The recent crisis in the Order of Malta began some two years and a half years ago with the rejection by the Order's Chapter-General of the candidates chosen by the Grand Master for the senior offices of the Order. The Sovereign Council that was elected was without any Italian members for the first time in the history of the Order. The succeeding period led to considerable differences within the Order's government and this led to a break down in relations between its most senior members, whose consequences for the Order, as in 1917, may turn out to be much more far-reaching than its authors ever imagined.
In early December 2016, His Eminence Raymond, Cardinal Burke, the Patron of the Order, telephoned the Grand Magistry with a request for an urgent meeting with the Grand Master, His Most Eminent Highness Fra Matthew Festing. There is something of a haze over exactly what transpired at this meeting, which led to a request by the Grand Master for the resignation of the Grand Chancellor, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager. As is now well-known, the latter declined to resign, and his refusal was followed by a demand that he do so in obedience to his superior in the Order, as a knight who had made the special promise of Obedience. He again refused and was dismissed; this exchange was witnessed by the Grand Commander, Fra Ludwig Hoffman von Rumerstein. The latter subsequently took legal advice and withdrew his signature from the document disciplining the Grand Chancellor. Baron von Boeselager protested that he considered his dismissal unlawful and stated his decision to take this before the Tribunals of the Order, under the provisions of the Constitution and Code. His dismissal was subsequently voted upon by the Sovereign Council with the election of Fra John Critien, a member of the Sovereign Council, as Grand Chancellor ad interim.
The intervention of the Cardinal Patron of the Order, ostensibly acting in the name of the Holy Father, appeared to be a direct intervention by the Holy See in the affairs of the Order. The last time the Holy See had intervened directly was in the early 1950s when the then Grand Master, Fra Ludovico Chigi Albani della Rovere, was threatened with excommunication. The attempt on the part of some within the curia to suppress the Order failed and, ultimately, it arguably emerged re-energised and stronger. Needless to say, however, once anyone within the Order calls upon Apostolic authority to support an action or for intervention by the Holy See, there is a risk to its sovereignty. Some even suggested that this could open a door allowing the Vatican to take control of the Order itself. While this might seem advantageous to some within the corridors of the Papal palace, such an action would destroy the Order's independence and, ultimately, its effectiveness as an international humanitarian organisation and ability to raise funds in the service of the poor and the church.
Unfortunately the decision to post notices of the Grand Chancellor's dismissal on the web site, led to a series of exchanges of widely distributed emails. It also led to a public challenge to the Holy See by the Grand Magistry and a decision by the Cardinal Secretary of State to appoint a commission to investigate and report on the Grand Chancellor's dismissal. An invitation to participate in this commission extended by the Cardinal Secretary of State was bluntly rejected by the Grand Master on the grounds that it undermined the Order's sovereignty. This rejection was then published on the Order's web site, to the surprise of many who felt such an open challenge to the Holy See was unlikely to have a happy outcome. Anyone who questioned the decisions taken by the Grand Master was warned that dissent could lead to expulsion from the Order.
The promised action by Baron von Boeselagare before the tribunal nonetheless went ahead (although it ultimately became irrelevant) and if the whole matter had been handled with greater discretion, the senior officers would have quietly returned to their homes for the Christmas celebrations to await the outcome of the proceedings in the Order's courts. Instead, the public exchanges that excited the attention of the world's press - who until then had not shown much interest in the Order - led to the subsequent firestorm of publicity that has enveloped the Order and became increasingly tendentious over the succeeding two months.
