The sacking of a senior member of the Order of Malta has sparked a crisis at the heart of the Catholic Church’s oldest and most illustrious military order.
Albrecht Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor, claims his dismissal was in “violation” of the Knights’ constitution, a claim that the Grand Master, Matthew Festing, strongly denies.
His dismissal has led senior members of the Order to accuse Festing of causing a constitutional crisis which can only be resolved with a specially arranged summit or an investigation by the Holy See.
A letter sent to Festing from the Procurator of the Grand Priory of Bohemia, a branch of the Knights based in Prague, says there would be “catastrophic repercussions” if the Grand Master was in breach of the Order’s rules. The letter, seen by The Tablet, goes on to argue that the dismissal of Boeselager “may well damage the order significantly” and calls for an “Extraordinary Chapter General” meeting in order to resolve the problem.
The 11th century order was founded at the time of the crusades when they were defenders of the Holy Land; today the Knights operate a global charitable network and as a sovereign entity have diplomatic relations with 102 countries, enjoying observer status at the United Nations.
Boeselager, a highly respected member of the Order, held the position of Foreign Minister and Interior Minister equivalent and previously had been heavily involved in the Knight’s charity work.
Speaking to The Tablet today the Grand Master, who is only the second Englishman to hold the post, said the dismissal was now a “matter between the Holy See and the Order”.
Explaining that the situation was “rather fluid at the moment”, he strongly denied claims that he had acted unconstitutionally.
The sacking of Boeselager has now involved Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Patron of the Order and the point of contact between the Knights and the Holy See. The arch-conservative was moved by Pope Francis to the largely ceremonial role from leading the Church’s supreme court.
It is not known what role, if any, the cardinal may have played in Boeselager’s sacking, but in an email sent to friends in the Order following his dismissal he said he was being accused of being “a liberal Catholic unwilling to accept the teaching of the Church”.
Sources inside the Order say his dismissal was over a row about condoms being distributed in Africa while Boeselager was in charge of the Order’s charitable work. But Festing said this issue had been resolved three years ago and the outgoing Grand Chancellor said the allegation that he does not accept Church teaching is “untrue and unjust”.
“I have given my life to the Order, and through this to the Church, and I have always clearly affirmed that I am faithful to the Church and its teaching,” Boeselager wrote in an email on Thursday, which has been seen by The Tablet.
The Order of Malta operates charitable work in 120 countries across the world employing tens of thousands of medical professionals and volunteers. It is a lay order made up of knights, dames and associated members but the most senior knights are quasi-monastic and celibate and known as “Fra”, an abbreviation of frater, meaning brother in latin.
The Grand Master, referred to as “His Most Eminent Highness”, is elected for life and has the rank of a cardinal (he cannot vote in a conclave, however).