JC: Martin, would you please say something about your background and how you came to study theological ethics?
ML: Julie, first of all thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. I would be happy to say a few words about my background. My family runs a mountain farm in the southern Dolomites. Shortly before my school-leaving exams I decided to study theology. After I had an existential crisis and read Friedrich Nietzsche, my interest in philosophy and theology was awakened. The special interest in Theological Ethics was brought about by Prof. Günter Virt in Vienna. When I attended his lectures, I decided to write my master’s thesis with him, and later also my doctoral thesis. I am very happy to have made this decision, because as a moral theologian I can deal intensively with questions of faith, but even more with the everyday questions and challenges of people and society today. You are always very close to life.
You are Professor of Moral Theology and Christian Spirituality at the Philosophical-Theological College of Brixen/Bressanone, Italy. You are also a Servite priest. Please can you say something about the spirituality of the ancient Servite order of priests, religious and lay people and how this form of Christian spirituality informs your approach to moral theology?
I got to know the Order because it looks after a place of pilgrimage very close to my home village. The Servite Order originated in Florence, Italy, in the 13th century. So it belongs to the great movement of the medieval mendicant orders. Our spirituality is characterised by three aspects: Marian devotion, serving people today as Mary served Jesus in her life, and fraternal community. For me as a moral theologian, special attention to situations in which people are suffering or their lives are threatened is particularly important. In my spirituality Mary stands for an unconditional love of life. Mary under the cross of Jesus is a sign of hope that life never loses its value and that the preciousness of life becomes clear where it is most vulnerable and threatened. I personally extend this to animal life as well.
Last summer, it became known that the Vatican was denying you the nihil obstat for election as dean of your theological university. How did this come about?
That is correct. I was elected dean in November 2022 and confirmed by Bishop Ivo Muser, the Gran Cancellarius of my theological college. The bishop then forwarded my act to Rome because, according to the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution on Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties Veritatis Gaudium, this office requires the approval of Rome. Specifically, this is the responsibility of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, which in turn must obtain the approval of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The nihil obstat is a kind of declaration of no objection. Bishop Muser inquired at the end of May after receiving no answer. He learned that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith had refused approval even though this decision had not yet been communicated by the Dicastery of Culture and Education.
What was your reaction?
In a first moment I was of course disappointed and also angry, but then I was just perplexed. I did not expect that it would still be possible today for a candidate to be denied the nihil obstat without first seeking dialogue with anyone, neither with the bishop, nor with the College body of electors, nor with the candidate himself. However, I have to say that my case has a history.
What history are you talking about?
I had already come under the scrutiny of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more than ten years ago, in 2012, after a small publication on sexual morality: Den Eros entgiften: Plädoyer für eine tragfähige Sexualmoral und Beziehungsethik, Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 2011 (Detoxify Eros: Plea for a Sustainable Sexual Morality and Relationship Ethics). There were then two anonymous accusations because of the book. However, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially stated in an expert opinion on my book that I did not deny the teachings of the Church, but they wanted clarifications from me on my personal position on the classic questions of sexual morality such as the regulation of conception, homosexuality, premarital relationships, and divorced remarried couples. They requested specifically that I write a total of five articles on these issues in order to prove my personal conformity with the Magisterial doctrine. Instead of writing these articles, I had clarifying talks with the bishop and wrote an extended report for him, who then reported to Rome, after which there was silence. I assumed, therefore, that the questions were clarified to satisfaction. But that was obviously not the case, because, as I learned now, they have been waiting until today for me to publish the requested articles, although I have published a large number of papers on these topics since then. And even though I had repeated meetings with representatives of the Congregation for Education and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the meantime, I was not informed that my case had not been closed.
On which occasions did you meet the representatives of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and Education?
I was a member of the Presidium of the European Society for Catholic Theology (ESCT) from 2011 to 2015, and I was President from 2013 to 2015. We had an official meeting with representatives of the Congregations every two years and were able to discuss a wide variety of topics. At the 2014 meeting, we explicitly addressed problems with nihil obstat and with procedures of investigating theologians and doctrinal examination. At that time, as President of the ESCT, I travelled widely in Europe and made the experience that many theologians have these problems and that there was a lot of dissatisfaction, also disappointment and personal hurt. I wanted to contribute to overcoming these tensions.
What suggestions have you made?
We put forward a number of proposals and demands. First of all we called for more transparency, that deadlines be met and that an answer be given within a certain time. Further we called for the requirement that the reasons for reservations or objections be clearly communicated, that there also be direct communication with those affected, not just mediated by the bishops, and that there be a right to reply. We urged that the selection of the experts who write opinions be transparent and balanced, not only coming from the conservative orientation, and that the names of the consulted experts be made known. We urged also that anonymous accusations should not be taken into account and that the names of accusers should be made known to accused theologians. We called also for the recognition of the authority and leadership of bishops etc. Furthermore we called for the acceptance of freedom of theological research.
