ROME – Just to be clear from the beginning, I have no insider information regarding the news now making the rounds about the Knights of Malta, either in terms of the factors that led to the ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager, the group’s chancellor, or Pope Francis’s decision to create a committee to look into the situation.
What I can say at a distance, however, is that for anyone familiar with the Vatican over a stretch of time, there are at least a couple of truly juicy ironies at work.
As has been widely reported, Boeselager was suspended Dec. 8 after refusing an order to resign over revelations that the order’s charity branch distributed thousands of condoms in Myanmar on his watch. Boeselager reportedly insisted that he didn’t know about the program, and stopped it when he learned of it.
Boeselager also said that the top Knight, Fra Matthew Festing, in the presence of the order’s patron, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, told him Pope Francis wanted him removed, although the Vatican has denied the pope was involved.
On Dec. 22, the Vatican announced Pope Francis had created a committee to examine the situation. The five members are Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, former permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N. in Geneva; Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a noted canonist and former rector of the Gregorian University; and laypeople Jacques de Liedekerke, Marc Odendall, and Marwan Sehnaoui.
In response, the Knights have declared, twice, that they won’t cooperate with the probe, asserting their status as a sovereign state under international law and insisting that nobody, including the pope, has the right to interfere in their internal governance.
That reaction has surprised many ordinary Catholics, plenty of whom probably didn’t even realize the order has sovereign status. Also, because the Knights are obviously a Catholic entity known for loyalty to the pope, rejecting his authority comes off as a counter-intuitive move.
Given Burke’s connection, many observers naturally assume their defiance is related to tensions between Pope Francis and some elements of the Catholic hierarchy, prominently including Burke, over Amoris Laetitia, communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and other fronts.
That may well be the case, but laying out the two ironies involved may also help explain why the Knights seem so caught off guard.
First, the Knights reasonably may have thought that if there’s any other outfit on earth that ought to be sensitive to the case for protecting its sovereignty, it would be the Vatican.
Over the decades, “sovereignty” has been akin to mom and apple pie in the Vatican in terms of time-honored, cherished values. For instance, the Vatican insists that countries with which it has diplomatic relations designate a separate ambassador rather than relying on their envoys to Italy, on the grounds that it has to be clear the Holy See is its own state.
The Holy See also asks those countries to maintain separate embassies, in order to underline the same point.
Whenever the Holy See has been sued in the United States, whether it’s a commercial dispute or cases related to the clerical sexual abuse scandals, it has ferociously (and successfully) invoked its sovereignty as a shield against judgments in American courts.
Most recently, when Australian Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, signed a contract with Pricewaterhouse Coopers to conduct an external audit, that deal was suspended and eventually dropped, in part on the grounds that PwC would have unacceptable levels of access to the Vatican’s sovereign data.
As a result, it’s possible the Knights thought that once they played the “sovereignty” card, the conversation would be over. Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Here’s the second irony: Over the years, whenever someone in the Catholic Church has lost his or her job for alleged involvement in an overseas charitable operation that somehow got caught distributing birth control, it’s been a pretty good bet that someone in the Vatican was behind the pressure to act.
Concern for making sure that Catholic charities don’t do anything contrary to Church teaching, for instance, was a large part of why the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 2012 issued a new set of rules for Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based federation of Catholic charities.
Among other points, those rules required the top officials of Caritas to make promises of loyalty before a Vatican official, including “Christian obedience” to church leaders. They also specified that Cor Unum, the Vatican department overseeing charity work, must approve any cooperative agreements between Caritas and non-governmental organizations, except in cases of dire humanitarian emergencies.
In the past, Caritas had been criticized for entering into agreements with NGOs whose approach to issues such as population control differs from that of the Catholic church.
Once again, therefore, the Knights may have assumed that if they acted against an official alleged to have done precisely what Caritas got into hot water for four years ago, the power structure in the Vatican would not only have their back, but applaud.
None of this, to be clear, is intended as either a defense or a criticism of the Knights’ reaction, and it’s well above my pay grade to adjudicate whether concepts such as “sovereignty” even apply in this case.
However, if nothing else, perhaps one can feel a degree of sympathy for a group that may be caught in the same sense of vertigo about role reversals in the Vatican that other sectors of the Church, in their own ways, have also been feeling in the Pope Francis era.