Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, at the Vatican, October 2015 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

The charming medieval town of Brixen, in South Tyrol (the German-speaking part of Italy near the Austrian border), plays a significant role in the history of the Church and the history of theology. The German theologian Nicolaus Cusanus was named its bishop in 1450, at the height of the conciliarist controversy, a defining moment in shaping the Catholic doctrine on the papacy. In 1967, theologian and future pope Joseph Ratzinger started to spend vacations there. In 1984, Ratzinger (by now a Cardinal) conducted his first, provocative, interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori—which later came to be known as his manifesto and was the basis for the best-selling book The Ratzinger Report. (I was teaching at the Brixen campus of the Free University of Bozen when Ratzinger was elected pope on April 19, 2005, where celebrations broke out upon the announcement.) Brixen is also home to the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone. Run by the Diocese of Bozen-Brixen/Bolzano-Bressanone, the college has a long history (and a wonderful library) dating to the era of Cusanus. Since 1991, it has been an academic center of pontifical right, enabling it to issue the academic degree of Baccalaureate in Theology. It’s a big part of the European university landscape and helps make South Tyrol a meeting point of Italian- and German-speaking cultures.

Brixen/Bressanone is in the news this summer because of the curious case of longtime faculty member Martin Lintner, recently elected by the faculty as dean of the Philosophical-Theological College, where he has been a professor of moral and spiritual theology since 2009. In June, Brixen Bishop Ivo Muser (appointed by Benedict XVI in 2011) announced that the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education had not granted a nihil obstat (no objection) to Lintner’s election. The request for nihil obstat was sent to the Vatican at the end of November 2022. After six months without an answer, Bishop Muser, in Rome for a visit, stopped by the Dicastery for Culture and Education to inquire. From there he was sent to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he learned that a decision had in fact been made in January. It was a negative one, and it had been made without seeking dialogue with Lintner’s bishop or with Lintner himself, and without a transparent explanation of the reasons.

It turned out that the Vatican issued its denial because of certain “publications of Prof. Lintner on questions of morality.” In an agreement with Lintner, who is a priest and member of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Bishop Muser waived the right of hierarchical appeal against this decision. The faculty of the college must therefore elect a new dean. The bishop has thus extended the term of the current dean, Alexander Notdurfter, beyond the scheduled end date of August 31, 2023. The Vatican has explicitly stated that the denial of the nihil obstat does not affect Lintner’s authorization to teach.

The incident has elicited statements of solidarity with Lintner from German and Italian theologians, from several theological associations, and from public institutions in which Lintner serves as expert in ethics. Lintner himself has chosen a non-confrontational path, but he has not kept quiet. On July 3, he issued a statement that was firm and dialogical at the same time:

The Vatican decision against me has led many of the faithful not only to incomprehension, but also to a serious annoyance. It casts doubt on the success of synodality. I am also unhappy to see how other people’s critical or even negative attitude towards the church is confirmed. 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.

Lintner is not making his case a cause célèbre, but rather is framing it as an ecclesial issue. For those who know him, this is unsurprising and completely in keeping with his character. He is a leading expert on sexual ethics and environmental and animal ethics, and he has led local, national, and international theologians’ associations, including the European Association of Catholic Theology, the International Association for Moral Theology and Social Ethics, and the International Network of Associations of Catholic Theology. He is not an individualistic, elitist free-agent scholar seeking to stir up trouble. He is an embodiment of the Catholic theologian who knows the role of theology in accompanying the magisterium in thinking about cutting-edge issues and listening to the different voices in the Church and culture.

But on July 6, a few days after Lintner’s statement, Bishop Muser issued a new statement: the decision to deny the nihil obstat, although it was communicated by the Vatican dicastery responsible for Catholic universities, depended on obtaining approval from other dicasteries. This made it apparent that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as Holy Office, also played a role in the case. In turn, the actions of the prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça (a Francis appointee from Portugal and award-winning author of essays, spiritual writings, and poems translated in numerous languages), and of the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer (a Jesuit Cardinal from Spain and longtime professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University) are also attracting attention.

Lintner is not making his case a cause célèbre, but rather is framing it as an ecclesial issue. For those who know him, this is unsurprising and completely in keeping with his character.

The numerous reactions and protests have had an effect: the Dicastery for Culture and Education has partially backtracked, announcing that the negative decision is valid “at the moment” and that it wants to take a year to review the case.


