Tensions between the Holy See and the Order of Malta are high after the statement in which the Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing publicly declared that the Order does not intend to collaborate in any way with the commission established by the Holy See in light of the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager’s removal.
He was accused of having
condoms distributed during the course of a humanitarian initiative in
Myanmar in recent years. Boeselager defended himself by saying he knew
nothing about this move, which was decided on a local level, and that he
intervened as soon as he heard about it.
In a pointed letter from the
Grand Master, the Order lays claim to its sovereignty, reminding
everyone that it has its own independent rules and that the Pope must
not interfere in internal affairs. Yet the attempt to involve the Pope
by asking him to give his backing to the dismissal of some Knights, came
from the Order, or rather, from its patron cardinal, Raymond Leo Burke
and the whole affair began with a letter from Francis himself.
On 5 January, The Tablet revealed the existence of a letter,
which the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, sent
Fra’ Matthew Festing on 21 December 2016, informing him that the Pope
did not want von Boeselager removed.
“As I expressed to you in my letter
of 12 December 2016: ‘as far as the use and diffusion of methods and
means contrary to the moral law, His Holiness has asked for dialogue as
the way to deal with, and resolve, eventual problems. But he has never
spoken of sending someone away!’”
So there are two letters Parolin
addressed to the Grand Master and already in the first of these, dated
12 December, there was reference to what the Pope has “asked” for. But
why and when did Francis get involved in the internal affairs of the
Knights requesting something?
It all started on 10 November 2016,
when the Pope received the Order’s patron cardinal, Raymond Leo Burke,
in an audience.
There was less than a week to go before the publication
of the famous “dubia” regarding the “Amoris Laetitia”, presented a month
and a half earlier but this was apparently not what the dispute was
In the days following the audience, Francis sent Burke a letter
addressed to the heads of the Knights of Malta, inviting them to resolve
the controversy with dialogue while ensuring the respect of Catholic
morality (a not so implicit reference to the issue involving the
distribution of condoms in Myanmar, used as a pretext to justify von
Boeselager’s dismissal) and to watch out for any associations contrary
to the Church from infiltrating the Order.
It appears that the cardinal
asked the Pope to approve the removal of various members of the Order
including the Grand Chancellor. Francis intervened, recalling certain
principles, at the same time calling for the matter to be discussed
internally, without purging anyone.
When it came to removing von
Boeselager, the Vatican, or rather, the Pope’s approval was mentioned by
way of justification. Francis and the Holy See were thus brought into
the affair so that they could corroborate the shocking decision taken
and shared by the Grand Master and the patron cardinal. This is partly
why the cardinal Secretary of State, Francis’ right hand man, sent the
two letters which followed, on top of the initial letter sent by
Francis: to reiterate what the Pope had actually asked for and deny the
words that had been put into his mouth.
It is hard to tell how
this controversy - which is not the first in the history of the Order’s
relations with the Vatican - is going to end. The clear stance taken by
the Grand Master in the letter that states the Order’s refusal to
cooperate with the commission established by the Holy See, claiming that it has no right to interfere in the Order’s affairs, is a testament to how high tensions are.
the commission responded in equally clear terms to the tough statement
issued by the Grand Master, with a legal note published by the Catholic News Service,
the news agency of US Catholic bishops, recalling that the decision to
establish the group did not come from the Secretary of State but from
the Pope himself.
It reminds the Knights of Malta that as a lay
religious order and as a legal body that is recognised by the Holy See,
“professed knights and chaplains bind themselves to obey the Holy
The legal note recalls that the commission established by Pope
Francis "is completely legitimate and authorized" to investigate the
matter and inform the Pope, also about the circumstances surrounding the
removal of von Boeselager, “This is not about interfering in the
internal affairs of the order,” the note states, “because the purpose of
the commission, as is evident, is to give an account to the Holy Father
on the procedures (used to remove von Boeselager) and nothing else”.