The affair is very unlikely to be over, but at the moment things have paused after the Knights issued a public statement on December 23rd to the effect that the Holy See has no lawful jurisdiction and needed to mind its own affairs, a stand that might come as something of a shock to many American Catholic readers who tend to assume that a pope has no legal limits with regards to a Catholic organisation.
Many observers – especially those who have not followed the increasingly byzantine proceedings over Amoris Laetitia – seem to have been left behind by this latest hairpin turn. The confusion has not been much helped by the only coverage we have had so far, which has come from sources with a self-evidently anti-doctrinal bias .
The main facts, however, are simple. The Knights of Malta serve in our times as a charitable aid organization in many developing countries, doing mainly healthcare work and disaster relief. Their foreign aid branch is called the Maltesers International, and is under the guidance of the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, one of a leadership body of three offices. The other two are the Grand Master, head of the whole Order, and the Grand Commander.
Recently, the Grand Master removed the Chancellor – a German aristocrat named Albrecht von Boeselager, who has strong connections with the German hierarchy and the Holy See – because under his watch, the Maltesers or their affiliates were revealed to have been distributing contraceptives. Boeselager complained to his friends and the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, announced that a “commission” would be appointed to investigate the matter. Boeselager also went to the press, complaining that he had been accused of being “a liberal Catholic” and failing to either believe or uphold Catholic moral teaching.
The business is complicated, however, because it involves a few very ancient artifacts and legal realities of Catholic life unfamiliar to our modern, egalitarian mindset; mainly that the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta is no mere charitable aid organisation in the modern sense. Nor is it just a religious order that can be suppressed at a papal whim.
Boeselager was removed from his office of Chancellor not only because he had allowed the distribution of contraceptives, but, much more seriously, because he had attempted to cover up his complicity and had refused a direct order from both his religious superior and from his sovereign lord, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra. Matthew Festing.
Most North Americans have more or less forgotten all about feudalism, and think of kings and queens and knights as relegated to the pages of fairy tales. But, though the form is almost extinct, the Knights of Malta – founded in the 11th century to help pilgrims in the Holy Land – remain today a legal entity equivalent to a state, a country, though one without very much territory; hence the word “sovereign” in the name. The three main officers, the Grand Master, the Chancellor and the Grand Commander, all carry Knights of Malta passports that are recognised by 120 countries all over the world.
To get an idea of what sort of thing the Knights are, it is noteworthy that the correct form of address for Fra. (meaning “brother”) Matthew Festing, is “His Most Eminent Highness, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.” His official residence, the Palazzo Malta in Rome, is recognised by the Italian government as “extraterritoriale,” meaning it is officially a separate country from Italy. And from the Holy See.
This means that an attempt by Secretary of State of the Holy See – another sovereign state – to interfere with the internal governance of the Knights would be roughly the equivalent of the Obama administration appointing a commission to investigate the internal decisions of the government of Canada. The Knights have traditionally been extremely protective of their sovereignty, a legal status that makes it possible for them to serve throughout the world independent of any governments. And that is precisely what the Knights have told Pietro Parolin: mind your own business.
In a terse and bluntly worded statement issued December 23rd, the Knights said, “The replacement of the former Grand Chancellor is an act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence. The aforementioned appointment [of the commission] is the result of a misunderstanding by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.
“The Grand Master respectfully clarified the situation yesterday evening in a letter to the Supreme Pontiff, laying out the reasons why the suggestions made by the Secretariat of State were unacceptable.”
How does this concern the conflict between the pope and the Dubia of the four cardinals? Readers will remember that after the first Synod on the Family, Pope Francis removed Cardinal Burke from his position as head of the Apostolic Signatura and made him the Cardinal Patron of the Knights of Malta, a position he clearly thought would mean he had heard the last of this troublesome priest.
But it is possible that Francis had also failed to really understand the Knights, or the spiritual fortitude of their Cardinal Patron. From this new office, Cardinal Burke has become the de facto leader of the opposition to the doctrinal wreckovation under way with the publication of Amoris Laetitia. It seems clear that with Burke’s statement that a formal correction is coming after Epiphany on the AL affair, Bergoglio thought he could make a lateral move to discredit or silence him through an attack on the Knights, particularly by threatening to seize their property.
So far, the main media attention on the issue has come from Nicole Winfield at the Associated Press and Christopher Lamb at the notoriously anti-doctrinal UK magazine the Tablet.
