Pope Francis talks with Fra Matthew Festing, grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 2016. Bob Brehl says there's more to the tension between the Vatican and Malta than meets the eye. CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool

Comment: More to Malta Affair than meets the eye

  • February 2, 2017

One must wonder whether the rather bizarre clash between the Vatican and the Knights of Malta — a Catholic humanitarian organization with diplomatic ties to more than 100 countries — is really about distributing condoms as part of an aid project.

Or are the condoms a red herring and the real story is part of a Machiavellian plan by conservative Catholic leaders — one American cardinal, in particular — to undermine Pope Francis and his reforms?

No one from the Vatican or the order is talking — officially — but many things point to the latter. One thing is abundantly clear: This smiling, inclusive and pastoral Pope is not afraid to use an iron fist when defiance trumps dialogue.

The “Malta Affair” has been dubbed a soap opera by European media. With its many twists and turns — even a link to the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler in 1944 — it almost reads like a John le Carré or Len Deighton novel.

It started in early December when Albrecht von Boeselager, second in command of the Knights of Malta, was fired by his then-boss Matthew Festing, the British Grand Master of the ancient Catholic order, in a row over condoms being distributed to combat HIV in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Von Boeselager, whose father Philipp was part of the famous failed Hitler assassination plot called Operation Valkyrie, claimed he was wrongly dismissed and appealed to the Vatican.

The sacking apparently struck a nerve with the Vatican, partly because it was unexpected, but also because Raymond Burke, an American cardinal who has clashed publicly with Pope Francis on social issues, is the Church’s envoy to the order. Tongues began to wag over his role in the firing.

For context, the pontiff demoted Burke from a top Vatican job in 2014 with no official explanation and assigned him to be the “patron” of the Order of Malta.

Such patron positions are typically given to older cardinals after they retire at 75, but Burke is only 68.

Burke has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Pope and a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump for his positions on abortion and immigration, as The Register has reported recently. In November, Burke also led a rare public papal challenge with three other cardinals and accused the pontiff of sowing confusion on various issues such as communion for the divorced.

Meanwhile, before Christmas the Pope set up a special commission to investigate von Boeselager’s firing. Festing, the Grand Master elected for life, resisted the probe and refused to cooperate on the grounds the order is sovereign and independent of the Church.

He even issued a series of increasingly defiant public statements. In one, he called the investigating papal commission “legally irrelevant.” This clearly irritated Pope Francis and he continued to press. Vatican watchers claimed the real reason for von Boeselager’s firing was that Festing and Burke viewed him as too progressive and too loyal to Francis.

In the end, Festing caved at the end of January, becoming the first Grand Master to resign since 1799. Von Boeselager has been reinstated to his former position, an interim Grand Master has been appointed until an election, and the charitable organization will be under the jurisdiction of a special papal delegate, who will be appointed by Francis.

And just after this unfolded, more information leaked out indicating acrimony between Burke and the pontiff. Reuters news agency reported that “the day after Festing handed his resignation to the Pope, Burke drove to the order’s headquarters from his apartment near the Vatican and sought to persuade Festing to withdraw his resignation, a source from the Vatican and one from the Knights said.”

If this is accurate, it shows deep strains of discontent and disloyalty within the Church. In the end, Pope Francis won the battle and sent a warning that there are consequences for open disloyalty. But at what price?

The Order of Malta was founded in 1048 to provide medical aid for pilgrims and Crusaders in the Holy Land. Over 1,000 years, it has grown into an organization that cares for the sick and the poor in around 120 countries, managing hospitals and health centres and working in war zones and regions hit by natural disasters. It has 13,000 members, 80,000 volunteers and 20,000 paid medical staff.

No doubt, in part due to this good work, the Order of Malta holds the status of a sovereign entity, issuing its own passports, stamps and license plates from its Rome headquarters. It also has observer status at the United Nations.

One can only hope this clash has not damaged its image so that it negatively impacts things like donations, membership and volunteers. Another question is just how deep and determined is the opposition to Pope Francis?

As John Allen, editor of Catholic news site Crux, told the Financial Times: “It will be taken as an index of Francis’ determination not to be cowed by his critics, and not just when it comes to the Knights of Malta. It also confirms what we’ve always known, which is that Francis has a stubborn streak. He may consult widely beforehand, but once he’s made a decision, there’s generally no turning back and no reconsideration.”

It will be interesting to see what news Burke, who remains the order’s patron, is tied to in the coming weeks and months.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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