Pope Francis talks with Fra Matthew Festing, grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, during a private audience with members of the order at the Vatican in this June 23, 2016, file photo. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
Who knew that 2017 could be the Year of Malta? And yet, in less than a
month's time, the little island122 square miles in size and populated
by fewer than 450,000located some 50 miles south of Italy has been
involved in two of the biggest stories of the year.
was the pastoral letter signed January 8th by the Archbishop of Malta,
Charles J. Scicluna, and the Bishop of Gozo, Mario Grech, titled "Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia". The gist of that letter, which was published on pages 7 and 8 of the January 14th edition of L'Osservatore Romano,
is that divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are in "complex
situations" and face "attenuating circumstances", who have undergone a
process of "discernment", and yet are unable to live "as brother and
sister" are able to receive both Absolution and Holy Communion if they
"are at peace with God" (pars. 7-9; for further analysis, see Dr. Edward
Peters' essay "The Maltese Disaster" and my editorial titled "A Malta Laetitia").
now the festering and perplexing matter of the Holy See's involvement
with the leadership of The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint
John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Maltaaka, the Sovereign Military
Order of Malta or Order of Malta. The big news is, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, "Pope Francis Routs the Knights of Malta" (subhead:
"He isn’t afraid to play hardball with a religious order that crosses
the Vatican"). The short back story is that in early December, the Grand
Master of the Order, HMEH Fra’ Matthew Festing, who is British,
requested the resignation of Albrecht von Boeselager, who is German,
from his position as Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta. Boeselager
refused to resign and so was "forcibly removed". The reason for the
removal, the Order explained in a December 13th statement, was because of "severe problems which occurred during Boeselager’s tenure as
Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, and his subsequent concealment
of these problems from the Grand Magistry, as proved in a report
commissioned by the Grand Master last year." The central and most severe
problem, according to various reports, was that Boeselager, in his work as health minister, had allowed workers in Africa to distribute condoms.
Pope Francis asked for details, and then ordered an investigation. The Order of Malta, however, insisted that the matter was “an internal act of the government of the Order.” A January 10th report explained:
that the Order of Malta enjoys sovereignty, the statement said that the
decision not to cooperate was based on a desire to “protect its
sovereignty,” and that submitting to questions on internal governance
could be seen as “limiting its sovereignty.” The statement observed that
the Order of Malta is recognized as sovereignty [sic] under international law,
and the Vatican yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio, only mentions the
Order once“and not amongst the religious orders, but rather amongst the
States with embassies accredited to the Holy See.”
In other words, the situation was unique, complicated, and very, very tense. Some have scoffed at "the spat", wrongly insisting that the Knights are just like any other religious order. But, as canon lawyer Edward Condon explained in a January 9th piece for the Catholic Herald, the unique nature of the Knights is essential to understanding the conflict:
basic line of argument being advanced is that the Order is Catholic,
therefore the Pope must be in charge, therefore the Holy See can
intervene. Unfortunately, this is about as legally coherent as 2+2=5.
The Order of Malta is, indeed, a lay religious order. However, it is
made explicitly clear that the obligations of religious obedience do not
travel outside the hierarchy of the Order itself. This is detailed in
the section of the Order’s constitution which treats its relationship with the Holy See. It says:
Religious members through their vows, as well as members of the Second Class through the Promise of Obedience, are only subject to their appropriate Superiors in the Order.
(Constitution of the Order, art. 4 §2; my emphasis)
Although the Order is Catholic, its constitution clearly separates it from the oversight of any Vatican department.
Further, Condon explains:
"In order to compromise the Order’s sovereignty, the Pope must first
expressly abrogate the Order’s rights and laws (Constitution, art. 4
§3). Pope Francis has not done so.";
2) "Until such time, the
religious obedience of the Grand Master, and other professed knights or
the Order, is commanded by the Pope 'in accordance with the Constitution
and the Code' (Code of the Order, art. 62), that is, fully respecting
the Order’s independence and sovereignty regarding its governance";
"For the Vatican commission to be legitimate, the Pope would need to
sign a formal, legal act, officially and expressly abrogating the
Order’s sovereignty and authorising the investigative commission to act.
This formal act would need to be sent to the Order. If the Pope wanted
Cardinal Parolin, or any other curial official, to have the power to
authoritatively communicate with the Grand Master on his behalf, this
too would need to be explicitly and legally set out by the Pope directly
to the Grand Master, in a way which accounted for the necessary
abrogation of sovereignty."
Put simply, it appears that the
Vatican is not following canon law or acknowledging the rights of the
Order. Some have put it in very strong terms. "But the unprecedented
papal intervention," writes Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture,
"into the affairs of that venerable body fits into a pattern that
should, at this point, worry all faithful Catholics. Under Pope Francis,
the Vatican is systematically silencing, eliminating, and replacing
critics of the Pope’s views." Lawler points to the recent "wholesale
replacement of the prelates on the Congregation for Divine Worship", the
sudden dismissal of three priests from the staff of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the refusal to respond to the dubia submitted by four cardinals about the proper interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. Damien Thompson of The Spectator says
"the Order of Malta was effectively stripped of its sovereignty in what
appears to be a brutal power-grab by the Vatican" and cites a source
who says, "It’s like an invasion. Nine hundred years of sovereignty
wiped out overnight."