In her piece for AP, later substantially reproduced without a byline at John Allen’s Crux, Winfield has used all the usual mainstream secular media tricks to create a certain impression. The Knights are called “the conservative Catholic religious order that dates from the medieval Crusades,” who “forcibly ousted” Boeselager. But the piece is curiously devoid of any mention of their status as a sovereign entity, independent of the Holy See or of Boeselager’s wrongdoing.
The only quotes come from Boeselager and two anonymous sources in the Order. Winfield’s mention of Burke’s role in the Dubia/Amoris Laetitia debate uses heavily biased language. Burke is a “conservative” and a “hard liner,” and Francis is the pope in the white hat attempting to create a more “flexible approach” for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Winfield declined to mention Boeselager’s attempt to cover up his actions and his outright refusal to obey a direct order to resign from his religious superior and sovereign. Instead, she lays the groundwork for an accusation of mendacity against Cardinal Burke and the Grand Master. Quoting only Boeselager’s statement, she writes, “During the meeting, the order’s grand master indicated that the request to resign ‘was in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See.’
“However, no such request was ever made. Von Boeselager said since his ouster, the Holy See has written to the order ‘confirming that such a wish was never raised.’”
But Winfield has not, apparently, thought to ask to see this letter, being apparently willing to take Boeselager’s word for its contents – or even its existence – and report the claim as indisputable fact. So far, none of Winfield’s informants have made public any letter from the Holy See backing their claims.
Indicating that she has read the statement from the Order, Winfield continues, “On Dec. 15, a new grand chancellor was elected, John Edward Critien.” She adds that Boeselager has refused to accept the new appointment, believing himself to still be “the duly elected grand chancellor, albeit one who has been impeded from doing his job because of an ouster that violated the order’s legal norms on several fronts.”
“He said he has always felt bound by the teachings of the church and rejected the ‘liberal’ label that his opponents have given him,” Winfield writes.
“‘To contrive an accusation that I do not acknowledge the church’s teaching on sexuality and the family, based on the sequence of events in the Malteser International Myanmar project, is absurd,’ the statement said.”
The re-post of the article by Crux adds their more unabashed editorial opinion, “The order has been in the news most recently because of its divisive papal envoy, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch-conservative whom Francis removed as head of the Vatican’s supreme court.”
And here we get to the heart of the issue: Boeselager has used media with blatantly anti-doctrinal, “liberal” biases to accuse the Grand Master and Burke of having concocted a tale that Pope Francis supported his removal. All the while, indignantly complaining that he has been unjustly accused of being a “liberal Catholic.” (Moreover, it does not seem that he is bothering to deny having allowed the distribution of condoms in Myanmar, an issue that is almost being lost in the flurry of accusations. Indeed, Winfield notes that “Boeselager admitted he knew about the condoms.”)
Winfield digs in, writing, “By naming an independent commission to look into the case, Francis appears to be seeking an objective assessment of von Boeselager and his ouster without the input of Burke, who has been among Francis’ fiercest critics.”
To underline the thesis that Boeselager’s removal was unlawful, and that the Grand Master and Burke are liars, she adds, “Burke had conveyed to the Order of Malta’s governing council on Dec. 6 that Francis wanted von Boeselager to resign, the two people familiar with the case said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about internal meetings.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Winfield notes that, in addition to a “trusted Jesuit canon lawyer” the five members of the commission Francis (not, notably, the Secretary of State) has appointed are Knights of Malta members “who have close ties to the German-born von Boeselager.”
As one would expect from the magazine known for its unconcealed anti-doctrinal bias, the Tablet starts off forthrightly accusing Burke of being “the arch-conservative”. However, the information and approach of the piece by the Tablet’s Rome correspondent Christopher Lamb, is essentially the same.
Whether he intended to do so, Christopher Lamb also makes it clear that this is not really a disagreement over the Knights and their decisions – or even about the Church’s teaching on contraceptives – but a brazen attempt to silence or discredit Burke over the Dubia.
“But Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who has threatened to formally correct the Pope unless his ‘dubia’ receive a response, is now facing some scrutiny of his own after the sacking of a senior Knight of Malta, Albrecht von Boeselager, in a row about the distribution of condoms.
“Now that Pope Francis has set up an inquiry into the matter Cardinal Burke has the following questions to answer: on what grounds did he claim the Holy See’s authority in dismissing Boeselager? Did he consult anyone inside the Vatican before Boeselager was dismissed? Did he consult Pope Francis? And if not, why not?”
In the face of this flurry of disinformation, the Order issued a media release December 12th, saying that Boeselager has indeed been removed, and replaced, and that this was a disciplinary response to his participation in scandal and disobedience.
