The Knights of Malta – A Sorry Tale.
On the 2nd and 3rd May 2018 there was a meeting of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) to either re-elect their interim Grand Master or to elect an entirely new Grand Master. In the event the interim Grand Master was elected for life. It was held in the context of a major crisis in the Order which to a certain degree can be traced back to England and disputes at the Hospital of St John & St Elizabeth. That Hospital was founded in 1856 by Cardinal Wiseman and staffed by Sisters of the Order of Mercy returning from assisting Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Cardinal Wiseman put the Hospital under the protection of the Order of Malta who built their Conventual Church next to the Hospital then in Great Ormond Street. The Hospital moved in 1899 to St John's Wood and the Church was re-erected stone by stone there.
It was in the 1980s when the Sisters of Mercy decided to leave the Hospital that matters began to go wrong. The management found the Catholic connection irksome and by a subterfuge managed to deceive the Charity Commission into removing all trace of the Catholic connection from the constitution and those Knights on the board of the Hospital whom the management described as 'somnolent' allowed this to happen – one claiming that he did not know what was meant by 'a Catholic Hospital'. Cardinal Hume, on being appraised of the situation, managed to have the situation corrected and wanted to promote the Hospital as a centre of Catholic medical excellence. Unfortunately he died soon thereafter and again a worldly secular mindset predominated. Protests began to be made about policies permitting gender re-assignment, contraception and abortion. The Order of Malta began to take action to get the Hospital back on track as regards Catholic teaching. Unfortunately Cardinal Hume's successor Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor was asleep on the job and eventually when a new Board had been appointed with the assistance of the Grand Priory with the aim of adhering to Catholic teaching, Cardinal Cormac decided to sack the entire board and put his own men in who promptly eviscerated the Code of Ethics.
An unfortunate incident then arose concerning child protection procedures. A knight was appointed by the Archdiocese of Westminster as child protection officer. He endeavoured to find out what his duties were but both the Hospital and the Archdiocese fobbed him off . Suspicions arose about someone who had been helping out at Masses organised by both the Order and the Hospital Chaplain. He was doing duties normally performed by a sacristan, but without having been appointed to such a position. He was found to be training a young boy to participate as a reader or server in the Church, without the knowledge and consent of the Order. As the boy would also have been serving at masses celebrated by the Hospital Chaplain it was decided to bring the matter up with the Chaplain the following Sunday meaning there was a delay of a week before reporting the matter. This was a gift to the Hospital who saw a wonderful opportunity to make a mountain out of this molehill and eventually get rid of the Knights once and for all. The Knights engaged Baroness Cumberlege to inquire into what had happened and she after criticising all concerned: the Knights, the Hospital and the Archdiocese concluded:
“Fortunately, the safeguarding limitations did not lead to an incident of actual harm before the proper procedures were activated. However, in our view all parties need to review their handling of the episode and improve their procedures and practice in line with the recommendations of this Inquiry.”
The Chairman of the Hospital Board, Lord Guthrie, himself a member of the Knights of Malta, had refused to co-operate in anyway with Baroness Cumberlege's inquiry and was subsequently reprimanded by the Order for his failure so to do. However this did not deter the Hospital from removing all mention of the Knights from their constitution and the Archdiocese took the draconian step of suspending the Order of Malta from using their Conventual Church until further notice.
Before this last episode Fra Matthew Festing had been elected Grand Master of the whole Order of Malta and was therefore based in Rome. This preliminary skirmish in England with the religious Knights of the Grand Priory on one side and other Knights who either were ignorant or careless of Catholic teaching on the other set the scene for a much greater battle in Rome between the Grand Master and Baron Albrecht von Boeselager first as Grand Hospitaller, a position he had occupied for twenty-five years, and secondly as Grand Chancellor. Indeed Boeselager had been appealed to some years earlier by those concerned at what was happening at the Hospital in London but he refused to assist.
The question that arose in Rome was whether the Order through its subsidiary Malteser International (MI) was distributing condoms as part of its work in Burma, Kenya and South Sudan. In May 2015 the Grand Master, having consulted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) instituted an inquiry into the matter which reported in January 2016.
To know what all this was about we have to go back to the founding of MI in 2005. It grew out of the work of the Order organised from Germany. There were already projects in hand such as an HIV and AIDS project in Thailand started in 2003. In 2004 similar projects started in Kenya and Burma.
