Disorder in the Order of Malta

Last month’s dismissal of the order’s grand chancellor by its grand master, over the order’s involvement in the distribution of artificial contraceptives, has precipitated a serious rift with the Holy See.

Order of Malta flag
Order of Malta flag (photo: Jack Taylor / Getty Image News)

VATICAN CITY — The dismissal of a senior figure in the Sovereign Order of Malta over the distribution of contraceptives in parts of the developing world has provoked a serious rift between the Knights of Malta and the Holy See, but one both parties hope will be swiftly resolved.

The dispute, which has led to a controversial intervention by the Holy See, has exposed a divergent approach to dealing with practices that the Church has always taught to be gravely immoral. It has also revealed allegations of ambitions of the Knights’ German association to extend its influence within the ancient chivalric order, a papal wish to rid the order of Freemasonry, and a mysterious 120 million Swiss Franc ($118 million) donation to the Knights.

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.

American Cardinal Raymond Burke is the order’s cardinal patron, whose task it is to promote relations between the Holy See and the Knights and to keep the Holy Father informed about spiritual and religious aspects of the order.

The ongoing wrangle, which Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has described as an “unprecedented crisis,” first became public after the grand master of the Knights of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, dismissed Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager as grand chancellor (the order’s third-ranking official) on Dec. 6, accusing him of being ultimately responsible for the distribution of contraceptives through the order’s humanitarian agency, Malteser International.

Despite having taken a promise of obedience to the grand master as a knight of the “Second Class,” the long-serving German-born knight refused to step down at the Dec. 6 meeting, an act of insubordination that the order called “disgraceful” and which prompted a “disciplinary procedure” that suspended Boeselager from all offices of the Knights of Malta, according to a Dec. 13 statement. The Order of Malta’s constitution states that obedience in the order involves the obligation to execute any instruction as lawfully given by the superior, dependent on the motivation of that instruction.


Condoms Distributed

The reasons for Boeselager’s dismissal primarily date back to when he was grand hospitaller from 1989 to 2014 and in charge of Malteser International, the Knights’ large humanitarian aid agency located in 24 countries. During his tenure, the organization is documented to have distributed thousands of condoms and oral contraceptives, mainly but not exclusively to help prevent prostitutes in the Far East and Africa from contracting HIV/AIDS.

“They were giving the condoms not only to patients, but also to aid workers in general,” an informed source told the Register on condition of anonymity. “The ostensible motivation was to prevent the spread of AIDS, and then, in general, as a program for family planning, too — birth spacing and that kind of thing, which you can hardly say had to do with AIDS.”

At the end of 2014, the grand master became aware of the issue; and in May of 2015, Fra’ Festing appointed a three-person commission to find out what happened. The commission produced its findings in January 2016; the issue of contraceptive distribution has been further catalogued more recently by the Lepanto Institute, showing that thousands of contraceptives were issued from 2005 to 2012.

Boeselager had been aware of the issue for some time and was first informed of this situation “at least since 2013, when he held the position of grand hospitaller, or from when Malteser International had ordered a comprehensive evaluation of all projects regarding their conformity with the teaching of the Catholic Church,” said Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, communications director for the Knights of Malta. “Since the end of 2014, and up until December 2016, there have been numerous occasions when the grand master and Albrecht Boeselager had discussed the affair.”

The spokesman underscored that the commission “recognized the professionalism of Malteser International and the importance of its projects in 24 countries around the world, stressing that those who have raised a moral issue were limited to Myanmar, Kenya and South Sudan.”


Boeselager Responds

In a Dec. 23 statement, Boeselager protested that there were no valid grounds to resign and that an “established procedure” for his removal wasn’t followed. He also criticized an instruction from the grand master, saying his directive that members not in agreement with his decision should resign was “reminiscent of an authoritarian regime.”

On the contraceptive issue, the former grand chancellor said the distribution of condoms in Myanmar to prevent the spread of AIDS was “initiated at a local level” and “without the knowledge” of Malteser International headquarters. As soon as the order learned of the condom distribution, two of the projects were immediately halted. A third continued, he said, because an abrupt end to the project would have deprived a poor region of Myanmar of all basic medical services. That project eventually ended after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith intervened.

Boeselager said that he has always stressed “most clearly” that he feels “bound by the teachings of the Church” and that to “contrive an accusation” that he did not acknowledge the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the family, based on the events in Myanmar, was “absurd.”

However, an Austrian component of Malteser International continues to advocate condom use to prevent HIV infection on its website, even though the Church teaches the use of contraceptives is “gravely immoral” in any circumstances.

Hopes that the contraceptive scandal would be addressed came on Nov. 10, when Cardinal Burke was received in private audience by Pope Francis. During that meeting, the Register has learned, the Pope was “deeply disturbed” by what the cardinal told him about the contraceptive distribution. The Pope also made it clear to Cardinal Burke that he wanted Freemasonry “cleaned out” from the order, and he demanded appropriate action.

The concern was followed up by a Dec. 1 letter to Cardinal Burke, in which the Register has learned that the Holy Father underlined the cardinal’s constitutional duty to promote the spiritual interests of the order and remove any affiliation with groups or practices that run contrary to the moral law.

The Holy Father did not explicitly ask in the letter that Boeselager be dismissed, and, contrary to reports, Cardinal Burke has insisted that he would never have told Boeselager that the Pope had specifically asked for his dismissal. Rather, inside sources are at pains to point out that the Knights’ leadership could not see how the matter could be otherwise rectified, when great scandal was involved and no one was taking responsibility for it. The leadership believed it was clear that Boeselager was principally responsible for what had happened, especially when, during the Dec. 6 meeting, he gave no reply when asked why he did not formally protest the accuracy of the commission report.