The Patron of the Order's responsibility is to represent the Holy See to the Order and therefore convey the views of the Holy Father to the Order; he is not an officer of the Order and has no power to direct its actions. The letter which Cardinal Burke delivered at his meeting was given different interpretations by the two sides; the Grand Master apparently considered it implied that the Pope himself was so disturbed by the way Baron von Boeselager had carried out his responsibilities as Grand Hospitaller, the job he had held for some sixteen years before being elected Grand Chancellor, that His Holiness wished Boeselager to be removed from his office. Cardinal Burke has not issued any formal statement about what transpired between him and the Grand Master (although several Catholic journalists have purported to be representing the Cardinal's views of what transpired); it has been revealed that the Cardinal did have a lengthy meeting with His Holiness before visiting the Grand Magistry. Baron von Boeselager has maintained that the letter did not demand or even suggest that he should be dismissed and the Cardinal Secretary of State on behalf of the Pope declared categorically that he had requested anything of the kind. It would appear, therefore, that the interpretation put upon the letter by Cardinal Burke would seem to have been exaggerated. Most members of the Order had admired Baron von Boeselager for his many years of service to the Order as Hospitaller and were therefore taken by surprise at the allegations made against him.
Following the announcement on the Order's website that the "Grand Chancellor's mandate had ended" Baron von Boeselager released the following statement, dated the Feast of the Imamculate Conception (8 December):
"Today I was suspended from my office as Grand Chancellor by H.M.E.H. the Grand Master. Also, a disciplinary procedure in order to expel me from the Order was opened at the Grand Magistry. These measures were imposed since I refused to resign as Grand Chancellor as requested by the Grand Master. I took advice that an elected officer cannot be asked to re-sign by invoking our vow of Obedience.
I refused to resign since there are no grounds to justify such an action. The subsequent act of removing me from office is in violation of the Order’s Constitutional Charter and Code.
The suspension is based on Art. 124 Par. 3 of the Code. According to this Article, the Grand Master can “call a case to himself” for just cause once a Superior, in my case the Regent of the German Subpriory of St. Michael, has initiated a Disciplinary Procedure against a member. I am not subject to such a procedure. It is only in such a case that the Grand Master can impose a precautionary suspension.
The alternative method of removing a member of the Sovereign Council, as per Art. 169, requires a deliberative vote of the Sovereign Council with two thirds supporting the removal. This step has not been taken. Furthermore, Art. 169 requires that the Grand Master consult the Juridical Council, whose advice must be given in writing. To my knowledge this step has also not been taken.
The accusation brought against me portrays me as a liberal Catholic unwilling to accept the teaching of the Church. I consider this allegation untrue and unjust. I have given my life to the Order, and through this to the Church, and I have always clearly affirmed that I am faithful to the Church and its teaching. I do not have to tell you more in this sense, as you know me.
It pains me to share with you this situation, and this level of detail, but I cannot stand by and allow untruths, distortions of fact and a failure to follow our own rules as embodied in the Constitutional Charter and Code to pass without challenge."
This letter was followed by an intervention from the Procurator of the Grand Priory of Bohemia, Prince Johannes Lobkowicz, the older brother of the President of the German Association, who wrote to the Grand Master stating that:
"He (Boeselager) cannot have been suspended by decree of Your Most Eminent Highness, as the validity of such a decree would be dependent on the Grand Chancellors countersignature (Art.153.Code).
• The Code does not foresee the suspension of a holder of a high office as such. This is the obvious logic of Constitution and Code, which is anchored in a constitutional balance of power.
• But the Grand Chancellor is Member of the Sovereign Council. In order to remove a member of the Sovereign Council from office a two-thirds majority of those voting is required (Art. 169. § 1). This obviously did not happen.
• Suspension of a Member from the Order under Art.123 § 1. Code requires a decision of a disciplinary Commission. Such a commission has to be constituted in Each Priory, Sub Priory and Association, not by the Grand Magistry. To my knowledge the Sub Priory of St. Michael in Germany, who's member Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager is, has not opened disciplinary procedures against him or voted on such a sanction."