The latest news indicates the situation is now a full-blown crisis. Two days ago the Grand Master, Matthew Festing, met with Pope Francis, who asked him to resign at the end of their meeting. And today, as reported by Edward Pentin from the Vatican, Francis has taken further steps:
Francis has declared that all actions taken by the head of the Order of
Malta and its governing council since the dismissal of Albrecht von
Boeselager last month are “null and void,” including the election of
on the Pope’s behalf to members of the Order’s governing council Jan.
25, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin stated that the
Holy Father, “on the basis of evidence that has emerged from information
he has gathered, has determined that all actions taken by the Grand
Master after December 6, 2016, are null and void.”
He added: “The same is true for those of the Sovereign Council, such as the election of the Grand Chancellor ad interim.” The Council elected Fra’ John Critien as Boeselager's temporary replacement.
Parolin began his letter by re-emphasizing that the Grand Commander,
Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, is now in charge of the Order, adding
that “in the renewal process which is seen as necessary,” the Pope would
“appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the
act of appointing him.”
that Boeselager and his allies in the Vatican "have triumphed. These
allies have carried out a sordid campaign of leaked letters from
Cardinal Parolin’s department, which served the sad and obvious end of
framing a public narrative in which Fra’ Festing supposedly 'defied' the
explicit wishes of the Pope. In fact, even according to the confused
and changeable timeline constructed by his friends, it was clear that
Boeselager was dismissed well before Cardinal Parolin’s apparent (and
still illegitimate) intervention."
There is much morethree things in particular:
1) Freemasonry: Pentin reported on January 7th
that Cardinal Burke had been asked by Pope Francis to expose problems
within the Order: "Hopes that the contraceptive scandal would be
addressed came on Nov. 10, when Cardinal Burke was received in private
audience by Pope Francis. During that meeting, the Register has learned,
the Pope was 'deeply disturbed' by what the cardinal told him about the
contraceptive distribution. The Pope also made it clear to Cardinal
Burke that he wanted Freemasonry 'cleaned out' from the order, and he
demanded appropriate action." What, exactly, does that mean? If true, observes Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican,
it "would suggest that the two men have a different relationship than
the one most of the world seems to have concluded they have…"
Personally, I struggle to see that making much sense, unless Francis
shifted focus and goals midstream, as he appears to have done with Cardinal George Pell.
2) Germans: Moynihanin an e-letter sent on the 26th but not yet on his sitewrites:
all this is happening, there are whisperings in the underbrush, here
and there, in articles and on the internet, that influencing this affair
is a struggle between the "German" and "Italian" wings of the Order
(the General Chapter of May 2014 reportedly ousted Italians from most of
the top spots in the Order, and there are decisions to take on the
possible sale of many ancient properties in Italy owned by the Order),
and also the question of what to do about a considerable sum of money,
$120 million, reportedly left in a bequest to the Order several years
ago by a wealthy French gentleman named Jehan du Tour.
indicates that the sources for this are shaky. However, I know via
other, solid sources that this story, as they say, has legs. In short,
the German wing is poised to take over control of the Order. Why?
3) Money and power: The money part is touched on above; the power part has to do with the approach desired by the Germans. As summarized by Sandro Magister:
dispute, in any case, goes deeper and involves the opposition between
defenders of the original religious profile of the Order - reduced today
to a few dozen voting members - and the proponents of its
“secularization,” particularly strong in the German camp, the most
numerous and active in the field of humanitarian aid.
In fact, it was German leadership directly behind Boeselager's decisions regarding the distribution of condoms. Christopher Lamb of The Tablet sums up the situation from the progressive perspective:
the more progressive German branch of the order want [sic] to promote its
lay-centred work with the poor and sick, Festing has pushed a more
conservative agenda by trying to build up the the elite quasi-monastic
arm of the knights. Although numbering only around 50 of the 14,000
members of the order, they are the ones who hold the leadership
positions of the world-wide knights, and elect its leader.
I've been told by those close to the situation, the Germans in question do not care
about the Magisterium or the traditional moral teachings of the Church. Period.
Finally, back to Moynihan:
the $120 million have been administered since the death of the donor
several years ago by an expert in offshore fund management named Ariane
Slinger, who lives in Geneva, and who is reportedly the trustee for the
funds, keeping the principal safe and giving out the interest to the
four name [sic] heirs, one of which is the Order of Malta in France.
Allegedly, Chancellor Boeselager in 2014 decided to negotiate with
Slinger about these funds, and was assisted by Odendall and Sehnaoui,
who allegedly helped draw up a detailed proposal. Boeselager, Odendall
and Sehnaoui are said to have exchanged numerous emails with Tomasi and
Slinger on a proposed plan for these funds. But, reportedly, the Grand
Master, Festing, has refused to engage in any transaction, even as
recently as December 7.
The younger brother of Boeselager,
Georg, until last year the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Merck
Finck & Privatbankiers AG Monaco of Bavaria, has recently replaced
Carlo Salvatori in the Council of Superintendence of the IOR, showing
the close relationship between the Germans in the Knights of Malta and
the Vatican. ... The younger Boeselager was chosen by the Cardinals
Commission of Vigilance of the Institute of Works of Religion. The
announcement of the appointment was made on December 15, 2016, just days
after the elder Boeselager was removed from his top post in the Knights
He concludes: "It is not clear whether Pope
Francis himself has been told of all of these connections." Once again,
as with the letter by the bishops of Malta, there is confusion as well as many hints and clues forming a picture that is unclear in some ways
and yet oddly familiar in its lack of clarity.