During a meeting on December 6th, attended by Cardinal Burke and the Grand Commander, Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, Boeselager was confronted with his attempts to cover up his activities and refused to resign. This left the Grand Master “no choice but to order him, under the Promise of Obedience, in presence of the Grand Commander and the Cardinal Patronus, to resign.”
“Boeselager refused again. Thus, the Grand Commander, with the backing of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council and most members of the Order around the world, initiated a disciplinary procedure after which a member can be suspended from membership in the Order, and thus all Offices within the Order.”
It is clear that Winfield had seen this statement, having cited the last part in which the Grand Master asked all members of the Order to remain in unity. What she didn’t report was that Boeselager had been removed for his attempt to “conceal” his involvement in wrongdoing.
“The reason for his removal as Grand Chancellor was due to 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.
“It has to be noted that, for any member of the Order, to refuse a command of the Grand Master – regardless of the reasons behind it – is disgraceful. However, for a member in Obedience to refuse an order under the Promise betrays a disregard for the Order’s spirituality and laws, his Religious Superior and Sovereign, and for the Holy Father’s representative to the Order who was supporting the Grand Master in his decision.”
It is important to understand that Cardinal Burke attended the meeting as the Pope’s trusted and lawfully appointed representative, and that this is at the centre of Boeselager’s accusations and the motivation for the investigation by the Holy See. The question being investigated, therefore, is not whether Boeselager was lawfully removed but whether Burke lied about the Pope’s support for it. Note that this support for the decision from the Pope is explicitly indicated in the Order’s statement above.
Added to the mix is the statement from Winfield’s two anonymous informers in the Order that Burke had warned the Grand Master that the Pope could seize the Order’s property if they didn’t remove Boeselager: “Burke had conveyed to the Order ofMalta’s governing council on Dec. 6 that Francis wanted von Boeselager to resign, the two people familiar with the case said…Burke warned that if von Boeselager wasn’t removed, the Vatican would take over the order’s properties, they said.”
Given the legally sovereign status of the Knights of Malta, this threat is extremely doubtful, and it is difficult to see why it would have been made, either by Boeselager’s supporters within the Order or by the Pope. It has given rise to comments around the internet that the Knights of Malta could be facing the kind of extinction and seizure suffered by the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, and perhaps this was the impression intended either by Francis (if it is true) or the anonymous informants (if not).
What almost certainly can be taken away from all this is that there is a faction at work both in the Knights of Malta and the Vatican feeding what amounts to propaganda to their chosen press mouthpieces in the press. These have chosen to omit or downplay crucial elements – Boeselager’s admission that he knew about the condoms; that he attempted to cover up his wrongdoing; that he refused a lawful order to resign; that the Order of Malta is not legally subject to investigation by the Holy See.
And most importantly for the larger issues in the Church, they have used the incident as a launch pad for attacking Cardinal Burke, strongly implying that he has lied to the Knights of Malta about the pope’s intentions and support for removing Boeselager. The threat about the Order’s property – whether genuine or not – adds to the general impression that the Pope has the power to wipe out this ancient and illustrious military order, and is willing to do so if they refuse his commands.
The speculation in Rome now is that Francis deliberately sent Cardinal Burke into that meeting with a mandate to remove Boeselager – including the threat against the Order’s property – that he intended to back out of, like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. This is supported by the stacking of the commission with Boeselager’s partisans in the Order.
If nothing else, a careful examination of this incident, and meticulous scrutiny of the way it is being reported and by whom, lends an opportunity to see exactly how the current occupant of the Throne of Peter operates. We have seen that he typically acts through subterfuge and deflection, never acting or speaking plainly and by using proxies – especially sympathetic media – to create an atmosphere of chaos, disorder and confused suspicion.
As a friend of mine with close ties to the Curia said, “This was clearly a trap set up by Bergoglio for Burke, and is of a piece with his usual mode of operation.” Certainly reports from the archdiocese of Buenos Aires from the earliest days of this pontificate have said that their former archbishop was well known for his vindictive actions against those he perceived as political enemies. These actions are said to have included blackmail as well as the kind of dirty tricks we can see being played out here. From the start, Bergoglio has used this now-predictable methodology, that clearly worked well within the parochial confines of a Latin American dictatorship.
But the indications are growing that these kinds of methods do not succeed so well in the much larger – and more transparent – world of the Catholic Church. We can hope with some confidence, moreover, that he has severely underestimated his own man, and with their December 23rd statement, that the grownups in the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta are more than equal to the challenge.
 The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are rapidly losing their usefulness in the current discussions. It seems that the forces currently at work in the Vatican and elsewhere are opposed to Catholic doctrine, so “anti-doctrinal” seems more appropriate. We’ll try using them, and see if they serve the cause of clarity.