Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family”, published by Ignatius Press. Follow him on Twitter @edwardpentin
Wikileaks today published a confidential letter confirming that Pope Francis strongly opposed the Order of Malta distributing contraceptives as part of its humanitarian work and that he wished the issue be “completely resolved.”
In the letter, dated Dec. 1, 2016, and addressed to Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Order of Malta, the Holy Father stressed that the Order “must ensure that the methods and means it uses in its initiatives and healthcare works are not contrary to the moral law.”
He added that if, “in the past, there has been a problem of this nature, I hope that it can be completely resolved.”
The Pope was referring to the findings of an investigation by the Order, published in January 2016, which documented that Malteser International, the Knights’ large humanitarian aid agency, had distributed thousands of condoms and oral contraceptives, mainly to help prevent prostitutes in the Far East and Africa from contracting HIV/AIDS, but also as a program for family planning.
This had taken place while Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager was grand hospitaller (1989—2014) and ultimately responsible for the work of Malteser International. Boeselager had been made aware of the issue at least since 2013, according to the Order, but was accused of taking inadequate action — an accusation he disputed.
In his Dec. 1 letter, the Pope told Cardinal Burke he would be “very disappointed if — as you told me — some of the high Officers were aware of practices such as the distribution of any type of contraceptives and have not yet intervened to end such things.”
“I have no doubts,” the Pope continued, “that by following the principles of Paul and ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15), the matter can be discussed with these Officers and the necessary rectification obtained.”
The letter was written in response to an earlier, Nov. 10 private audience between the Pope and Cardinal Burke.
The Register learned at the time that Pope was “deeply disturbed” by what the cardinal told him about the contraceptive distribution. Francis had also made it clear during that meeting that he wanted Freemasonry “cleaned out” from the order, and demanded appropriate action.
Francis made an oblique reference to that in the Dec. 1 letter, writing that members of the Order “must avoid secular and frivolous behaviour, such as membership of associations, movements and organisations which are contrary to the Catholic faith or of a relativist nature.”
If any Knights are members of these groups, the Pope went on, they “should be asked to remove themselves from the Order, because their behaviour is incompatible” with the faith and membership of the Order.
Based on these strong words of the Pope, on Dec. 6, Cardinal Burke and then-Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, confronted Boeselager and ordered him to step down — an order he twice resisted, leading to him being forcibly dismissed for insubordination (unlawfully, according to Boeselager) using a disciplinary procedure.
About a week later, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, then expressed his disapproval of the dismissal, saying the Pope had asked for “dialogue” to be used and had never called for the expulsion of anyone.
Some alleged Cardinal Burke had told Boeselager that the Pope had instructed him to tell him to resign, but the cardinal firmly denied this.
In a separate confidential letter to Fra’ Matthew, dated Dec. 6, 2016, and also revealed today by Wikileaks, Cardinal Burke wrote that the Pope requested “necessary vigilance” over the works of the Order, “especially the purification of a mundane spirit and of the use of methods and means contrary to the moral law.”
He asked for the grand master’s “fullest cooperation lest the Holy Father find it necessary to address directly his concerns through a visitation of the Order.”
Following the dismissal of Boeselager, the then-former grand chancellor appealed to Pope Francis leading to Cardinal Parolin forming a five-member commission of inquiry. Three of the members were linked to a mysterious $118 million fund in Geneva (as was Boeselager), and one Fra’ Matthew said was a known Freemason — according to a separate document published today by Wikileaks.
The leadership of the Order resisted the commission largely on the grounds that it interfered with the Order’s sovereignty, but on Jan. 23, 2016, the Pope asked Fra’ Matthew to resign which he agreed to do immediately. All the earlier decrees dating back to Dec. 6 were annulled and Boeselager was reinstated as grand chancellor on Jan. 28. The Pope subsequently appointed Cardinal Angelo Becciu as special delegate to represent the Holy See to the Order, supplanting Cardinal Burke’s role.
Wikileaks’ publication of the Pope’s letter and other documents today has brought some clarity to the Pope’s approach at that time over the contraceptive issue — an approach that, on paper at least, was clearly allied to that of Cardinal Burke.
But many questions relating to this troubled chapter in the Order’s history remain unanswered, particularly why the Pope sided with Cardinal Parolin and Boeselager over Cardinal Burke and Fra’ Matthew, and the role the mysterious Swiss fund played in the affair.