What lies behind the spat between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta?
Of course, it could be what it seems to be: a conflict over
authority and autonomy that is the result - as some are claiming - of a
misunderstanding that will soon be resolved.
But the defiant language of the Knights suggests otherwise - as does a glimpse at Francis’s history with the order in Argentina.
To recap: On the pope’s instructions, the Vatican’s secretary of
state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has created a five-man commission to
investigate the allegedly unlawful removal of one of the Order of
Malta’s most senior leaders.
The firing of the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Boeselager, on December
6, after he refused to resign, was made by the Grand Master, Fra Matthew
Festing, in the presence of the Order’s patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke,
who is a cheerleader for conservative opposition to the Francis papacy.
The justification for the Festing-Burke move against Von Boeselager
was that between 1989 and 2014, when he was in charge of the order’s
international humanitarian arm, Malteser International, it financed aid
agencies that distributed condoms to prevent AIDS among prostitutes in
Myanmar, Kenya and South Sudan.
In a December 23 statement Von Boeselager says when he found out
about this through an audit, he acted following advice from relevant
committees, and the projects were closed. He says no mistakes were made,
there was no concealment involved, and that to suggest he is other than
a loyal Catholic obedient to church teachings is “absurd.”
The reason for the Vatican investigation is the Von Boesalager claim
that there were no grounds for his ouster, that the order’s own
procedures were not followed, and that Burke tried to invoke the Holy
See’s support for the sacking when it never sanctioned such a move.
A December 12 letter from Parolin to Festing shows that the pope had
given instructions to Burke in a December 1 letter which “asked that
dialogue be the approach used to address and resolve potential
problems.” Francis, says the secretary of state in that letter, “never
mentioned, conversely, expelling anyone.”
The word ‘dialogue’ is underlined, as it is in the following
sentence, when Parolin says that “notwithstanding the unpleasant and
perilous turn taken by events, it might still be possible, by way of
dialogue, to find a prudent way forward.”
Festing however stuck to his guns, insisting that the decision to
sack Von Boesalager was taken “fully in accordance with the
instructions” relayed by Cardinal Burke.
As result, on December 22
Parolin instituted his commission of inquiry, which met on January 5 and
has begun hearing from witnesses.
The Knights’ reaction to the inquiry has been to declare
that it has “legal irrelevance” because the order is sovereign, that
the decision to fire was an “internal act of the government of the
order,” and that it “has decided it should not cooperate” with the
The leadership goes on to warn members of the Order who speak to the
inquiry that they are not allowed to dissent from Festing’s decision to
sack Von Boeselager.
This language of defiance is remarkable. It is hard to recall another
example of a Catholic organization rebuffing papal authority in this
The Order may have temporal autonomy and diplomatic sovereignty (it
even issues its own passports) but as a Catholic organization it
professes obedience to the pope in religious matters.
head, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, points out that the order’s own article
62 declares that Knights and their chaplains “bind themselves to obey
the Holy Father.”
The two may be wholly unconnected, but this is not the first time
that Francis has faced hostility from the Knights of Malta, some of
whose leading figures were involved in an unsuccessful plot in 2008 to
remove Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and
replace him with a chaplain to the Knights, the Bishop of
Zárate-Campana, Oscar Sarlinga.
Bizarre as it sounds, the plot was widely spoken of at the time, and
has since been confirmed by a number of those involved, including
Sarlinga himself - although he denies being in favor of the idea - in an
interview to the religious correspondent to La Nación, Mariano Vedia, for his book, En Nombre del Papa (‘In the Name of the Pope’).
The plot originated with a Peronist adviser to Néstor Kirchner who
reached out to a group of conservative Catholics including the nuncio to
Argentina, Adriano Bernardini. Both sides saw it as a way of breaking
the impasse between Bergoglio and the Kirchner government, and resolving
a number of issues that were unresolved between the Holy See and the
The plan was to accentuate the tension further, then moot Bergoglio’s
removal to head a Vatican congregation as a solution, naming Sarlinga
to Buenos Aires.
It soon failed, in part because left-wing Peronists around Kirchner’s
wife Cristina spotted a right-wing church manoeuvre, and in part
because of Bergoglio’s close relations with Pope Benedict. But it threw
light on a group that was influential with the then Secretariat of
Sarlinga was close to two other prominent Knights, both vigorous
opponents of Bergoglio’s: Argentina’s powerful former ambassador to the
Holy See, Esteban ‘Cacho’ Caselli, a wealthy businessman with close ties
to former Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and later an
Italian senator; and Héctor Aguer, Archbishop of La Plata, Bergoglio’s
principal opponent in the bishops’ conference, who is a chaplain to the
Caselli’s son, Antonio Manuel, also a businessman, was the Knights’
ambassador to Argentina throughout Bergoglio’s period as archbishop.
The combination of Sodano - who was no longer Secretary of State
after 2006 but remained influential - and Esteban Caselli in Rome, plus
Bernardini, Antonio Manuel Caselli and Aguer in Buenos Aires, was widely
regarded as the nexus behind the appointment of a number of
conservative episcopal appointments in Argentina made over the heads of
Bergoglio and the bishops’ conference.
Two of them, Sarlinga and José Luis Mollaghan of Rosario, who clashed
with the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires over pastoral questions, have
since Francis’s election left their dioceses.
Mollaghan was summoned to
work at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in
2014, but is currently living in Buenos Aires. Sarlinga was ousted in
2015 - following scandals involving misuse of church funds.
It would be fair to say, in sum, that Francis’s experience of the
Knights has been of a group of wealthy, powerful individuals who formed
part of a conservative Vatican-Argentine nexus which sought to bypass
and block him and the local Church.
To say that this aspect of the chivalric order exists at the opposite
pole from Francis’s call for a pastoral conversion is something of an
The linking of ecclesiastic politics and high finance in
Knights such as Caselli - who once sent Bergoglio a first-class ticket
to Rome and received it back shred into pieces - is a strong example of
what Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.”
Of course, all that history may have nothing to do with the current
But when a Catholic organization angrily refuses to hold itself
accountable to papal authority, there’s usually something more going on
beneath the surface than a procedural issue involving personnel.
It’s possible that the Knights have detected the beginnings of an
attempt by Francis to intervene and reform the order which they are
trying to cut off at the pass.
Allow this investigation, they may think,
and others will soon follow.
They could be right.