Beyond the issues to be clarified, the story that involved the Order of Malta and that brought about the resignation of the Grand Master at the Pope’s request might provide a formidable key to understanding Pope Francis’s pontificate. Pope Francis’s ideas, choices and perceptions come almost directly from his personal history. This point should not be underestimated, also because this personal history plays a part in a transition of pontificates that did not take place peacefully.

From Argentina

Pope Francis’s personal story is the starting point, and Austen Ivereigh has recently provided some revealing details about it in “Crux”. Ivereigh is Pope Francis’s biographer, and he certainly cannot be considered as opposing Pope Francis. Ivereigh wrote about an alleged plot, which also involved members of the Knights of Malta, to transfer the then Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires to Rome, and to replace him with Bishop Oscar Sarlinga of Zarate Campana, who was Chaplain to the Knights of Malta in Argentina.

Ivereigh admits that “perhaps things are not connected,” but also says that the plot was orchestrated because of the tense relations between Pope Francis and the Kirchner administration, which in turn did not love the Pope. A group of conservatives wanted to solve this impasse, and the group gathered around Archbishop Adriano Bernardini, then Nuncio to Argentina, with a plan to increase the tensions between the government and the archbishop in order to push Bergoglio to accept a new and important post in the Roman Curia.

Sources in the Vatican confirm that Pope Benedict XVI offered Cardinal Bergoglio the leadership of a top Vatican Congregation, and that Bergoglio refused. According to the same sources, Benedict’s collaborators still are wondering why. The story seems to indicate that Bergoglio wanted to resist to his ousting.

The “conservative circle”

The circle that operated around Bergoglio and backed Bishop Sarlinga was formed – according to Ivereigh – by Esteban Caselli, a businessman who served as Argentinian Ambassador to the Holy See, close to Cardinal Angelo Sodano’s diplomatic circle and later an Italian Senator; and by Archbishop Hector Aguer of La Plata, among the main opponents of Bergoglio in the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference. Both Caselli and Archbishop Aguer were among the first to meet Pope Francis right after the election, and even this blog noted that Francis began his pontificate by “loving his enemies.”

This circle was also allegedly behind the bishop’s appointment in Argentina that went against Bergoglio’s wishes. The role played in all of this by Msgr. Fabian Pedacchio Leàniz, currently Pope Francis’s first secretary, and earlier sent from Buenos Aires by then Archbishop Bergoglio to the Congregation for Bishops as an official, must not be underestimated.

Among the episcopal appointments sponsored by the circle, besides Sarlinga, was also Archbishop José Louis Mollaghan of Rosario, and neither of them kept his post under Pope Francis: the first was ousted due to a financial scandal concerning diocesan funds, the other was included among the members – in fact, it was the very first appointment – of the new commission on “Delicta Graviora” within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, though he was allowed to continue to reside in Buenos Aires.

Was the Boeselager case an outcome of a less than peaceful transition from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis?

This is Austen Ivereigh story, which was confirmed and described in detail by other sources. Pope Francis’s experience in Argentina must always be the first step in understanding his manner of government as Pope.

The Boeselager case seems to be the perfect storm. Not so much for Pope Francis, but for a lobby inside the Vatican that would love to change the Order of Malta from the inside, and then use this change as a blueprint to change the Church. Boeselager is not considered a progressive. He is faithful to the doctrine of the Church, his father was among those who plotted against Adolf Hitler. Cardinal Van Galen, one of the most tenacious opponents of the Nazi regime, was one of his relatives. However, he has his own view about how to manage the Order of Malta and its charitable activities, and his view might be described as “more functionalist” than that of the Grand Master, Festing, who is imbued with a pure monastic spirit.

To look at it on from a wider perspective, the conflict is between men of government and men of spirituality. This same conflict characterized Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate – hence, the resistance against him that resulted in the attacks on clergy sexual abuses and in the first Vatileaks trial. As Benedict did not complete the transition of the papacy from St. John Paul II’s last years, the transition toward a new papacy is still ongoing.

