Knights say investigation is aimed at limiting order's sovereignty

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 released on Tuesday, the Knights called the investigation legally “irrelevant” and aimed at limiting its sovereignty. It insisted that the ousting 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 on December 8 after he refused a demand by the top Knight, Fra’ Matthew Festing, to resign over revelations that the order’s charity branch distributed tens of thousands of condoms in Burma under his watch.

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

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Boeselager has said Fra’ Matthew — in the presence of 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.

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 Fra’ Matthew committed a series of legal and procedural errors in demanding his resignation that violated the order’s constitution.

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

The pro-life 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 programmes.

Members sympathetic to Boeselager, meanwhile, have denounced what they consider a coup and reminded Fra’ Matthew 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 December 22 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.