When it came, the skirmish was brief. Despite their aggressive shows of defiance, the rebels’ surrender was unconditional.
Following a tense standoff between the leadership of the Knights of
Malta and the Vatican, its Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, agreed to
resign last week following a report by a papal commission that
documents serious claims about dysfunction in his leadership.
The report highlights the need for serious reform of the order’s tiny
leadership clique, drawn from around 50 “professed” Knights, who take
vows, and are traditionally drawn from noble European families.
The pope named another of the senior knights, its Grand
Commander, Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, as interim leader until
his own legate was appointed.
Some speculated that the order’s ruling Sovereign Council might
reject Francis’s intervention. But when it met on Saturday, the
council bowed to the need for the change.
It accepted Festing’s resignation by a clear majority, agreed to
appoint Rumerstein, and reinstated the former Grand Chancellor, Albrecht
Freiherr von Boeselager. It was the sacking of Boeselager by Festing
and the order’s chaplain, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, that
sparked the Vatican intervention.
Despite Festing earlier angrily claiming that the pope had no right
to intervene in the Order of Malta because it was a “sovereign state,”
the council’s statement rejected any such notion.
were “carefully taken with regard to and respect for the order, with a
determination to strengthen its sovereignty,” the council said.
In its statement the order also pledged “full collaboration” with the
to-be-named papal delegate, who will oversee “the spiritual renewal of
the order, specifically of its professed members.”
No mention was made of Burke, who was absent from Saturday’s meeting.
The leader of an anti-Francis crusade from the start of the papacy,
Burke was removed in 2014 as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the
Apostolic Signatura, because of his opposition to marriage annulment
He is also the prime mover behind a letter made public last November
in which four cardinals challenged the pope over the orthodoxy of his
apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia.
It was Burke’s attempt to use Pope Francis’s authority as part of an
internal power-play by Festing in December to remove his rival
Boeselager that prompted the papal putsch.
Boeselager, who is a figurehead for the largely German-speaking
knights, claimed that the firing was illegal and unconstitutional. His
supporters described it as the latest of a series of dictatorial
attempts by Festing to stifle criticism and consolidate his hold over
The German-speaking Knights have been growing more and more
frustrated at the way needed changes were being blocked by Festing and
his council, elected from the small group of professed members dominated
by the English and Italians.
The president of the order’s German Association, Erich Lobkowicz, has described
the struggle as “a battle between all that Pope Francis stands for and a
tiny clique of ultraconservative frilly old diehards in the Church -
diehards that have missed the train in every conceivable respect.”
Festing’s clique is known for its love of Old-Rite liturgies and
suspicion of Pope Francis. The reformers want to focus on the Order’s
humanitarian work among the poor, downplay the ceremonial pomp, and
align the order more with Francis’s vision of an evangelizing,
But Francis did not step in to try to shape the order in his own
image but to curb what he calls “spiritual worldliness,” the use of the
Church for self-interested purposes. It is the unhealthy nexus of
interests - financial and ecclesiastical - that undermines the order’s
“The Germans want a much more legal and transparent
operation,” an ambassador close to the German-speaking knights said.
“They are worried that the good work is undermined by the scandals.”
He offered an example. When Boeselager reportedly objected to the
naming of two arms traders to senior positions, arguing that the
appointments didn’t sit well with Pope Francis’s condemnation of the
small-arms trade, Festing ignored him and named them anyway.
Critics also point to Festing’s failure of governance in his handling of a 2014 scandal
in the UK, in which a pedophile companion of the Order was found guilty
of possessing child pornography on video tapes.
An inquiry led by
Baroness Julia Cumberledge, who has chaired inquiries into the Church’s
handling of abuse, uncovered a catalog of serious errors in dealing with
In a sign of Festing’s apparent obliviousness to the damage to the
order of such scandals, one of the three knights criticized in her
report, Duncan Gallie, was later appointed by the Grand Council and
lives in Rome.
The reformers have been especially incensed by Festing’s indulgence
of the knights’ Italian branch, which has close connections to the
wealthy and powerful order in Argentina.
Both have long been linked to
power plays in Italian politics and high finance, as well as to
conservative networks in the Vatican.
“Part of it is a wonderful humanitarian organization, but part of it
is a mafia, pure and simple,” one observer close to the pope told Crux.
Francis saw the second element first hand when he was the target of a ham-fisted attempt in
2008 by senior Knights to remove him as Archbishop of Buenos Aires
and replace him with a bishop who was chaplain to the order in
A similarly incompetent attempt was made in November last year by
Burke and Festing to remove Boeselager, whose criticisms of Festing’s
leadership were an increasing irritation to the Englishman.
by Burke, Festing tried to sack Boeselager in early December on grounds
of disobedience, after the German refused to stand down at the
The grounds for his removal were manufactured by a militant
traditionalist organization close to Burke, the Lepanto Institute for
the Restoration of All Things in Christ, which describes itself on its
website as “dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church against
assaults from without as well as from within.”
It either offered or was commissioned by Burke to investigate
allegations that Boeselager had approved the distribution of condoms
while head of the order’s humanitarian arm years earlier.
