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.