It should be pointed out that the Regent of the Sub-Priory of St Michael is the brother-in-law of Baron von Boeselager and would have been prohibited under canon law from intervening in any disciplinary actions or otherwise in this case (but that would not have prevented him from standing aside while the Sub-Priory carried out such proceedings). The Constitution and Code states that disciplinary proceedings against a member should be instituted by the association sub-priory or grand priory of which he or she was a member; at the same it does not expressly prohibit disciplinary proceedings from being instituted by the Grand Magistry - this might be something requiring clarification in any future modifications of the Constitution and Code.
Prince Lobkowicz continued:
Therefore "Suspension as a precautionary measure" (Art. 124. §3.) could be seen to be misuse of power from side of Your Most Eminent Highness.
Acts of the Holy See might possibly override Constitution and Code, even if this seems a very debatable question. According to Art. 15.2. g. it "pertains to the Grand Master to execute acts of the Holy See" ... , but such acts obviously would have to be formalized and given in writing."
This latter comment represents another unusual aspect of this affair, as the next stage in this saga was a request for "clarification" of the letter from the Cardinal Secretary of State made in a letter signed by ten presidents of National Associations of the Order - led by the presidents of the German, Dutch, French and British Associations. In Great Britain, divisions among the British members had led to the Grand Prior of England publicly disassociating himself from the President of the British Association’s decision to question the legality of the Grand Master's decision. Prince Johannes Lobkowicz, and the authors of the letter to Cardinal Parolin, however, considered that the clarification was necessary as the question of the authority of the Pope had already been opened by Cardinal Burke's initial intervention; this was itself based on a purported decision by the Holy Father to intervene in the affairs of the Order. As this intervention had been accepted by the Grand Master, there had already arguably been potential derogation of the sovereignty of the Order. Nonetheless, the commission appointed by the Cardinal Secretary of State ultimately reported that there had been an abuse of powers and that Baron von Boeselager's dismissal had not conformed to the requirements of the Constitution and Code.
The request for clarification was followed by a letter from His Holiness himself, addressed to the Grand Master, that was distributed by the secretary of the commission which His Eminence Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, announced would be formed at the Pope's request; this read (and was accompanied in the email by an " unofficial" translation):
Following widespread dissemination of the letters from Baron von Boeselager and Prince Lobkowicz, the Order put a statement on its web site recapitulating the events and stating that the dismissal was legal under the code, while not precluding Baron von Boeselager from continuing with his action before the Order's tribunals. The language and tone of this statement has been the subject of some considerable criticism as it did much to heighten the dispute. The Grand Master decreed that any member challenging the decision to dismiss Baron von Boeselager might be subject to disciplinary procedures, which did not prevent those who believed the constitution had not been followed correctly from continuing to voice their concerns publicly.
It is worth pointing out that there is another Sovereign State, the Co-Principality of Andorra, whose co-Prince is the Bishop of Urgell, who is actually appointed by the Holy See as are all Bishops, but nonetheless the Holy See has no standing to intervene in the affairs of the Principality or the Bishop's responsibilities as Co-Prince under the Andorran Constitution. Were the Pope to do so there would no doubt be energetic protests from the Andorran government and the French President. On the other hand, the Order owes its existence to a Papal Bull and, therefore, to some degree it is inextricably tied to the Holy See, under whose "protection" it remains. Furthermore, as a Catholic institution, the senior officers of the Order like its members are bound by Papal authority in all matters of faith and moral teaching.
All this led to an unedifying public spat between the Grand Magistry of the Order and the senior officers which in turn resulted series of articles in the international press that have portrayed this as a struggle between the Order and the Pope. The decision to ask for the intervention of the Holy See in this may prove to have an unintended consequences which could easily have been avoided had discretion prevailed from the outset. Perhaps if consideration to the Constitution of the Order had been given the importance it deserved, none of this might have happened.
These events ended with the resignation of the Grand Master and the reinstatement of the Grand Chancellor - the Order, meanwhile, has continued its work in the service of the Poor and Sick, in particular dealing with the terrible refugee crisis that is facing Europe as a result of war in the Middle East and poverty and political disorder on the African continent.