The issue had
already been dealt with in an internal Order of Malta investigation the
year before, which had cleared the German of any wrongdoing. The Vatican
had also been informed at the time.
Yet Lepanto’s president Michael Hichborn was told by Burke that he was “working on something” in response to his report.
A few days later, Burke went to Francis. Knowing Festing could not
dismiss such a senior figure without the pope’s backing - Boeselager is a
major figure in Germany, close to the German bishops and to many
high-level Vatican officials - Burke told Francis on November 10
about the report.
In his letter that followed the meeting the pope made clear that
Catholic moral precepts must be followed but that differences should be
resolved through dialogue rather than expulsions.
But the letter was used by Burke as a justification for sacking
Boeselager against the pope’s express wishes. Accusing the German of
being a “liberal Catholic,” Festing and Burke demanded he step down,
and, when he refused, sacked him on grounds of disobedience.
But it was Burke’s disobedience to the pope that was the real issue.
Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State,
wrote twice to the American cardinal to make clear that the pope had
approved no such action. He also made clear Boeselager should be
reinstated, and any differences between them be resolved through
Egged on by Burke, who insisted the Vatican had no right to intervene
in the order, Festing refused to budge. At this point the pope named a
commission to investigate. In an astonishingly aggressive statement
Festing tried to claim the inquiry had no legal validity, on the grounds
that the Order of Malta - founded in the eleventh century - was a
The argument was spurious. The
order has international juridical personality and the trappings of a
state (such as ambassadors and passports), but no territory beyond its
palace on Rome’s most glitzy shopping street, the Via Condotti. Whatever
its temporal status, it is also a lay religious institute whose
members profess loyalty to the pope, and as such is subject - as are all
recognized Catholic organizations - to the jurisdiction of the Holy See
in religious matters.
The sovereignty argument beggared belief, given that Burke’s attempt
to use the pope to justify Festing’s sacking of Von Boeselager had
dragged the papacy into its internal affairs.
At this point, just before Christmas, the pope ordered a commission
to investigate the circumstances surrounding the sacking, and to take
evidence from the knights about wider issues connected with the order’s
On Jan. 10 Festing pushed back, describing Boeselager’s dismissal as
“an internal act of governance.” He poured scorn on the papal commission
as “legally irrelevant” given the order’s sovereignty. He also ordered,
under pain of obedience, that the knights back his decision to sack
Boeselager - demanding, in effect, that the knights expressly reject the
The Holy See calmly expressed its confidence in its investigative
group, led by Italian Archbishop Sivano Tomasi, which continued to take
In a statement, the Vatican said it was awaiting the outcome
of the investigation “in order to adopt, within its area of competence,
the most fitting decisions for the good of the Sovereign Military Order
of Malta and of the Church.”
The evidence gathered by the pope’s commissioners left no doubt
about the need for reform. On Tuesday last week, Festing was summoned by
Francis and told of its contents. At the end of the meeting, Festing
sat down and hand-wrote his resignation - the first Grand Master in
centuries to stand down before his life term.
Festing, who has had serious bouts of illness brought on in part by
the stress of the internal disputes, “would have been relieved,” says
one Vatican official who knows the former Grand Master. Sources say the
aggressive statements from the Order were untypical of Festing, and were
likely to have been drafted by Burke.
Even after Festing had agreed to the pope’s request to resign, Burke
tried to persuade him to retract, in effect telling him to keep fighting
Francis, according to sources in both the Vatican and the order.
The reaction from traditionalists and critics of the pope has been
apopleptic, seeking to portray Francis as an autocrat imposing his
vision of the Church on a hapless conservative order.
In reality, he is
doing no more than what popes have always done with Catholic
organizations that suffer from abusive or dysfunctional leadership which
undermines their witness.
Francis has done the same with other religious orders or societies,
such as the Peru-based Sodalitium. Benedict XVI did the same with the
Legion of Christ, among others.
Why should Francis’s critics believe this one is any different?
Sadly, some have become so invested in Burke’s campaign against Francis
over Amoris Laetitia that they have failed to spot what this is about.
Francis has no intention of making Burke a martyr by sacking him, but
in reality he doesn’t need to. The American canon lawyer is officially
the Holy See’s liaison with the Order of the Malta, but the papal legate
will in practice reduce that to a merely titular role.
In his letter, Francis says his legate will be his “exclusive
spokesman during his mandate” relating to relations between the Holy See
and the order.
But the main point of the intervention is not to silence Burke, but
to reform the order’s constitution and governance so that it better
serves the purposes for which it exists.
Francis’s letter to the knights stresses that the unique character of
the order as both a lay religious institute and a subject in
international law should be the “basis for a more effective service
according to its ancient yet ever relevant charism,” namely the defense
of the faith and assistance to the poor.
In other words, its legal autonomy is at the service of, and for the
purpose of, its mission, and cannot be used for other purposes - the
furtherance of business interests, say, or the defiance of papal
authority by arch-traditionalists.
Far from being like an invasion of one “country” by another, as some
canonists have preposterously suggested, Francis’s intervention in the
Order of Malta is the duty of care by a pope who does not want the
Church’s witness to Christian mercy corrupted by privilege and spiritual