How can the Order of Malta issue be comparable with Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate? The clue is given by an article penned for “The Tablet” by Christopher Lamb and Christa Pongratz-Lippit. The two report that even Fra Festing could not fully resolve a case of abuse when he led the English branch of the Order.

“The Vatican,” they write, “are also aware of a child sex abuse scandal that exploded in the UK under the Grand Master’s watch and which led to an inquiry by Baroness Cumberlege. She found that three knights had made a catalogue of serious errors when handling abuse complaints made against Vernon Quaintance, a former sacristan for the Knights of Malta who was found guilty of nine sex offences including those against boys as young as 11 he had met in the 1960s and 70s.”

They added: “While the three knights involved later apologized, one of them, Duncan Gallie, was appointed by Festing as a member of the Order’s Sovereign Council and is living in Rome.”

And other sources maintain that the same Festing was not really able in choosing people he could trust in. Some of this inability was also reported to the Pope.

And this inability to choose collaborators that could handle difficult cases with no damage was similar to that which characterized Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope had very clearly in mind the necessary reform and the collegiality that with which he wanted to realize this reform. But in order to work, on the other hand, collegiality needed the good faith of the people involved. This does not always happen, especially when power is involved.

A clash within the Order of Malta?

Certainly, Pope Benedict XVI came from a particular German environment: Bavarian. He criticized – even in his latest book-interview, “Last Conversations” – the wealthy of the German Church thanks to the “Kirchensteuer” (the Church tax) and the fact that not paying the “Kirchensteuer” resulted in an excommunication “latae sententiae”. Pope Benedict also preached in favor of a less worldly Church, perhaps with a less efficient structure but with a purer evangelic spirit.

This program of reform was carried forward with the help of a number of members of the German branch of the Order of Malta who are also top officials of Aid to the Church in Need in its central office in Germany. Clues about the former Pope’s program can be glimpsed in his “silent revolution” of charity, that brought about new statutes for Caritas Internationalis and a motu proprio on charitable associations linked to the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI looked to the Order of Malta even when he had to appoint a new President of the IOR Council of Superintendence: he chose Ernst von Freyberg, a Knight of Malta, who formally took for the post after a head hunter company was hired to find people who could fit the post. When the decision was released, a person in Vatican finances commented that “we spent so much time looking for someone, and in the end we made the choice we would have made anyway.”

This German arm that was part of Pope Benedict XVI’s “gang” was countered by another wealthy and strong German lobby. This lobby aims at organizing the Church as a company, and its philosophy is that of “making an inclusive Church” in order to increase the size of the audience, as came out during the Synod of Bishops. In fact, the McKinsey Report’s tailored Curia reform came from this world. This “branch” looks at the Church with an almost secularized glance, somewhat betraying a Protestant influence.

A monastic order or a charitable organization?

From what can be understood from reports and sources, Fra Festing wanted to give the Order of Malta a different blueprint than that of a wonderful charitable organization. There was nothing personal between them: they simply disagreed. The issue of the distribution of condoms in three Maltese projects in Myanmar is just part of the issue, it is not the issue. We are talking about three different projects: two out of three were immediately shut down once there was report of the condoms, while the third one was shut down some time after, after a consultation with the local bishop-patron.

In the end, we are talking about three projects out of five thousand that the Order runs all over the world. The Holy See cannot ignore this work of charity, a fact so much in view that a Holy See Press Office release was at pains to reiterate the Holy See’s and the Pope’s appreciation for the work carried on by the Order of Malta.

In the end it is a struggle between visions: a more “company like” vision, typical of that German Church which Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized during his trip to Germany in 2011; and a more monastic vision that aims at keeping the old spirit of the Order of Malta.

