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Vatican faces backlash after denying ‘nihil obstat’ to dean

The Vatican is facing backlash after it vetoed the appointment of a prominent German-speaking moral theologian as dean of an academic institution in northern Italy. 

Fr. Martin M. Lintner, O.S.M. Screenshot from privat raitalk YouTube channel. 

A June 26 statement posted on the website of the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone (PTH Brixen) announced that the Dicastery for Culture and Education had blocked the appointment as dean of Fr. Martin M. Lintner, O.S.M., “because of Prof. Lintner’s publications on questions of Catholic sexual morality.”


The statement, signed by Bishop Ivo Muser, the college’s great chancellor, and the current dean Alexander Notdurfter, said that the bishop had decided, in agreement with Lintner, not to appeal the decision.

“Prof. Lintner’s ecclesiastical license to teach is not affected by this matter,” it added.

PTH Brixen had selected Linter to serve as dean from Sept. 1, 2023, to Aug. 31, 2025. Notdurfter will continue to hold the post until a newly elected person can assume the office.

Many of Lintner’s publications and public statements have called for the Church to be open to the blessing of same-sex unions and a reimagining of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics and morality.

The Dicastery for Culture and Education is the Vatican department that oversees ecclesiastical and Catholic institutes of higher education in conjunction with the world’s bishops. It is responsible for approving teachers of theological disciplines by issuing a nihil obstat, a declaration that “nothing stands in the way” of a candidate’s appointment.

In the 2017 apostolic constitution Veritatis gaudium (“The Joy of Truth”), Pope Francis wrote that the chancellors of ecclesiastical universities and faculties must propose to the dicastery the names of candidates who “are to be nominated or confirmed as rector, president or dean, as well as the names of the teachers for whom a nihil obstat is to be requested.”

PTH Brixen, which traces its history back to 1607, is run by the Diocese of Bozen-Brixen (also known as the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone). It offers degrees in Catholic theology, Catholic religious education, and philosophy, but also provides formational preparation and practical training, including for the diocese’s deacons and priests.

In a joint statement, three associations representing German-speaking moral theologians expressed their “unreserved solidarity” with Lintner.

“We note with incomprehension the refusal of the Roman nihil obstat for the election of Martin Lintner as dean of the Philosophical-Theological College of Bressanone,” it said. “We criticize the disciplinary intervention of the Dicastery for Culture and Education as professionally inappropriate and incomprehensible.”

“Martin Lintner’s positions reflect a broad consensus within German-speaking moral theology and far beyond. Since the post-synodal letter Amoris laetitia (2016), they are increasingly found in magisterial letters as well.”

The statement, issued by the International Association for Moral Theology and Social Ethics (IVMS), the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Moraltheologie (Moral Theology Working Group), and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christliche Sozialethik (Christian Social Ethics Working Group), added: “No arguments are given for the decision. The lack of transparency of the procedure leaves no choice but to see in the disciplinary action a curial demonstration of power.” 

“In the current situation of the world church, it can only be understood as an attempt at intimidation. The anti-discursive curial approach, which seeks to lead theological research and teaching on the leash of discipline, renders calls for dialogue implausible.”

The German Association of Faculties of Catholic Theology (KThF) said in a June 26 statement that Lintner was “a highly respected, esteemed, and renowned professional colleague.” 

“He is an important voice in the professional and public discourse, who in his publications on relationship ethics tries to develop sexual morality theologically and ethically in such a way that it can be a positive, realistic, and fruitful contribution for the people of this time,” it said. 

“Within the field of theological ethics, Prof. Lintner does not represent marginal positions, but those that may be considered a consensus within the discipline.”

Lintner was a contributor to the 2020 publication “The Benediction of Same-Sex Partnerships,” produced in response to a request from Austria’s bishops’ conference. He wrote a chapter presenting “theological-ethical reflections on a blessing celebration for same-sex couples.”

In an interview that year with the German Church’s news website, Lintner welcomed Pope Francis’ endorsement of civil union laws for same-sex couples.

Asked if the Church could still refuse to bless same-sex partnerships, Lintner said that he expected “an intensive, albeit controversial, internal Church debate on this question.” 

“But I consider the refusal of the Magisterium to engage in dialogue about what has been reflected theologically and morally on this issue to have been lifted,” he commented. “The condemnation of a homosexual relationship as sinful without exception is obviously not the last word of the Church on this question.”

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The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed in 2021 that the Church does not have the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.

In 2022, Belgian bishops published a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples, and in March this year, Germany’s controversial “synodal way” passed a resolution supporting same-sex blessings. 

The June 26 statement issued by Bishop Ivo Muser and Alexander Notdurfter did not, however, indicate which of Lintner’s “publications on questions of Catholic sexual morality” the Vatican objected to.

Lintner was born in Bozen (Bolzano) in South Tyrol (Alto Adige), a German-speaking region of northern Italy. A member of the Servite Order, he joined PTH Brixen in 2009 as a lecturer and has served since 2011 as a professor of moral theology and the theology of spirituality.

He has produced numerous academic publications in his specialist areas of moral theology, Mariology, and Catholic theology. His works include “From Humanae Vitae to Amoris Laetitia: 50 years of controversy over the Church’s doctrine on Birth Control” and “Divorce and Remarriage. A reading of Amoris Laetitia from a theological-ethical perspective.”

His 2012 book “Detoxifying Eros: A plea for a viable sexual morality and relationship ethics” has been published in German, Italian, and Slovenian. 

The publisher’s description of the book said that it “presents sexual morality in an understandable way, critically questions Church positions, introduces new moral-theological approaches, and points out aspects that remain valid.”

It added: “Lintner’s book is a plea for a new self-understanding of the Church’s sexual morality, which is not about power and control, but about help and orientation, and an engagement with the social conditions under which relationships are lived and shaped today.”

The 50-year-old professor has also received support from outside the German-speaking world. 

The British theologian Tina Beattie described the Vatican decision as “depressing news” and called Lintner “a fine theologian and person.” 

Lintner also received backing from the Provincial Ethics Committee of South Tyrol, where PTH Brixen is located. Lintner is a member of the committee, which serves as an advisory body on ethical issues in healthcare.

Committee chairman Herbert Heidegger said: “The issues of sexual morality and the beginning of life are topics of applied ethics. Prof. Martin Lintner, as a member of the Provincial Ethics Committee, offers his valuable contribution with great responsibility and balance, addressing people’s concerns and questions on this issue.”

Marcello Neri, a visiting lecturer at the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, also backed Lintner.

Writing for SettimanaNews, a website overseen by the Dehonian Province of Northern Italy, Neri said: “The decision taken by Bishop Muser, in agreement with Prof. Lintner, to renounce a hierarchical appeal is understandable as a form of protection of the academic theological studies of Bressanone.”

“But even this decision is not good for theology or for the Italian Catholic Church.”

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