ROME—Adding another piece to the puzzle in the ongoing saga involving the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Vatican issued a statement Tuesday commending the work being done by the members of a committee created by Pope Francis to look into the order, and also not-so-subtly reminded the group that despite its sovereignty, it’s still a Catholic institution.
The statement says the Holy See wishes to “reiterate its support and encouragement” for the work being carried out by the members and volunteers around the world, “in fullfilment of the aims of the Order: tuitio fidei (the defense of the faith) and obsequium pauperum (service to the poor, the sick and those in greatest need).”
The following graph, however, says that for the support of that mission, the Holy See “reaffirms its confidence” in the five-member commission appointed by Pope Francis on Dec. 21 to “inform him about the present crisis” in the orders’ direction.
The feud began on Dec. 8, when the order decided to oust Albrecht von Boeselager, the group’s chancellor. Since then, many observers have pointed towards a scandal regarding the distribution of condoms in Myanmar as the reason for the move.
However, speaking to Catholic News Agency, Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, Communications Director for the Order, said on Jan. 12 that “the reasons for the dismissal are confidential,” but they are “more complex” than the contraception incident.
Boeselager has 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.
He’s currently fighting the firing at the Orders’ tribunal, claiming the process was invalid.
On Dec. 22, the Vatican announced 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.
Festing has also written a letter to the Knights members on Jan. 14 saying that there were “serious accusations of a conflict of interest” involving three of the five men appointed by Francis. As a result, he’s begun his own inquiry into the Vatican-appointed body.
However, in the statement released on Tuesday, the Vatican rejects, “based on the documentation in its possession, any attempts to discredit these Members of the Group and their work.”
The three-graph statement closes saying that the Holy See “counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage,” and that it awaits the report of the group in order to adopt, “within its areas of competence” the best decisions for both the military order and the Church.
Officially the world’s smallest sovereign state, the Knights of Malta have bilateral relations with 106 countries, and has United Nations permanent observer status. It issues its own passports, currency and postage stamps with the Maltese cross insignia.
According to their website, this 11th century cavalry has 13,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers and a qualified staff of 25,000 professionals – most of whom are doctors and paramedics. Today they have aid programs in 120 countries, which go from emergency relief for refugees to intervention in areas hit by natural disasters.