We can speculate that the protagonists of a more spiritual vision used the condom issue to increase tensions between the Grand Master and the Grand Chancellor, to the point where the Grand Master asked the Grand Chancellor to resign. After all, spiritual visionaries tend to be more naive when it comes to strategy. The request was made in order not to exacerbate the conflict. The Grand Chancellor did not like it, and did not obey his Grand Master. He instead appealed to everyone he could, including to a high-level Vatican tribunal, while the Order of Malta tried him for his disobedience.

All of this story was brought to Pope Francis’s ear both via the people in the Apostolic Palace linked to Boeslager and via Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Order of Malta. The Patron is a sort of link between the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and it is a sort of “papal ambassador” with enhanced impact because of the particular relation that links the Order of Malta and the Holy See. According to media reconstructions, Cardinal Burke asked the Pope in a private audience on November 10 for permission to proceed with the ousting of Boeselager. It is more likely that Cardinal Burke simply reported the situation, and gave the Pope notice that the “redde rationem” was going to take place. The Pope asked – according Andrea Tornielli, writing in “Vatican Insider”– to solve the issue in a peaceful way. That did not happen.

The issues at stake

When he heard the full story, the Pope Francis may likely have recalled his personal experience with the Order of Malta. To him, Knights of Malta are a group of nobles committed to charitable work, but are also part of the old world of bureaucrats who managed power to the disadvantage of people. In Pope Francis’s Argentinian shoes, it is possible that the nobles of the Order of Malta are considered part of that old aristocratic society that does not accept handing over management of power to the “pueblo”. The same Pope explained how important the people are to him in a recent interview with the Spanish “El País” in which he praised popular movements.

This is how an internal affair of the Order of Malta becomes a multifaceted situation, which the Pope is called upon to put in order. First, there is some uncomfortableness with the monastic and aristocratic option of the Knights of Malta that Pope Francis shares (his philosophy is that realities are greater than ideas) and that is promoted by a certain German wing which has already abolished aristocratic titles in Austria, where organizations like “We are Church” are very strong.

Second, the discussion about whether the Order of Malta should be a “charitable NGO” or keep its peculiarities which pertain to an ancient chivalric order.

Third, the will of a circle within the Vatican walls to shut down any model of management that could be connected in some ways to Pope Benedict XVI’s “pastoral-theological” philosophy, as many consider it anachronistic. This will touch also on theological issues, such as those “dubia” which Cardinal Burke, along with other three Cardinals, presented to Pope Francis concerning “Amoris Laetitia”. These “dubia” are not part of the discussion concerning the Order of Malta, but they are being used by some journalists who are carrying on an agenda behind the Pope’s back, and also by people around the Pope’s circle. The common reading – completely wrong – is that the conservative Cardinal Burke was pushing the Order back to the Middle Ages, but that the Pope was not taken in by his ploy.

These three lines intersect behind the scenes to create a scenario that goes far beyond the juridical details at the center of the issue. But the Pope and the Knights of Malta are tied up in discussion on juridical issues, at the moment.

The state of the facts

The short Vatican press release that followed the Grand Master’s resignation says that the Order will be run “ad interim” by the Grand Commander – the number 2 in charge – and afterwards a papal delegate will be appointed. Immediately following the press release, the Order of Malta announced that the Grand Master’s resignation needed to be accepted first by the Supreme Council, and that the same Council will appoint the new Grand Master.

The announcement of a papal delegate generated a lot of turmoil. In fact, according to the “Financial Times” there is only one other time in history that the Order of Malta was ruled by a papal delegate, and it dates back two centuries. The Order always enjoyed its own jurisdiction, and even the mere fact that the Pope appointed a group to gather information – a group of five members – was not appreciated by the Order of Malta.

