Pope’s interference with the Order of Malta raises questions regarding his loyalty to Church doctrine on sexual ethics

Last Saturday the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta has elected Frà Giacomo della Torre as Lieutenant ad interim for a period of one year, to replace former Grand Master Frà Matthew Festing who, despite having been elected for life time, stepped down in obedience to a request put to him personally by Pope Francis. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will resolve the current disputes within the ancient and noble Catholic order, which is to be considered the world’s oldest and most prestigious NGO. Instead, the crisis of the Maltese Order is increasingly transformed into a crisis of the Catholic Church as a whole, raising doubts regarding both the legality of, and the motivations behind, Pope Francis’s interference with what originally were the Order’s internal affairs.

At the origin of the crisis were allegations that the Order, which is sovereign under international law but bound by Catholic doctrine, had been distributing condoms and other contraceptives as a part of its humanitarian activities in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), in clear contradiction to natural law and Catholic moral teaching. The distribution of condoms is fashionable among NGOs working on public health issues, although it has been amply demonstrated that it does not help in preventing the propagation of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmissible diseases, but instead even has very palpable counter-productive effects. The main reason why NGOs nevertheless distribute condoms is that they want to use HIV/AIDS to argue that contraceptive practices can be useful and morally justifiable in certain circumstances, thus undermining the Church’s total ban on artificial contraception; once the ban is not “total” any more, it is hoped that the exceptions can be widened to include other techniques than condoms and other justifications than HIV/AIDS. Thus the true objective that is peing pursued here reaches far beyond resolving a public health emergency, which is just cynically used as a pretext. The reason why the Order of Malta (or rather its international NGO, “Malteser International”, which, as the name betrays, is largely controlled by the Order’s German Association) has involved itself in the peddling of condoms appears to be that this is a condition for having access to funding from the UN, the EU, and other mighty “donors”. Thus it seems that those large-scale “donors”, which essentially are handing out money collected from taxpayers, have been successful in corrupting what once was a Catholic charity, solidly rooted in sound moral reasoning.

The person who was identified as the main responsible inside the Order for accepting, or at least not preventing, this moral corruption was Albrecht von Boeselager, the Order’s Grand Chancellor. After having investigated the matter, the Order’s Supreme Officer, Grand Master Frà Matthew Festing, requested Boeselager to step down from his office, which Beselager however refused to do. As a reaction, Festing dismissed Boeselager from the Order. It was, however, unclear whether that step, although clearly consistent with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, was compatible with the Order’s own statute, which does not give the Grand Master explicit powers to dismiss the Grand Chancellor.

Despite being Catholic by inspiration, the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity under international law. The situation is comparable to a sovereign state that has adopted Catholicism as its State Religion. The Pope could in principle apply the sanctions provided for under Canon Law against the Head of State of any such country (as he might do with any other Catholic), but he has no powers to strip him of his office or order him to step down. (In that sense, the Order of Malta is clearly different from Catholic orders such as, say, the Benedictines, Dominicans, or Jesuits.)

Yet this is precisely what Pope Francis did: rather than backing Grand Master Frà Festing, whose actions – even while their legality was in doubt – were clearly motivated by his desire to preserve the Order’s compliance with sound Catholic doctrine, took the side of the condom peddler. He first announced the creation of a Pontifical Commission to investigate the ongoing conflict inside the Order of Malta – an act that was clearly incompatible with the Order’s status as a sovereign entity. When Grand Master Festing protested, he convened to a secret meeting in which he ordered him to step down as an act of “religious obedience”. Festing obeyed, and the Holy See immediately announced the Grand Master’s resignation – even though the Order’s Statute clearly provide that a Grand Master’s resignation must be addressed to, and accepted by, the Order’s own Sovereign Council. This was yet another clear violation of the Order’s sovereign status, and thus of international law. Even more extremely, the Holy See announced that all actions taken by the former Grand Master as from a certain cut-off date (namely the day before the dismissal of the condom peddling Grand Chancellor) were to be considered null and void.

These repeated and severe violations of another international body’s status as a sovereign entity under international law, which definitely reminds of the way in which Hitler treated Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg in 1938, or the way in which Brezhnev dealt with Czechoslovakia in 1968, will certainly soon backfire against the Holy See, which itself claims sovereignty not as a result of statehood (i.e. as the “State of Vatican City”), but as an entity sui generis on the basis of customary international law (the Holy See historically being one of the first institutions to systematically entertain diplomatic relations, and exchange ambassadors, with other sovereign powers, even before the term “sovereignty” was coined). But beyond the issue of sovereignty under international law, the question is: why does the Pope not support the person who is upholding Catholic doctrine, but instead intervene in favour of the person who is suspected of having knowingly and willingly undermined that doctrine? Albrecht von Boeselager was re-instated in his former functions, although in the meantime further evidence has surfaced that appears to corroborate his knowledge of, and involvement in, the distribution of contraceptives by Malteser International. This certainly raises questions regarding the Catholic Church’s loyalty to its own teachings.

But apparently the Pontiff’s plans for the Order of Malta reach far beyond. The decision to replace Frà Festing not with a new Grand Master but with a “Lieutenant ad interim”, which again appears to have been imposed on the formerly “sovereign” Order by the Pope’s representative, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, has the purpose of buying time in which to substantially reform the Order’s Statute. While that planned reform is touted as a “spiritual renewal”, it actually is a design to emancipate it from the control of those among its members who have taken religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (the so-called “Knights of Justice”, the category to which Frà Festing belongs), and to allow members with a lesser degree of engagement (such as von Boeselager) to be elected into the Order’s highest offices. Quite bizarrely, this is very much like evicting bishops and priests from the governance of the Church, and replacing them with laypersons…

Last week a document surfaced on the proposed direction of the reforms, apparently authored by Johannes Lobkowicz, Chancellor of the Grand Priory of Bohemia and brother of Erich Lobkowicz, who is head of the German association of the order. It explicitly calls for the breaking of the link between the fully professed religious and the governance of the order, thus supposedly widening the pool of candidates for higher offices – but paradoxically it also insists on the retention of the requirement of noble blood, which seems totally at odds with the supposed thrust of the reforms. Indeed, reserving the governance of the Order to persons of aristocratic lineage is certainly far more anachronistic than reserving it to persons who have made religious vows. On the other hand, retaining this requirement has obvious advantages for the (already very powerful) German association: while there are many noblemen in Germany, there are none in the United States, or Latin America, or other non-European countries…

The internal strife within the Order seems thus set to continue. A number of Knights have now petitioned the Pope to explain his actions and intentions, including with regard to their consistency with the Church’s moral teaching.