Right beside the Benedictine abbey of Sant Anselmo in Rome are the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. The spot is a tourist attraction because of a small keyhole in its main door through which you can see the dome of the Vatican. Tourists line up all day waiting to take a peek.
Today, however, the Knights of Malta are more known for a controversy. The group’s former grand chancellor, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked in early December and Pope Francis has launched an investigation. The leader is refusing to co-operate.
Adding to the drama is the fact that Cardinal Raymond Burke, a frequent critic of Pope Francis’ policies, is the Vatican-appointed patron of the order. He, along with the Knights’ Grand Master, Matthew Festing, was involved in the removal of the chancellor. Both have claimed that the dismissal was the wish of the Holy See, which is denied by the Vatican. The pope had counselled dialogue to settle the dispute.
Von Boeselager, a German nobleman, was removed due to “severe problems” during his tenure as grand hospitaller of the order and “his subsequent concealment of these problems from the grand magistry,” the order said. He is accused of distributing condoms and failing to accept church teaching on sexual matters — charges he strongly denies.
The condoms were distributed by aid agencies working with the order’s worldwide relief corps, Malteser International.
Boeselager explained that condoms had been distributed by three projects in Myanmar without the order’s knowledge. “When this was discovered in the course of routine project auditing, two of these projects were immediately ended,” he wrote. “An immediate closure of the third project would have led to the abrupt end of all basic medical services in an extremely poor region of Myanmar, so this dilemma was submitted to an ethics committee. Subsequently the project was closed, following a statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
In a blog, Christopher Lamb, columnist for The Tablet, writes: “In Rome, rumours are swirling that the dispute is not really about condoms, with talk of money, freemasonry and other associated theories, while Vatican journalists are reporting mysterious, anonymous phone calls trying to discredit von Boeselager and the papal investigation into the knights.”
Today’s controversy may draw attention away from the extensive charitable ministry of the Knights.
The Knights of Malta were founded as the Knights Hospitaller around 1099 in Jerusalem, making it the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order. It provided medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land during the First Crusade and it became a military order to protect Christians against Islamic persecution. Its motto is “Defence of the (Catholic) faith and assistance to the poor.”
Today, the order has approximately 13,500 members and employs about 25,000 doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics. It is assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries. It works with children, the homeless, handicapped, refugees, elders, terminally ill and lepers around the world without distinction of ethnicity or religion. Through Malteser International, the order aids victims of natural disasters, epidemics and war. In several countries, local associations of the order provide medical emergency services and training.
As the Canadian CCODP and the American Catholic Relief Service have found out, providing global relief with local partners has its challenges. Critics can find it easy to point fingers. We hope the pope’s commission brings out the full story.