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Colleen DulleSeptember 11, 2023
The Rev. Martin Lintner. Video screen grab via RNS.

Martin Lintner, O.S.M., a Servite priest and theologian teaching at the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone, Italy, was selected by his colleagues and approved by his bishop in November 2022 to become the college’s next dean. Following protocol, the bishop passed the appointment to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education for its stamp of approval.

After six months with no response, the bishop, Ivo Muser, visited the Vatican and inquired about Father Lintner’s appointment. He was redirected from the education dicastery to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Their response: The approval had been denied. The decision had been made in January but was never communicated to Bishop Muser, Father Lintner or the university.

“Of course, at first I was disappointed,” Father Lintner said in an email interview with America. “But then I was mainly surprised that the ‘rules of the game’ in the Vatican have not yet changed despite the reform of the Curia and despite 10 years of the pontificate of Pope Francis who, right at the beginning of his pontificate, held out the prospect of a new relationship between the Vatican Curia and theologians.”

“I was mainly surprised that the ‘rules of the game’ in the Vatican have not yet changed despite the reform of the Curia and despite 10 years of the pontificate of Pope Francis,” Father Lintner said.

That sometimes strained relationship has emerged into the spotlight yet again with Father Lintner’s case, as it does each time a well-respected theologian has been denied a nihil obstat—literally, “nothing obstructs,” the Vatican’s official approval for theologians’ teaching positions and written works—or have been investigated or reprimanded by the Vatican.

Writing on the Lintner case in Commonweal, theologian Massimo Faggioli noted: “The relationship between [theologians] and the institutional Church has seen some changes since Francis’s election. For one thing, there’s been an obvious truce following the John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras. Yet it seems that theology has been more responsive to the pope’s impulses than the Curia has.”

What results, Mr. Faggioli writes, is a “conceptual schizophrenia” between Pope Francis’ advocacy of greater dialogue and doing away with taboos on theological subjects, and the Curia’s decisions on theologians, which appear to be informed by a stricter understanding of what is acceptable in Catholic theology.

Part of the difficulty in recounting or analyzing Father Lintner’s story is that, like other theologians who have been denied Vatican approval, no reason has been given for the decision. “The official letter that was sent afterward does not contain any details,” Father Lintner told America, “but reference is made to the oral conversations that Bishop Muser had with the dicasteries. During these conversations, my writings on the subject of sexual and relationship ethics were somehow mentioned.”

Part of the difficulty in recounting or analyzing Father Lintner’s story is that, like other theologians who have been denied Vatican approval, no reason has been given for the decision.

What might the Vatican have found problematic in Father Lintner’s teaching? A leading theory is that he openly supports blessing same-sex couples and that he has advocated for greater conversation between theology and gender studies, especially on transgender people—positions that, Father Lintner points out, “reflect the majority positions of colleagues in Germany and Austria.” (Father Lintner is a resident of South Tyrol, the German-speaking part of Northern Italy. “I am strongly involved in German-speaking moral theology,” he said.)

In March 2021, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement declaring that “the church does not have, and cannot have, the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex.”

Still, he does not see his denial as part of a larger battle between German theologians, particularly the German Synodal Way, and the Vatican. “I myself tend to place the reasons for the denied nihil obstat in my case on a personal level,” he said.

Father Lintner has decided not to appeal the case of the denied nihil obstat. He wants his college to be able to move forward with selecting a new dean. They have held off on doing so thus far, though, extending the previous dean’s position through the end of this month. One reason for the delay: The Dicastery for Culture and Education has said it is reviewing the case, which it estimates will take a year.

That backtracking can most likely be credited to the widespread denunciations of the Vatican’s decision from various theological associations, including the European Society for Catholic Theology and groups in Germany, Austria, Italy, Brazil and Argentina. (A selection of statements in support of Father Lintner is available on the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone’s website here.)

What might the Vatican have found problematic in Father Lintner’s teaching? A leading theory is that he openly supports blessing same-sex couples.

Father Lintner remains uninterested in a formal appeal. For one thing, he knows “from comparable cases that these procedures take a very long time, even several years.” For another, the Vatican’s refusal specifically permits him to continue teaching.

“I think it needs to be clarified why a nihil obstat is needed for an office such as dean; in other words: What is the difference between a nihil obstat for teaching and one for an administrative office?” Father Lintner said.

In the meantime, Father Lintner has been using the publicity his case has garnered to advocate for changes in the nihil obstat process. “Transparency, willingness to engage in dialogue, [and] regulated deadlines” are among the changes Father Linter would like to see, along with “the recognition of authority and leadership of bishops and theological institutions.”

“If a person is elected by the college council and approved by the local bishop, why should the Vatican be concerned? It is a sign of mistrust in the leadership and catholicity of a bishop, of a theological institution and of the person concerned,” Father Lintner said.

“In the background is the relationship between the magisterium and theology,” he continued. “Here, in my opinion, it would have to be clarified to what degree due freedom of theological research has to be accepted by the magisterium.”

He believes synodality—the effort Pope Francis has supported to increase dialogue and share responsibility among the hierarchy and laity—could be key to improving the Vatican’s relationship with critical theologians. “I think it is important to listen to each other and to seek dialogue. Decisions should not be taken unilaterally without listening to the other side. There should also be room for reflections that help to further develop the tradition and that are not interpreted as disagreement, but rather as an expression that we are together on the way as a church in the common search for truth and in the better understanding of the holy Scriptures,” Father Lintner said. After the Vatican’s decision was handed down, he released a statement saying it “casts serious doubt on the success of synodality.”

“I was informed that the Vatican is seriously considering renewing the procedures for granting nihil obstat by giving more weight to the local bishop,” Father Lintner said.

Father Lintner understands his case as representative of a much larger institutional problem, and now sees himself as a sort of spokesperson for other theologians who “have been confronted with comparable problems,” he wrote in the statement. “For those involved, they are a burden, combined with the feeling of humiliation and with emotional pain; in some instances, professional careers suffered lasting harm. And the personal identification with the church can also suffer through this situation. Many prefer to remain silent, out of fear that they may lose their reputation as a theologian and that they may be suspected of a lack of loyality to the Church.”

As for his own relationship with the church, Father Lintner wrote, “Those who know me know that I am conscious of belonging to the church, and they know of my constructive-critical loyalty to the ecclesial magisterium.”

He also has hope that the institutional problems he has identified—namely, a lack of transparency and dialogue in the nihil obstat process, which contributes to larger tensions between the Curia and theologians—may be due to change.

He wrote in his statement that in his conversations with the dicasteries for education and doctrine, the officials seemed “aware of the problems” and “recognized the need to revise the procedure and to lead the proceedings transparently and fairly.”

Expanding on these comments in his America interview, Father Lintner added, “I was informed that the Vatican is seriously considering renewing the procedures for granting nihil obstat by giving more weight to the local bishop.”

He described the appointment of Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith as “a sign of hope,” because Fernandez himself was once denied a nihil obstat. “His bishop at the time, now Pope Francis, stood up for him and in this way obtained approval from the Vatican Curia. So, he knows from his experience what it’s all about.”

Correction: A previous version of this report referred to the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone as the Theological University of Brixen.

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