Knights of Malta refuse to as­sist ‘ir­rel­e­vant’ pa­pal probe

Malta Independent - - NEWS - Ni­cole Win­field

The Knights of Malta, the an­cient Catholic lay or­der, is re­fus­ing to co­op­er­ate with a Vat­i­can in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sack­ing of a top of­fi­cial over a con­dom scan­dal — and is warn­ing its mem­bers to toe the line if they choose to speak with in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

In a state­ment, the Knights called Pope Fran­cis’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion legally “ir­rel­e­vant” and aimed at lim­it­ing its sovereignty.

It in­sisted that the ouster of its grand chan­cel­lor, Al­brecht von Boe­se­lager, was an act of in­ter­nal gov­er­nance that in no way in­volves re­li­gious su­pe­ri­ors.

The or­der told its mem­bers that if they speak with Vat­i­can-ap­pointed in­ves­ti­ga­tors, they can­not con­tra­dict the de­ci­sion of the or­der’s lead­er­ship to re­place Boe­se­lager.

Boe­se­lager was sus­pended 8 De­cem­ber after he re­fused a de­mand by the top Knight, Matthew Fest­ing, to re­sign over rev­e­la­tions that the or­der’s char­ity branch dis­trib­uted tens of thou­sands of con­doms in Myan­mar un­der his watch.

Church teach­ing for­bids the use of ar­ti­fi­cial con­tra­cep­tion; Boe­se­lager has said he didn’t know about the con­dom dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram and even­tu­ally stopped it when he learned of it.

Boe­se­lager has said Fest­ing — in the pres­ence of con­ser­va­tive Car­di­nal Ray­mond Burke — in­di­cated that the Holy See wanted him to quit. But the Vat­i­can’s sec­re­tary of state, Car­di­nal Pi­etro Parolin, has since said the Pope wanted no such thing.

Burke, who is a top critic of Fran­cis’ but also the pon­tiff’s am­bas­sador to the Knights of Malta, is a hard­liner on en­forc­ing church teach­ing on sex­ual morals.

As a re­sult, the dis­pute in some way re­flects the broader ide­o­log­i­cal di­vi­sions in the Catholic Church that have in­ten­si­fied dur­ing Fran­cis’ pa­pacy, which has em­pha­sized the mer­ci­ful side of the church over its doc­tri­naire side.

In a more nar­row sense, though, the scan­dal within the an­cient aris­to­cratic Catholic group is about a power strug­gle and the pos­si­bly ques­tion­able ap­pli­ca­tion of prom­ises of obe­di­ence within a re­li­gious or­der.

As a sec­ond-class knight, Boe­se­lager promised obe­di­ence to his su­pe­rior. But Boe­se­lager has said church law doesn’t re­quire him to obey an act that vi­o­lates the Knights’ own con­sti­tu­tion. He main­tains that Fest­ing com­mit­ted a se­ries of le­gal and pro­ce­dural er­rors in de­mand­ing his res­ig­na­tion that vi­o­lated the or­der’s con­sti­tu­tion.

Fest­ing and Burke’s al­lies have jus­ti­fied the ouster by ar­gu­ing that Boe­se­lager’s re­fusal to obey Fest­ing was “dis­grace­ful” and that the con­dom scan­dal rep­re­sented an ir­re­deemable breach.

The con­ser­va­tive, anti-abor­tion Lepanto In­sti­tute, for ex­am­ple, com­piled a de­tailed dossier of United Na­tion’s re­ports that showed the or­der’s Mal­teser In­ter­na­tional group dis­trib­uted thou­sands of con­doms through anti-HIV and fam­ily plan­ning pro­grams.

Mem­bers sym­pa­thetic to Boe­se­lager, mean­while, have de­nounced what they con­sider a coup and re­minded Fest­ing that he, too, took a vow of obe­di­ence: to the pope. They welcome the Vat­i­can’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but canon lawyers have cau­tioned that the sov­er­eign na­ture of the Knights of Malta makes Vat­i­can in­ter­ven­tion prob­lem­atic.

The Or­der of Malta has many trap­pings of a sov­er­eign state. It is­sues its own stamps, pass­ports and li­cense plates and holds diplo­matic re­la­tions with 106 states, the Holy See in­cluded.

But in its 22 De­cem­ber an­nounce­ment of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the Vat­i­can cited its sta­tus as a “lay re­li­gious or­der” that is at the service to “the faith and the Holy Fa­ther.”

The knights trace their his­tory to the 11th cen­tury with the es­tab­lish­ment of an in­fir­mary in Jerusalem that cared for pil­grims of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 mem­bers and 100,000 staff and vol­un­teers who pro­vide health care in hos­pi­tals and clin­ics around the world.

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