Just to be clear from the beginning, I have no insider information regarding the news now making the rounds about the Knights of Malta, either in terms of the factors that led to the ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager, the group’s chancellor, or Pope Francis’s decision to create a committee to look into the situation.
What I can say at a distance, however, is that for anyone familiar
with the Vatican over a stretch of time, there are at least a couple of
truly juicy ironies at work.
As has been widely reported, Boeselager was suspended Dec. 8 after
refusing an order to resign over revelations that the order’s charity
branch distributed thousands of condoms in Myanmar on his watch.
Boeselager reportedly insisted that he didn’t know about the program,
and stopped it when he learned of it.
Boeselager also said that the top Knight, Fra Matthew Festing, in the
presence of the order’s patron, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, told
him Pope Francis wanted him removed, although the Vatican has denied the
pope was involved.
On Dec. 22, the Vatican announced Pope Francis had created a
committee to examine the situation.
The five members are Italian
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, former permanent observer of the Holy See to
the U.N. in Geneva; Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a noted canonist
and former rector of the Gregorian University; and laypeople Jacques de
Liedekerke, Marc Odendall, and Marwan Sehnaoui.
In response, the Knights have declared, twice, that they won’t
cooperate with the probe, asserting their status as a sovereign state
under international law and insisting that nobody, including the pope,
has the right to interfere in their internal governance.
That reaction has surprised many ordinary Catholics, plenty of whom
probably didn’t even realize the order has sovereign status. Also,
because the Knights are obviously a Catholic entity known for loyalty to
the pope, rejecting his authority comes off as a counter-intuitive
Given Burke’s connection, many observers naturally assume their
defiance is related to tensions between Pope Francis and some elements
of the Catholic hierarchy, prominently including Burke, over Amoris Laetitia, communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and other fronts.
That may well be the case, but laying out the two ironies involved
may also help explain why the Knights seem so caught off guard.
First, the Knights reasonably may have thought that if there’s any
other outfit on earth that ought to be sensitive to the case for
protecting its sovereignty, it would be the Vatican.
Over the decades, “sovereignty” has been akin to mom and apple pie in
the Vatican in terms of time-honored, cherished values. For instance,
the Vatican insists that countries with which it has diplomatic
relations designate a separate ambassador rather than relying on their
envoys to Italy, on the grounds that it has to be clear the Holy See is
its own state.
The Holy See also asks those countries to maintain separate embassies, in order to underline the same point.
Whenever the Holy See has been sued in the United States, whether
it’s a commercial dispute or cases related to the clerical sexual abuse
scandals, it has ferociously (and successfully) invoked its sovereignty
as a shield against judgments in American courts.
Most recently, when Australian Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the
Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, signed a contract with
Pricewaterhouse Coopers to conduct an external audit, that deal was
suspended and eventually dropped, in part on the grounds that PwC would
have unacceptable levels of access to the Vatican’s sovereign data.
As a result, it’s possible the Knights thought that once they played
the “sovereignty” card, the conversation would be over. Needless to say,
it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Here’s the second irony: Over the years, whenever someone in the
Catholic Church has lost his or her job for alleged involvement in an
overseas charitable operation that somehow got caught distributing birth
control, it’s been a pretty good bet that someone in the Vatican was
behind the pressure to act.
Concern for making sure that Catholic charities don’t do anything
contrary to Church teaching, for instance, was a large part of why the
Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 2012 issued a new set of rules for
Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based federation of Catholic
Among other points, those rules required the top officials of Caritas
to make promises of loyalty before a Vatican official, including
“Christian obedience” to church leaders. They also specified that Cor
Unum, the Vatican department overseeing charity work, must approve any
cooperative agreements between Caritas and non-governmental
organizations, except in cases of dire humanitarian emergencies.
In the past, Caritas had been criticized for entering into agreements
with NGOs whose approach to issues such as population control differs
from that of the Catholic church.
Once again, therefore, the Knights may have assumed that if they
acted against an official alleged to have done precisely what Caritas
got into hot water for four years ago, the power structure in the
Vatican would not only have their back, but applaud.
None of this, to be clear, is intended as either a defense or a
criticism of the Knights’ reaction, and it’s well above my pay grade to
adjudicate whether concepts such as “sovereignty” even apply in this
However, if nothing else, perhaps one can feel a degree of sympathy
for a group that may be caught in the same sense of vertigo about role
reversals in the Vatican that other sectors of the Church, in their own
ways, have also been feeling in the Pope Francis era.