In one month, the group collected some 100 written testimonies, in addition to the interviews with leaders of the Order at all levels. According to a source close to the commission, the group became aware that Boeslager had wide support and that his ousting was not well received. In addition, the ousting was considered disrespectful of the established statutory procedures. But Boeselager had also appealed his dismissal on the same grounds.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that Boeselager was ousted because he refused to obey the Grand Master’s request to resign, meaning that he disobeyed to an order of a Superior. This is the point on which the Holy See bases the logic for its interference: disobedience is a monastic issue, and monastic issues concern the Holy Father. But things needed to be furtherly explicated. This is the reason why, after the gathering of the Grand Council that accepted the resignation, it was made clear that the Papal delegate will deal just with the spiritual part of the Order of Malta, while the Knights will keep governing and maintaining their sovereignty. However, the issue remains to be clarified. At the moment, all the statements the Order of Malta released during the discussion have been taken out from their website, as the Pope declared null all the acts done after Dec. 6, and reintegrated Boeselager at his post. That means that the Pope, in exercising his authority over the religious affairs, he did as well on governmental affairs.

It should be noted that the whole matter was not well managed, at least in terms of image. The Pope is apparently carrying out an act of vindication against the Order of Malta, abusing his position and the obedience which the Knights profess to him – in particular, the few Knights of the first class, who are the only real friars with the three vows – in order to change the Order from within and make it “more fit for its mission”, as some people around the Pope say. However, in doing so, the Pope is taking on an authoritative position, behaving at least as a sort of “guarantor” of the Order of Malta, and this was noted by the American Spectator.

For its part, the Order of Malta questions this strong papal interference in the Order’s internal government, strongly rooted in tradition and sovereignty. In fact, the issue of sovereignty is more complicated than it seems.

The sovereignty of the Order of Malta

According to Concordat Watch, Pope Pius XII described the Order of Malta’s sovereignty as a “functional sovereignty,” that is, a sovereignty that derives from its history and tradition. Even the Order of Malta’s Constitution – reformed in 1997 to adapt itself to the 1983 Code of Canon Law – states in Article 1 that the Order of Malta is “a lay religious order, traditionally military, chivalric and noble.” The Order is not described as a State, and de facto it is not: it is an international subject.

This last point is also covered in the Constitution. Article 3 stresses that the Order of Malta is “a subject of international right” that “exercises sovereign functions.” That is: it is not a sovereign order, but an order that “exercises” sovereign functions. According to Article 4, then, “the religious nature does not exclude the exercise of sovereign prerogatives entrusted to the Order, as the Order is an international subject recognized by States.”

By this admission, the Order of Malta is only a religious order. This does not prevent it from exercising sovereign functions, but de facto it puts the fate of the Order in the hands of the Holy See. This is at least a way to read it.

However, already at the time of Pope Pius XII there was a wide discussion on the issue. Pius appointed a Cardinals’ commission of inquiry when the Knights were accused of selling titles, living in a non-monastic way and even black marketeering goods with the help of its diplomatic immunity.

This is not the current situation, though it is being treated as such, thus presenting an image of an authoritarian Pope. The functions of the papal delegate should be limited to the monastic part of the Order, but this point was explained only after the Great Council of the Order gathered Jan. 28. People around Pope Francis are convinced that a “more detailed statement on the issue” is warranted.

History is however complicated, and the current situation should be viewed beyond the usual antithesis between “conservatives” and “progressives.” It should be read through the lens of Pope Francis’s Argentinian background. It must be interpreted with one certainty in view: with Pope Francis, nothing can be taken for granted. The old world is no more.

And this is a wonderful key for reading Pope Francis’s entire pontificate. Here are some key points: Pope Benedict XVI’s work of reform could not be completed: resistance was too fierce, and the reforming mandate given to Pope Francis is fenced in by these same resistances. Second key point: Pope Francis was elected to be the champion of a counter reform following Pope Benedict XVI, and nobody can assess how much Pope Francis is aware of that since he was the first to praise his predecessor, calling for a pastoral conversion and calling on the Church not to be a merciful NGO, just as Benedict did.

Third key point: Pope Francis is strongly influenced by the view he had while in Argentina. It is a peripheral view that sees the center not for its meaning, but for what it interferes with in peripheral activities. And it is a Latin American view, coming from a place that according to some observers might be also ready for a schism. This last point is further food for thought.


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