It seems that MI had in place an unpublished policy on contraceptives totally at odds with the teaching of the Church and they had been distributing contraceptives in accordance with this policy for several years. Further this policy had never been communicated by Boeselager, as Grand Hospitaller, to the Grand Master or the Sovereign Council of the Order. In 2004 there was a Reproductive Health (RH) project in Myanmar and Thailand which continued right through to 2015. The use of the term 'Reproductive Health' should have rung alarm bells. Anyone familiar with the Aid Industry would know that 'Reproductive Health' is a highly controversial title as it usually includes the promotion of contraception and abortion.
It is notable that the U.S. “Country Reports on Human-Rights Practices” for 2017 were released at the end of April 2018 , and they now feature statistics on “coercion in population control” instead of “reproductive rights.” Some of the motivation driving aid agencies is not so much a humanitarian concern but rather a neo-Malthusian policy of population control. The problem was that MI did not take account of what the ethics of donors were and thus they got into bed with people they should have never had anything to do with. Apparently no real concern arose in MI.
It was not that they did not have policies to guide them. It was just that the policies had little relation to the teachings of the Church. In 2010 MI was advertising a post in Myanmar for someone to carry out ' counselling on correct and consistent use of Condoms'. It was not that they were just distributing condoms in order to limit the spread of AIDS where there have been some dodgy views from certain theologians but they were distributing condoms to all and sundry by the tens of thousands. For example they claimed to have seen a strong need for birth spacing methods which included not only condoms but contraceptive pills some of which were abortifacient and they claimed this was in line with their Bioethics policy. A further problem arose because they were distributing condoms on behalf of organisations such as Pathfinder International, one of the leading USA advocates of population control by contraception and abortion historically very close to the eugenics movement.
Indeed it was this association with Pathfinder International that came to the attention of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta in the USA in October 2013 who raised questions. This led to the Secretary General of MI ordering a review of their compliance with Catholic teaching. Boeselager as Grand Hospitaller said this review must be done confidentially to MI as it could give rise to misunderstandings. In the end this led to two documents Basic Principles on Birth Spacing and Reproductive Health and Catalogue of exclusion criteria in relation to Institutional Donors in 2015. Both documents were woefully inadequate despite having input from MI's Spiritual Director, Bishop Marc Stenger, and other theologians with heterodox views not difficult to find in Germany.
At a meeting of MI in October 2014 in Hong Kong contraception was openly discussed to the amazement of some of those attending the meeting who later reported their concerns to the Grand Master Matthew Festing. His response was to set up a Commission of Inquiry in May 2015.
The Commission particularly analysed the two documents produced by MI in 2015. Bishop Stenger in his preface to Basic Principles on Birth Spacing and Reproductive Health wrote “decision-making cannot rely only on theoretical premises” but also on concrete situations. This sounds like the idea that doctrine can be ignored in favour of discerning concrete situations which is reminiscent of the controversy over Amoris Laeititia with the idea that the 'pastoral' does not have to follow the 'doctrinal'. The text of the policy says “a balance needs to be struck between the values-oriented identity of the organisation, the needs in the field and the trends and policies of the international community”. A clear invitation to compromise with evil.
The Grand Master's Commission of Inquiry reported in January 2016. The report was then sent to Cardinal Mueller, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in order to check that the Commission's interpretation of Catholic doctrine was correct. Cardinal Mueller replied on 12th March 2016 saying that 'this Ministry has found no doctrinal problem in the above-mentioned report' and he concludes by quoting a note issued by the CDF in December 2010: “In the battle against AIDS, the Catholic faithful and the agencies of the Catholic Church should be close to those affected, should care for the sick and should encourage all people to live abstinence before and fidelity within marriage. In this regard it is also important to condemn any behaviour which cheapens sexuality because, as the Pope (Benedict XVI) says, such behaviour is the reason why so many people no longer see in sexuality an expression of their love”.
An Austrian Catholic News website Kath.net at about that time reported an interview between a Knight and Cardinal Burke who had been appointed Patron of the Order of Malta by Pope Francis. The report read:
“The responsibility of the Grand Chancellor [von Boeselager] was evident since the appearance of the investigation report. The Grand Master therefore informed Cardinal Burke that he had asked the Grand Chancellor to resign, but that he had refused. During the following months, the Grand Master told the Cardinal of his further attempts to convince the Grand Chancellor of his responsibility to resign. As he is the Cardinal Patron responsible for the spiritual constitution of the Order, [Cardinal] Burke encouraged the Grand Master in this sense so that the scandal surrounding the distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients would not progress unimpeded, leading to further moral confusion and aberrations within the Order.”
On 10th November 2016 Cardinal Burke met with Pope Francis and in the same interview reported by Kath.net Cardinal Burke is reported as saying of this meeting with Pope Francis:
“Pope Francis expressed profound concern and dismay about the practice of distributing contraceptives by any work of the Order. He urged me [Burke] to collaborate diligently with the Grand Master to make certain that all such practices cease and that those in highest authority who had approved of them be appropriately disciplined.”
