An Order of Malta Church Shake

Knights. Condoms. A forced resignation. Papal inquiry. Rebuffs. Tension. Another forced resignation. Papal intrigue. More tension. Germans. Confusion. Power. Freemasonry. Money. Whatever could be next?

Who knew that 2017 could be the Year of Malta? And yet, in less than a month’s time, the little island—122 square miles in size and populated by fewer than 450,000—located some 50 miles south of Italy has been involved in two of the biggest stories of the year.

First there 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”).

And 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 Malta—aka, 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:

Noting 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:

The 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:

1) “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”;

3) “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:

Pope 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 Boeselager’s replacement.

Writing 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. 

Cardinal 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.”

Cordon concludes 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 more—three 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: Moynihan—in an e-letter sent on the 26th but not yet on his site—writes:

As 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.

He 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:

The 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:

While 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.

As 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:

Reportedly, 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 of Malta.

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. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.