New details have emerged about the public battle between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta which shine a light on the ongoing struggle between reformers and traditionalists inside the Church.
A crisis in the order was sparked when Albrecht von Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor, was dismissed from his post by the knights' former Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, ostensibly because it was discovered that he had allowed condoms to be distributed as part of the order's humanitarian work.
But The Tablet can report that von Boeselager, later reinstated, was viewed as an obstacle to the vision that the order’s patron Cardinal Raymond Burke had for the knights, while the German Grand Chancellor’s reform-minded approach to the order’s governance clashed with that of Fra’ Matthew.
The former Grand Master has revealed he consulted closely with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, including its former Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Muller, before going ahead with the dismissal of von Boeselager as his Prime Minister-equivalent. “I didn’t do all this on my own bat,” Fra’ Matthew told The Tablet during a telephone call.
But as Fra’ Matthew was consulting Cardinal Burke and the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, the Pope wrote to the cardinal saying that while that condoms must not be distributed the internal disagreements in the order should be resolved through dialogue.
This was also reiterated by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Holy See Secretary of State.
Sources inside the knights say the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were consulted about the case but never presented the order with any documentation nor did they meet with the Grand Chancellor.
On the 2 and 3 May, members of the order from around the world will gather in Rome for a crucial conclave-style election to choose a new leader.
Whoever takes charge of the knights will be tasked with continuing the major reform of the order called for by the Pope.
Founded in the 11th century, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is both a Catholic religious order and a sovereign entity running a global charitable enterprise, and has diplomatic relations with more than 100 states.
Their reform efforts come after Fra’ Matthew, who resigned in January 2017, had incorrectly told von Boeselager that the Vatican wanted him dismissed, a move that sparked a Holy See investigation and what the knights describe as a “constitutional crisis”.
An official timeline of events has now been released by the order. But the former Grand Master also says he was sure that both Cardinal Burke – a leading light for conservative Catholics, who was the Vatican's representative to the order – and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith believed it was right to dismiss von Boeselager. Cardinal Burke is a prominent critic of the Pope’s moves to allow communion to divorced and remarried Catholics while Cardinal Muller found himself at odds with the direction of Francis’ papacy, which he has criticised for lacking theological rigour.
Sources inside the order have told The Tablet that Cardinal Burke wanted the knights – which has an extensive international network – to become a platform to promote his traditionalist vision of Catholicism. And when von Boeselager was sacked he told friends he had been labelled as a “a liberal Catholic unwilling to accept the teaching of the Church”.
When asked for a response to the claims, a spokesman said Cardinal Burke “declined to comment”.
“I think it [the condoms] was a pretext,” the Grand Chancellor told The Tablet during an interview at the Knights' headquarters in the Via dei Condotti, Rome. “The root cause was an increasing difference of opinions between the former Grand Master and the government of the order. It was less a difference in fundamental visions about the order but more on quite concrete matters of governance.”
The Grand Chancellor said that updating the governance of the order, including ensuring the Grand Master governs more collegially, especially on financial matters, is now part of the reform agenda for the knights.
“The general hope or goal is to make the order fit for the future. Over the last almost 1,000 years the order has been able to reform or adapt itself in the course of that history, because it remained faithful to its mission,” he says. “The mission is expressed in the double motto "tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum", to witness, nurture and defend the faith and to serve the needy. One of the characteristics of the order is that these two things are inseparable. We cannot go to the poor without Christ, but we cannot follow Christ without going to the poor.”
Fra’ Matthew, only the second Englishman to lead the knights, says he didn’t feel he was in dispute with anyone but admitted there were “issues with the hospitaller works of the order going back many years which I felt had not been handled correctly.”
Von Boeselager had been Grand Hospitaller of the order, its charitable arm, when the condom distribution was discovered but he has strenuously denied that he knowingly allowed it to happen.
“We followed the teaching of the Church. I have repeated this several times. The condom distribution was discovered by Malteser International after an internal audit,” he stressed. The distribution, he explained, had taken place in three places. Two were stopped immediately while the other, in northern Myanmar, plans were put in place to hand the project over to another agency, which took some time.
The distribution of contraceptives was only a small part of a €2 million healthcare programme in a deprived part of the world known where prostitution was rife. The use of contraceptives for the purpose of preventing the spread of diseases has been defended as morally permissible by Catholic theologians, and in a 2010 interview Benedict XVI argued it would be legitimate for a male prostitute to use a condom to prevent the spread of aids. Francis has also suggested contraceptives are justified to stop diseases.
The distribution of condoms was discovered first in 2013. Fra’ Matthew says he immediately alerted the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Von Boeselager says that the initial inquiry by the order exonerated him as did the 2017 Holy See investigation. He says the knights are now working with the National Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
The condoms issue, sources in the order say, was dragged up in order to remove von Boeselager from his post, while burnishing the credentials of an order now committed to a traditionalist, non-negotiable enforcing of rules.
