Order of Malta questions legitimacy of commission established by pope

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The leadership of the Order of Malta
denied the legality of a Vatican investigation into the forced resignation of the
group’s former grand chancellor, but the commission established by Pope Francis
said it “is completely legitimate and authorized” to investigate the
matter and inform the pope.

to one of the legal notes prepared for the commission, the pope’s right to be
informed of the circumstances surrounding the removal of Albrecht Freiherr von
Boeselager relates “to the authority he exercises directly and immediately
over all baptized faithful, whether lay or clerical.”

is not about interfering in the internal affairs of the order because the
purpose of the commission, as is evident, is to give an account to the Holy
Father on the procedures (used to remove von Boeselager) and nothing
else,” said the note,
which was dated Jan. 11 and shown to Catholic News Service.

Grand Magistry of the order had released a statement Jan. 10 stating its
refusal to cooperate with the Vatican commission, citing what it termed the “legal irrelevance”
of the commission and claiming that the members were “appointed by the
Secretary of State of the Vatican.”

The grand master of the order, Fra Matthew Festing, also insisted
that the former chancellor’s removal was an act of internal governance that falls
exclusively within the
order’s power.

with members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the order Jan. 10, Festing told
the international representatives that von Boeselager’s removal will not affect
the order’s charitable operations.

“Our decentralized nature ensures that our activities
assisting people in difficulty and need, continues unaffected in the 120
countries where the Order of Malta operates,” Festing said.

According to its website, the order has bilateral diplomatic relations with 106 countries and
the European Union, as well as permanent observer status at the United Nations
and international Cooperation Agreements with over 50 states “to
facilitate its humanitarian activities and allow unrestricted and protected access, especially in crisis regions.”

Von Boeselager, a German nobleman, was removed due to “severe
problems” during his tenure as grand hospitaller of the Order of Malta and
“his subsequent concealment of these problems from the Grand
Magistry,” the order said. Numerous media reports have said the problems specifically regarded the
distribution of condoms by aid agencies working with the order’s Malteser

Festing, in the presence of
U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, patron of the order, requested that von Boeselager resign.
His refusal to resign resulted in his removal in early December. John E.
Critien was elected grand chancellor ad interim Dec. 14.

Pope Francis established the commission Dec. 22 to gather the facts and “completely
inform” the Holy See about the situation and circumstances leading to von
Boeselager’s removal as well as to foster dialogue and a peaceful resolution,
according to a Vatican statement.

The order’s sovereignty is at the heart of its argument against the legality
of the commission, which is led by Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, former Vatican
representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva.

members of the commission are: Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a canon
lawyer and former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University; Jacques de
Liedekerke, former chancellor of the Order of Malta; Marc Odendall, counselor
of the order; and Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Order of Malta in Lebanon.

order said its refusal to cooperate with the commission aims to protect its independence
“against initiatives
which claim to be directed at objectively (and, therefore –- quite apart from
its intentions -– reveals it to be legally irrelevant) questioning or even
limiting said sovereignty.”

the commission’s legal note directly addresses the order’s concern, stating
that the group was established by Pope Francis, who yields authority over the
laity and clergy “as well as immediate authority over religious

does not in any way put into question the sovereignty of the order exercised by
the sovereign Grand Master,” the note stated.

commission also cited the order’s constitutional charter in explaining its
legitimacy, specifically citing the order’s vow of obedience. According to
article 62, “professed knights and chaplains bind themselves to obey the
Holy Father.”

commission’s legal note said that both the order’s constitution and the Code of
Canon Law “indicate the obedience due to the Holy Father.”

the Holy Father has full authority to ask his commission to respond to him and
him alone about an investigation to clarify the procedure that led to the
suspension of the Grand Chancellor from office,” the note stated.

commission met Jan. 5-6 and was to begin hearing witnesses Jan. 16.
Additionally, a member said, the commission has received written testimonies,
mainly from members of the order, especially presidents of the national
associations of the Knights of Malta.

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to this story was Cindy Wooden at the Vatican.

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