A reliable source also recalls Boeselager saying at a reception in Rome in 2014: “We have to give contraceptives to the poor or they will die.” Boeselager also reportedly did not reply when confronted with this remark at the Dec. 6 meeting.

The Knights’ leadership, including Cardinal Burke, were convinced that a grave violation of the moral law had been verified, and especially as it had been going on for a period of time, the persons responsible had to be disciplined; otherwise, the institution would lose its credibility.

Boeselager did not respond to a request from the Register to comment on matters related to his removal. 


Cardinal Parolin’s Intervention

After his dismissal, inside sources say that Boeselager went to Cardinal Parolin, erroneously telling him that he had been told by Cardinal Burke that the Pope had instructed him to resign.

Because he viewed the situation as an emergency, according to sources, Cardinal Parolin did not verify what was communicated to Boeselager by Cardinal Burke before writing a Dec. 12 letter to Fra’ Festing on behalf of the Holy Father. In it, he stressed that the Pope’s “only instructions” were those given to Cardinal Burke in his missive of Dec. 1.

“In particular, regarding the use and dissemination of methods and means contrary to the moral law, His Holiness asked that dialogue [his emphasis] be the approach used to address and resolve potential problems,” Cardinal Parolin wrote in the letter. “He never mentioned, conversely, expelling anyone.” The cardinal added that he hoped that dialogue would be used to “find a prudent way forward that is advantageous for all.”

In response, Fra’ Festing stressed that the decision he had taken was “fully in accordance with the instructions” relayed by Cardinal Burke and asked for an urgent meeting with Cardinal Parolin to find a way forward. At that meeting, Cardinal Parolin said he wanted to institute a commission to look into the issues surrounding the dismissal. The grand master and the leadership of the Knights refused such a commission, mainly due to the Knights’ sovereign status that prohibits such interference in its internal governance, according to international law.

The Knights’ leadership was under the impression that Cardinal Parolin had backed down from the idea.


The Commission of Enquiry

However, on Dec. 22, the grand master and Cardinal Burke received a letter from the Vatican communicating that a commission, or group, had been established; that the Pope’s instructions in his letter of Dec. 1 were to be halted; and that nothing more was to be done until the newly formed group had completed its work. The Vatican also informed the media the same day, although not in the daily Vatican news bolletino, but in an email, that the five-member body was aimed at quickly obtaining information about the dispute.

Asked if he wanted to share his views on the matter, Cardinal Burke told the Register: “I can’t make any comment on these decisions because I was never consulted. I was present at the dismissal.” But he added that what concerns him “very much” in the entire “unfortunate reaction to the grand master’s just action is the loss of the heart of what is at stake, namely, a grave violation of the Church’s moral teaching and, indeed, of the natural moral law by a high profile and historic Catholic institution.”

The five members of the commission of enquiry are Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s former observer to the United Nations in Geneva; Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University; Jacques de Liedekerke, a lawyer; Marc Odendall, an investment banker; and Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Order of Malta in Lebanon.

Apart from Father Ghirlanda, all those appointed to the group are members of the order, and most are known allies of Boeselager. Odendall is known to be particularly supportive of Boeselager, and Archbishop Tomasi is a good friend of Odendall, according to sources inside the order.

Furthermore, the Register has learned that Odendall, Sehnaoui and Archbishop Tomasi have been involved with Boeselager regarding a very large bequest to the order, made several years ago by a benefactor resident in France, worth at least 120 million Swiss Francs ($118 million). Cardinal Parolin is understood to have been aware of the bequest since at least March 2014.

The secretary of state is also known to be friends with Boeselager, and on Dec. 15, he appointed his brother, Georg Freiherr von Boeselager, as one of three new members of the board of the IOR (Vatican Bank).

The cardinal declined to answer a series of questions about Boeselager’s dismissal and the papal commission, telling the Register Jan. 2 it was “not opportune” to do so.


Order Rejects Commission

In a Jan. 3 letter to the Knights, the Order’s new grand chancellor, Fra’ John Critien, insisted that the order “cannot collaborate” with the papal commission, not only because of its “juridical irrelevance” with respect to the order’s legal system, but “above all” in order to “protect its sovereign prerogatives against initiatives in form objectively aimed at questioning or limiting its sovereign character.” The order had already publicly stated such “interference” is “unacceptable.”

He, therefore, stressed that lack of collaboration with the commission is purely for “juridical motivations” and is “not and can in no way be considered lack of respect towards the commission itself nor towards the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.”

Supporters of the commission have said one of the main reasons it was set up is because the Order of Malta’s national associations support Boeselager. This does not appear to be accurate, as the Register has seen letters of support for the grand master from various associations, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Chile and Malta.

On Jan. 4, Archbishop Tomasi replied to Fra’ Critien’s Jan. 3 letter, which he said “makes some statements whose inaccuracy creates misunderstandings” and “directly contradicts the wishes of the Holy Father.” According to the archbishop, the issue with respect to Boeselager’s dismissal “is not the sovereignty of the order, but the reasonable claim of questionable procedures and lack of proven valid cause for the action taken." Also, he said, “there has never been the request for the resignation or dismissal of anyone, on the part of the Holy See and especially of the Holy Father.”

“Regarding what Your Excellency calls the juridical irrelevance of the commission, the arguments used to replace the grand chancellor prompted its establishment by the Holy Father, since the perceived irregularity of the procedure has deeply divided the order,” Archbishop Tomasi stated.


Seeking a Resolution

Both the order and the Holy See are keen for the matter to be speedily resolved, and despite the protests from the order’s highest levels, the Vatican continues to view the papal commission, which had its first meeting Jan. 5, as the best way to achieve this.

In comments to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero Dec. 31, Cardinal Parolin said the commission would “gather information, and then we will see.”

This article is the first of two parts.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.