Fra’ Matthew said that whether von Boeselager sanctioned the distribution of condoms or not, he was in charge of a department that had, and therefore should have considered his position.
“In an Englishman’s book you at least offer to resign,” he said. It was only after Cardinal Burke was appointed that the issue came back on the agenda, with a group called the Lepanto Institute submitting a report about condom distribution to him at the end of November 2016.
Von Boeselager was sacked in early December.
Fra’ Matthew told The Tablet that he started to look more closely into the matter during the “second half of 2016.” While stressing the cardinal did not seek to influence him, the former Grand Master told The Tablet he was “absolutely clear” that the cardinal wanted Fra' Matthew to sack von Boeselager.
“He [the cardinal] didn’t give the go ahead, but he thought that it should happen,” Fra’ Matthew explains. “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were well aware what was going on. I took the trouble to consult them. Because I wanted to make sure that whatever I did had the blessing of the Church.”
He explained there were a “series of meetings” with the Vatican’s congregation, including at least one with Cardinal Muller. There was also an occasion, Fra’ Matthew explained, when officials from the congregation came to the knight’s headquarters on the Via dei Condotti to discuss the case. Cardinal Burke, now “de facto suspended” as patron, is believed to have his own distinctive vision for his role in the order.
“The cardinal hoped the order would assist him in promoting his view of the Church, a traditionalist view. He had higher expectations regarding his role than it was in reality; and he wanted more influence and more power than the position entailed,” a source inside the knights told The Tablet.
“The cardinal wanted the order to provide him with an office and a base. He also wanted a group of traditionalist priests to become professed priests of the order, although this wish was not granted.”
Fra’ Matthew emphasised that the cardinal never asked him for any financial assistance or for an office, and did not accept that Burke was pushing any agenda. But he added: “We all know Cardinal Burke’s view on things. And when the Cardinal Patronus says things you accept it in obedience to the Holy Father.”
Other sources say as patron the cardinal started regularly accepting invitations from individual members of the order to celebrate Mass in the Old Rite. At the same time Henry Sire, living in the Via dei Condotti palace in order to write a history of the knights.
According to the book’s publicity it stems from Mr Sire’s four years living in Rome where “he became personally acquainted with many figures in the Vatican, including cardinals and curial officials.”
“The Dictator Pope”, published last year as an e-book and re-released in a print edition on 23 April, alleges that Pope Francis governs in an autocratic, dictatorial style, while describing Fra’ Matthew as an “out and out traditionalist, in doctrinal and liturgical terms” who was at “loggerheads” with the “highly efficient” German faction in the order, represented by von Boeselager.
While the order say the book’s account is “biased”, Fra’ Matthew said that on a “swift reading” of the first edition it seemed “relatively accurate”.
Mr Sire stressed to The Tablet that he did not start writing the book until after Fra' Matthew had stepped down. The former Grand Master offers a simple explanation as to why he stepped down in early 2017.
“I resigned because the Pope asked me to resign. A good Catholic does what he’s told by the Pope,” Fra’ Matthew says. He explains that, health permitting, he will cast his vote in the upcoming elecitons. Those will take place on Rome’s Aventine Hill in another of the order’s properties. The acting leader of the knights, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, might be elected Grand Master or be asked to continue as the interim head for another year. The other option is that the knights choose someone else to lead them.
The Tablet will publish a more in-depth piece on reform inside the Order of Malta in the issue of 21 April.
Pic: A group of Knights of Malta chat on a terrace of the Order's Villa Magistrale (Villa del Priorato di Malta) on Rome's Aventine Hill before the election of the new lieutenant of the Grand Master. They elected a temporary leader during a period of reform after the last grand master was effectively ousted by Pope Francis. The new temporary leader is Fra' Giacomo Dalla Torre with the title of lieutenant of the grand master. Fra' Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, born on 1944, succeeds Fra' Matthew Festing, 79th Grand Master, who resigned in January 2017. Fifty-six knights eligible to cast ballots had to choose a leader from a pool that, according to the order's rules, must have taken religious vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and hail from noble lineage. The dismissals of the order's grand master Fra' Matthew Festing (in January 2017) and grand chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (in December 2016), over the order's involvement in the distribution of artificial contraceptives, has precipitated a serious rift with the Holy See. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a lay religious order headquartered in Rome dating back to the First Crusade. It has long defended the faith against persecution and been dedicated to helping care for the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, employing about 25,000 medical personnel and 80,000 volunteers worldwide. It is considered a sovereign subject under international law and has diplomatic relations with 106 countries. Photo by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM/PA