Warring knights, a moral crisis, and hidden monies

The internal clash of the Order of Malta and the rivalries between Festing loyalists and the Holy See is reaching boiling point

Matthew Festing (left) and Pope Francis, who forced the former Grand Master's resignation
Matthew Festing (left) and Pope Francis, who forced the former Grand Master's resignation

They once held sway over the Maltese islands, before the French revolution and Napoleon’s men booted them out. Today the former Hospitaller knights are no longer corsairs, but their charitable endeavours through Malteser International has prompted a leadership crisis.

In January, Pope Francis – not a lover of chivalric ‘sectarianism’ – pulled his weight over a controversial decision by Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing to sack the Order’s Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over a dispute on condoms distributed by Malteser International aid workers.

The Pope forced a vote in the Knights’ sovereign council to accept Festing’s resignation, and annul the sacking of Boeselager. Yesterday, a secret ballot by 56 knights eligible to vote elected Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre as temporary Grand Master, with the title of lieutenant of the grand master – continuing a period of Vatican-mandated reform.

In the middle of the Order’s crisis, Pope Francis created a commission to investigate the Order, which Festing strongly opposed in a public show of defiance of the Pope, and ordered an election for 29 April. But Francis’s special delegate to the Order of Malta, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, wrote to Festing to stay away from Rome for the election.

This week, the Vatican reconsidered this decision, allowing Festing to attend the election, a move that seems to reflect consideration of Festing’s popularity with the Order’s members.

But in the background to this public, and ‘political’ struggle, came a leaked document published by leading Catholic newspapers by an anonymous member of the order backing up Festing’s decision to sack Boeselager: his responsibility for allowing the distribution of contraceptives, and abortifacients, to the poor in parts of the developing world.

Internal report

As revealed in the Catholic Herald, the 2016 internal report into Malteser International – written by leading bioethicists Dr Neil Weir, Prof. Luke Gormally and Prof. John Haas, and sent to hundreds of Order of Malta members around the world – had been commissioned in 2015 over concerns about possible distribution of contraceptives by Malteser International projects.

The report’s authors stated: “We have been informed that MI supplies Levonorgestrel [the morning-after pill] to rape victims on request and intramuscular (IM) Depo-Provera for birth spacing where NFP [natural family planning, which the Church approves] is deemed inappropriate.”

The authors said that both substances “could have an abortifacient as well as a contraceptive mode of action” – clearly going against MI’s stated policy not to distribute potential abortifacients.

Boeselager has said he did not know about the distribution of contraceptives until 2013, and then acted immediately to close down two of the projects, but a third in Myanmar was kept because it would have left the entire region without health services.

But the internal report declared that Boeselager knew about the distribution of condoms in November 2013, and he did not inform the Grand Master, who only found out by accident in October 2014, nearly a year later.

Now, publicly available documents posted online show that MI were aware of contraception being approved by local projects, possibly as early as 2006, as the annual report details a case study of how a woman was helped by an MI project: “Eunice… discussed contraception methods with her husband to prevent the virus being transmitted.”

$118 million bequest

The Knights’ saga has only taken a twist to the worst when an anonymous paper claimed that the Vatican was supportive of Boeselager and the Order’s wealthy German members, because the Holy See was cash-poor and now needs money. “The German bishops practically control the Vatican because they are so rich and the Vatican so poor,” the anonymous author stated. “Indeed, the Vatican is constantly in danger of becoming insolvent and is easily manipulated by the German bishops.”

This would be why the Vatican would have commissioned the investigation into the Order led by people connected with a $118 million bequest to the Order, based in Switzerland. The trustee of this cash cow, said to have had dealings with Boeselager and members of the Holy See commission, “was being prosecuted and threatened to make unsavoury revelations about various figures in the Order and the Vatican if the Order did not withdraw criminal proceedings against her” – wrote the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin.

Boeselager denied the allegations. Pentin also wrote that a source close to Boeselager said allegations that the Order was transferring millions from the trust to the Vatican were “crazy”.

The split between the German faction of the Order, and Festing, could be based squarely on an attempt to ‘secularise’ it by adding more focus to the humanitarian arm and less on its chivalric identity, by changing the constitution so that a Grand Master no longer serves for life, can be impeached if he acts contrary to the constitution, and should have an age limit.

“So instead of having professed knights in charge, knights of a lower rank (oblates and tertiaries) would take over and control the meaningful decisions of the order. The German branch currently has no professed knights and so, under the current constitution, cannot hold the rank of grand master,” Pentin notes.

Dan Hitchens, the deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, on the other hand notes that those who value Festing’s legacy see in him the emphasis on the spiritual identity of the order, reinforced by the professed knights – of whom there are only 60. The other 13,000 are lower members.

So while the Germans want to delete the “link” between religious vows and holding office and limit the powers of the Grand Master, critics of the Order want the professed knights to stay at the heart of the order’s identity – otherwise they would risk seeing a repeat of Malteser International’s “taking of liberties” on the issue of contraceptives.