VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A recent Vatican decision to not allow a progressive theologian to become the dean of a theological university in Italy highlights the fractures within the Catholic Church over sexual morality while also hinting at divisions inside the Vatican itself.
The Rev. Martin Lintner was selected by its faculty to become dean of the prestigious Theological University of Bressanone, located in the traditionally German-speaking region near the Austrian border. The appointment of Lintner, a professor of moral and spiritual theology at the seminary, was also met with approval by the local bishop. But the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education refused to issue the permission required for Lintner to take on the role, the university announced on June 26.
The Congregation released no explanation for its decision and has not replied to a request by Religion News Service for comment. Theologians and academics around the world responded with confusion and dismay at the Vatican’s decision to prevent the appointment of the theologian.
The local bishop, Ivo Muser, said he was informed that the Vatican had denied the appointment due to Lintner’s previous “publications on questions relating to the sexual morality of the church.” In a recent statement, Muser said the current dean, Professor Alexander Notdurfter, will keep his position until August 2024. “This time will allow for the calm necessary to further reflect together on the issues that arose and that involved other Vatican departments,” Muser said.
Lintner has spoken in support of reconsidering the Catholic Church’s controversial ban on artificial birth control enshrined in the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” by Pope Paul VI. Lintner has also written in support of blessing same-sex couples, a position promoted by members of the synodal path in Germany despite the Vatican’s veto on the subject.
Lintner upheld the dignity of same-sex relationships in an article published in 2020 on the website of Catholic LBGTQ+ advocacy group New Ways Ministry and has offered reflections in favor of ceremonies to bless same-sex couples.
While the decision is officially up to the Congregation for Education, some believe it was the Vatican Department overseeing doctrine that made the ruling on Lintner.
The Congregation for Education and Culture was born from the union of two other departments under the leadership of Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, who is considered a close friend of Pope Francis. Francis’ involvement in halting Lintner’s appointment remains unclear.
The decision regarding Lintner’s appointment highlights the tensions between the Vatican and the synodal path in Germany and elsewhere. Meant to promote a vision for a less hierarchical church and to empower lay Catholics, the multiyear synodality process has resulted in appeals from many Catholic faithful and clergy around the world for female ordination, LGBTQ+ inclusion and clergy accountability. Lintner’s rejection underlines Pope Francis’ struggles in enacting the synodal vision and the reform of the Vatican Curia.
“The Vatican’s decision regarding me didn’t just cause surprise but also frustration among many faithful,” Lintner wrote in a statement published on the university’s website on Monday (July 3). “It raises doubts on the good outcome of synodality,” he added.
Bishops and lay individuals will gather in Rome in October for the Synod on Synodality, where they are poised to discuss the major questions facing Catholicism today, from the role of women to power structures in the church. The synod is Pope Francis’ brainchild and born from a three-year consultation of Catholics at the parish, diocesan, national and continental levels. It aims to revolutionize the way decisions are made in the church and to create a more open and inclusive way of communicating and engaging with the faithful.