What was the problem in Lintner’s publications? It has been reported that his book The Rediscovery of Eros (published in German in 2011 and in Italian in 2015) was anonymously denounced in 2012 by two different people. The Dicastery for the Faith investigated; though it didn’t find anything contrary to Catholic moral doctrine, it nevertheless sought clarifications from Lintner. One concerned the chapter on homosexuality. Lintner openly supports the blessing of same-sex unions, has spoken publicly about the need to address the sexual abuse in the Church, and advocates dialogue between Church teaching and research on gender, with the participation of transgender people. He is in favor of moving away from a conception of morality-based norms and prohibitions, such as that which continues to be perceived as the Catholic doctrine on sexuality. In 2018 he also published a book on fifty years of Humanae Vitae, subtitled “End of a Conflict, Rediscovery of Its Message.” He has a forthcoming book on the ethics of relations. As noted, he is a Catholic theologian in favor of a constructive dialogue between theology and the magisterium on the most divisive issues of our time, and he does his work with an ecclesial spirit and style.

The Lintner story raises two important questions. The first one concerns the role of theology in the Catholic Church and Pope Francis’s pontificate. In a recent and wide-ranging interview with the official newspaper of the Holy See L’Osservatore Romano, Italian theologian Piero Coda, president of the International Theological Commission (whose task is to help the Vatican “in examining doctrinal questions of major importance”) and member of the 2023 Synod, lamented that theology has not adequately received Francis’s insights. But this is exactly what theologians like Martin Lintner are trying to do, in a truly ecclesial spirit.

The relationship between theology 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. And it is clear, as Italian theologian Marcello Neri wrote, that in Veritatis Gaudium, Francis’s 2017 apostolic constitution on ecclesiastical universities and faculties, “the juridical part prevailed (as was imaginable), and the proem hastily added by Pope Francis thus finds itself disavowed by the highest magisterium of a Vatican dicastery.” The consequences of the conceptual schizophrenia between the foreword and part one of Veritatis Gaudium are now visible in the case of Martin Lintner.

But on July 1, just a few days after the denial of the nihil obstat, Francis proceeded with the appointment of Argentine Archbishop Manuel Fernandez as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Fernandez is a faithful and trusted longtime friend of Francis, who will need him in the next phase of his pontificate, which could be the most revolutionary. Francis’s statement on Fernandez was remarkable in light of the Lintner case: “The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different.” He added: “‘Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow.’ This harmonious growth will preserve Christian doctrine more effectively than any control mechanism.” If theologians were still looking for appropriate formulations for their criticism of the veto against Lintner, they might find interesting material in what Francis wrote to the new prefect of the former Holy Office. It is also interesting that Fernández had himself been the subject of a doctrinal investigation by the very dicastery he will now lead, when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires appointed then-Fr. Fernández rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in 2009.

But the Lintner case must be seen also in the context of the ongoing tensions between Francis, the Curia, and the Catholic Church in Germany (the German Synod as well as the German-speaking Catholic theology). In other words, it could be a message sent to a theological world that is culturally distant from Rome. The positions Lintner holds on sexual morality reflect the majority positions of theologians in Germany and Austria.

Francis’s discourse on ecclesial renewal takes place largely without the involvement of theologians, and in particular women theologians.

The second question concerns Francis and the Roman Curia and how cases like Lintner’s have been handled in the past. Typically, they have not been made public. But as Lintner wrote in his July 3 statement: “These problems have been an open secret for decades. 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 loyalty to the Church.”

Francis reformed the Roman Curia with the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium of March 2022, and its long-term effects are not clear yet. One thing that hasn’t changed is that often Francis governs etsi Curia non daretur—as if the Curia did not exist. One of the features of this pontificate is Francis’s wish to demonstrate that he can do without the typical government structures. But they continue to operate. This creates risk for the theologians who want to help Francis, as in the case of Martin Lintner.

On the other hand, Francis also likes to show how distant he is from academic theology. Most recently there were these remarks, in an August 4 interview with Vida Nueva. “There are people who live trapped in a theology manual, unable to get into the issues and move theology forward,” the pope said. “Stagnant theology reminds me that stagnant water is the first to corrupt, and stagnant theology creates corruption.” Francis’s discourse on ecclesial renewal takes place largely without the involvement of theologians, and in particular women theologians. This gives some Curia dicasteries reason to behave, in cases like this, etsi Franciscus non daretur. The Vatican thus has two parallel tracks that don’t cross.

It’s also something of a case of unrequited love between theology and Francis, which has vast consequences. This isn’t just a problem for those in the profession; it’s also an ecclesial problem: it creates ambiguity while widening the gap between pastoral practice and public theological discourse, and it stifles the theological reception of ecclesial realities. As Lintner wrote, “It casts doubt on the success of synodality”—and in particular, on the chances of synodality to transform relations between theology, lived Catholicism, and the institutional Church.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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