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German Theologians Seek Pro-LGBTQ+ Revisions to Vatican Licensing Process

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Fr. Martin Lintner

Theologians in Germany have called for revisions to the process by which theology professors are granted teaching licenses by the Vatican. The desired reforms are prompted, in part, by LGBTQ-related academic disputes and a desire to end sexual identity-based discrimination. Equally important, the theologians’ reform campaign could expand academic conversations about gender and sexuality in the church, not only in Germany but beyond.

The Catholic Theological Faculty Association (KThF), which represents members at dozens of church- and state-run universities in Germany, issued a statement asking the country’s bishops to revise procedures in the nihil obstat process. The nihil obstat (“nothing prevents”) is obtained from the Vatican and required to teach theology.

An independent study conducted by the Forum of Catholic Theologians and the Bochum Center for Applied Pastoral Research was highly critical of the current process. The KThF expressed desire for procedures that are more transparent and accountable. According to, the theologians say the current process may infringe on academic freedom, and in some cases, cause scholars to refrain from certain research areas, including on sexuality and gender.

In addition, individuals’ rights can also be in danger. The KThF would like scholars to be protected from discrimination based on their private lives and relationships, protections German LGBTQ+ church workers in other areas have. Greater transparency would help prevent such discrimination. Because the nihil obstat process is not transparent, scholars do not learn why they have been denied a teaching license.

For the most part, German professors who need the Vatican-issued nihil obstat receive it. This outcome has been especially true under Pope Francis. Still, the Francis era is not without the problems KThF has raised. One situation involving a German theologian and LGBTQ+ issues highlights the issue.

In late 2022, Fr. Martin Lintner, OSM was elected as new dean by the faculty of the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone, Italy. The  Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith intervened, however, denying Linter the approval needed to become head of the college. The decisionwas never communicated to him, the college’s faculty, or Bishop Ivo Muser, the local diocesan ordinary, until Muser inquired at the Vatican months later. At the time, Muser, other bishops, and professors across Europe protested the Vatican’s interference in what many considered an academic question.

Despite these protests and requests, the Vatican dicastery offered no explanation for its decision.  America magazine, however, reported that many believe the denial was based on Lintner’s pro-LGBTQ+ views:

“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.). . .

“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.

“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.’”

“For those involved [under investigation or facing sanction], 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.’”

One source of hope for some better resolution remained, America reported:

“[Lintner] described the appointment of [Cardinal] 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.’”

Both Lintner and the KThF raise the same top-level concern, expressed by Lintner as: “It would have to be clarified to what degree due freedom of theological research has to be accepted by the magisterium.” In other words, what is the appropriate role for the church’s hierarchy to have over theologians.

For decades, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to limit theologians’ freedom and cracked down on those providing more positive appraisl of LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, such as Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley or Rev. John McNeill. But Pope Francis has shown he is not inclined to do so, making it an ideal time to reform not only the spirit of how the institutional church and theologians interact, but the structures, too. Doing so would surely deepen and widen the dialogue on LGBTQ+ issues in the church, both in Germany and beyond.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, February 21, 2024


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