30 days a year in Rome, and the rest was done here in Clarksville and Paris.
“I think this may have been the first time Holy Cross agreed to this kind of distance-learning experiment,” he said with a laugh.
Father Stoeppel was named pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Paris in May, 2014. It is a considerably larger parish than St. Joseph in Clarksville, which meant his responsibilities increased dramatically. Yet still he continued with his studies.
“I think it speaks tremendously of his commitment, dedication, and time-management skills that he was able to do this,” said Bishop Strickland. “When you consider the difficulty and complexity of the subject, and factor in his duties as a pastor, it’s really a great credit to him that he was able to do this. I’m not sure many people would have the discipline to do this. I certainly couldn’t do it. So I congratulate him on this incredible achievement, and I’m grateful that we have such a priest serving the Diocese of Tyler.”
“I have to thank Bishop Corrada and Bishop Strickland for their encouragement and support during my studies,” Father Stoeppel said. “I could never have done this without their wisdom, understanding, and guidance. I would also like to thank all the many benefactors whose generosity made it possible for me to study.”
While having a Rome-educated bioethicist might sound a bit ambitious for East Texas, Father Stoeppel said his education is actually a perfect fit.
“We have a number of Catholic health care systems in our diocese,” he said, referring to CHRISTUS-Trinity Mother Frances Health Care System in Tyler, CHRISTUS St. Michael Health Care Center in Texarkana, CHRISTUS St. Michael Hospital in Atlanta, and Madison St. Joseph Health Center in Madisonville. “We have a very large medical community in a number of our cities. And, as the Church, we have the obligation to provide authentic Catholic teaching and guidance to these professionals and institutions as they pursue their healing ministry.”
Bioethics is an urgent concern for the Church, Father Stoeppel said.
“Every day, it seems, our technology advances in great leaps. And, often, it seems the technology is advancing faster than our understanding of it. We can do so many things that only a few years ago were considered impossible, even unthinkable. But the Church must always ask the question, ‘Should we do these things?’ Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s right.
“The Church has grappled with these questions for 2,000 years,” he said. “Because of that, she is able to take the long view, to look beyond today or even tomorrow, to consider the eternal implications of what our technology is doing at this moment, and might do in years to come.
“But the Church is also faced with the fact that developments in science and technology are coming now at an incredible rate, and she has to be ready to face issues and answer questions that no one has ever known before. Bioethics is a critical field just now.”
And the answers, he said, aren’t always black and white.
“My dissertation was on moral objections to bodily mutilation,” he said. “Now, that sounds obvious – mutilation is bad, right? If a deacon wakes up one morning and discovers he hates his kidney, if he cuts it out and throws it away, that’s wrong. But if the deacon’s wife needs a kidney, and he cuts his out and gives it to her, then it becomes an act of charity. So it becomes a question of motivation. The Church must always ask the question, ‘Yes, but what about this?’, and that’s not always – if ever – a simple question.”
The questions are only getting more complex as science and technology advance. And that, said Bishop Strickland, is why a priest trained in bioethics is so valuable, even in so small and rural a diocese as Tyler.
“Life issues are becoming more and more significant in our world,” he said. “And they’re becoming more and more complex. So the Church has to offer clear moral guidance on these issues, answering whether we should do something just because we can.
“And here in the Diocese of Tyler, we have large Catholic hospitals and many Catholics involved in health care,” Bishop Strickland said. “But we don’t have a lot of resources. We don’t have a big Catholic university with lots of professors to provide this guidance. So with Father Stoeppel, we now have a valuable resource, someone who can help us consider questions that are only getting more and more difficult.”
The diocese also has Father Nolan Lowry, pastor of St. Edward Church in Athens, who has a licentiate in sacred theology, but whose fifth year of study was focused on medical-moral issues.
“So between these two priests, we have access to the wisdom and knowledge of the Catholic Church,” Bishop Strickland said. “They’re valuable resources for us. They can help serve the people of the diocese, but also serve the wider Church as well. They are examples of the benefits of education, and the gift that education is to the people of God.”
Father Stoeppel is a native of Atlanta, Texas, and grew up there and in Cynthian, Kentucky. He received his bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Kentucky, and spent four years as a brother with the Fathers of Mercy.
He studied theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Tyler on May 28, 2011.