On 1st December 2016 Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Burke referring to the meeting of 10th November. The key paragraph in that letter reads:
'Furthermore, the Order must ensure that the methods and means it uses in its initiatives and healthcare works are not contrary to moral law. If in the past there has been a problem of this nature, I hope that it can be completely resolved. I would be very disappointed if, as you told me some of the high Officers were aware of practices such as the distribution of any type of contraception and have not yet intervened to end such things. I have no doubts that by following the principle of Paul and “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4, 15) the matter can be discussed with these Officers and the necessary rectification obtained.'
Note that whilst the Pope recommended discussion he does not preclude further action if that discussion does not lead to matters being put right. Discussion did not work, Boeselager was invited to resign and refused. On legal advice the Grand Master suspended Boeselager and established a disciplinary commission which was to investigate his behaviour. This meant he could no longer continue as Grand Chancellor.
There was then a complete volte-face by the Pope who on 24th January 2017 requested and received the resignation of the Grand Master. What caused this volte-face? It would appear that Boeselager got in touch with Cardinal Parolin the Secretary of State to complain about his treatment. Cardinal Parolin is very close to Pope Francis and has spoken of a 'paradigm shift' in the Church. That paradigm shift is seen as reinterpreting moral absolutes as ‘ideals’. It is already there in Amoris Laetitia in regard to adultery; the appointment of Chiodi and others to the ‘reconstructed’ Pontifical Academy for Life presages the targeting of the exception-less norm against contraception. Did Parolin see the promulgation under Boeselager of the faulty policies followed by MI as being in line with his 'paradigm shift'? Those policies which called for a balance between the teaching of the Church and worldly concerns in a relativist and consequentialist manner probably recommended themselves to Parolin and he convinced Pope Francis likewise so the Grand Master, Fra Matthew Festing, was made to resign and Boeselager was reinstituted as Grand Chancellor and the commission of inquiry into his behaviour cancelled.
According to a recent article in The Tablet Baron Boeselager has claimed that he 'himself has never publicly defended the use of condoms and says that the order has always followed the Church’s teaching' and the implication is that as soon as the matter came to a head two projects were shut down and a third was continued until some other organisation could take it over as otherwise the beneficiaries would be deprived of healthcare! The point is however that Boeselager was Grand Hospitaller for twenty-five years and had oversight of Malteser International. Whatever he did or did not know about their activities he should have known that the condoms issue was a key problem in the aid world and he should have made the necessary inquiries and insured that the Church's teaching was followed.
More relevant is the fact that Boeselager took legal proceedings against Kath.net who were reporting all this and he obtained an interlocutory injunction to shut them up. When the matter came before three judges of the District Court of Hamburg, Kath.net asked for the injunction to be lifted. Baron Boeselager either by himself or through his lawyers asserted “Until the end of November 2013, the Applicant [Boeselager] had no knowledge of the distribution of condoms and, thereafter, immediate counter-measures were taken ...
In the Judgement the Court held: “On the basis of these principles, the reporting in paragraph 1.1 does give the compelling impression that the Applicant had indeed been aware that aid operations were being used to distribute condoms within the UNHCR rescue packages”.
The judges go on to discuss the impression made by the Kath.net article:
“The Court is persuaded that the contested passage in paragraph 1 of the interim injunction does give the compelling impression that the Applicant knew that condoms had been distributed in relief operations by Malteser International using the UNHCR aid packages. …
It is the use of the words "similar activities" that leads the reader to understand that the Applicant initiated the above-mentioned relief operations, in full knowledge of all the circumstances described. Finally, the contested meaning necessarily follows from the context of the reporting: the entire third paragraph of the Kath.net article deals critically with various aspects of the work of the Applicant as Hospitaller and seeks to prove the initially-contended thesis, namely that a small circle from the German-speaking sphere wanted to preserve the benefits to the Order of exclusivity and sovereignty, but also wanted to see a weakening of what, in their opinion, was too narrow an adherence to Catholic doctrine and of loyalty to the Pope. The Court considers that an impartial reader could, indeed, thereby be led to believe that the Applicant himself was indeed responsible in respect of all the afore-mentioned charges against him, which necessarily also entails his having full knowledge of all the relevant circumstances.
In its judgment, the Court in these proceedings finds that the impression given is true as a matter of fact.”
Thus the court lifted the injunction on that part of the Kath.net article and awarded costs against Boeselager as they did not believe his version of what had happened. And yet the Boeselager party is now in the ascendant in the Order of Malta. This sorry tale of the Knights has yet to finish.