Do you recall the response you received to these proposals?
I remember the feeling that they listened to us with a certain interest, but not really with openness. It was explained that, from their perspective, there are three types of dossier: first, it may be that there are differences of understanding between local ordinaries, i.e. bishops, and their faculties. Second, there are dossiers that are incomplete and require only the completion of the documentation. These are often resolved through a simple request for information. Finally, some dossiers require further investigation from the side of the competent offices. These dossiers are rare, they said, and, over the past few years, it would have become clear that problems hardly ever arise at the level of theological debate but lie rather in the field of discipline. Finally we were told that in some cases there are problems because the bishops reject a candidate but shift the responsibility of the decision to Rome. So, obviously, in some cases bishops themselves play an ambiguous role.
And regarding the freedom of academic theological research?
By the Congregation of Doctrine of Faith it was deemed important that, in their writings, theologians should clearly indicate their awareness of Catholic doctrine and indicate when they are also entering into further debate. We as theologians underlined the need for further clarification by the Magisterium of the notion of “consensus” and to indicate how much academic leeway there is for a critical confrontation with the doctrine of the Magisterium. We claimed that not every critical confrontation should be judged as disagreement, but rather as an expression that we are together on the way as a Church in the common search for truth and in the better understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Today we could say that theological debates are an issue of practiced synodality.
Your bishop has decided not to appeal against the denial of the nihil obstat. Why?
This was my personal decision; the bishop would have been ready to file an appeal. But I must confess that I have no interest in entering into a legal dispute with the Vatican authorities that could last several years as comparable cases show us. That would be too nerve-racking and time-consuming for me as well as for my theological college. I was also criticised for this decision, I can understand that. But I personally wanted to unmask this act, which in my view is unjust, by accepting it and making it public.
In an interview with America Magazine a few weeks ago, you said that the Vatican is thinking about revising the nihil obstat procedures? Do you know anything more about this?
I don’t know any more about the content. But I have learned from reliable sources that the new Dicastery for Culture and Education has actually been working on it already for several months before my case became known.
Will this have an impact on your case?
I assume so, yes. The fact is that the Dicastery for Culture and Education already suspended my case at the beginning of July. It was agreed with the bishop that my case should be re-examined, in dialogue with the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for the Doctrine of the Faith. From the official statement that was published by Vatican News one could easily conclude that the internal hierarchy between the two Dicasteries must be clarified.
What do you think has prompted the Vatican to review the nihil obstat procedures?
After my theological college made the matter public, there was a number of very sharp reactions from different theological societies in Europe, even in Italy, but also in Brazil and Argentina. I believe that there are reform-oriented forces in the Vatican itself, e.g. in the Dicastery for Culture and Education, that have realized that the decision against me is questionable and problematic.
Did you feel the solidarity of your colleagues in moral theology?
I strongly did. I would like to take this interview as an opportunity to thank these theological societies who have taken a stand and supported me. I have also personally experienced a lot of solidarity by individual theologians from all European countries, but also from Canada, the USA, Brazil, the Philippines, Australia etc. Canon lawyers from various countries have offered to support me in an appeal. That was overwhelming.
Although your case is still open, you have recently published a new book on Christian relational ethics by Verlag Herder, entitled Christliche Beziehungsethik: Historische Entwicklungen – Biblische Grundlagen – Gegenwärtige Perspektiven (Christian Relationship Ethics: Historical Developments – Biblical Foundations – Current Perspectives). Is that wise?
Maybe it is not really wise to publish a book at this delicate stage, but the publication had been planned for a long time and this book of almost 700 pages is the result of over three years work. Even if it seems contradictory, my permission to teach and do research has not been withdrawn. The denied nihil obstat only concerned the office of dean. I want to retain my academic freedom and integrity and set out my theological position with authenticity and conviction, in the spirit of genuine and truthful dialogue, rather than changing my voice, or self-censoring out of some misplaced self-interest. I explicitly wrote in the preface that the book is an offer of dialogue to the Magisterium to enter into clarifying conversation about issues that have led to many painful conflicts in the past decades. I see the urgent need to reform sexual ethics in the light of the pressure of the sexual abuse scandal, but also in light of the dialogue with gender and vulnerability studies etc.
In conclusion, how do you assess the current situation?
I see clear positive signs that Rome intends to change its relationship with theologians and to bring to a good end the reform of the nihil obstat procedures. I have been assured of this by well-informed sources. In Rome, they are aware that it is not only about me, but that it is a problem that affected and still affects very many theologians and therefore needs institutional reform. I am looking forward to the results and hope that they will improve the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium. A strong theology that is free in its scientific research can only be in the best interests of the Magisterium.