While a stunned and confused Catholic audience is now watching the seeming papal takeover of the Order of Malta, there also arises now a kind of inner conflict within the ranks, especially from some more conservative or traditionalist Catholics. An introductory presentation of this manifold debate might thus be a way of bringing out more truth about the larger current situation. Part of that truth seems to be that the conflict within the Order of Malta reflects the ongoing larger struggle within the Catholic Church between “progressive” and “conservative-traditionalist” elements.
But, first we shall turn to the controversial debate among “conservative” Catholics concerning the crisis of the Maltese Order.
In an article published on 25 January 2017 in the conservative German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, its Rome Correspondent Guido Horst has now turned to defend the controversial German Maltese Knight, Albrecht von Boeselager, and even now to accuse Professor Roberto de Mattei’s organization “Lepanto Foundation” and certain “English-speaking media” (perhaps Edward Pentin himself) of spreading in Rome a “Black Legend” concerning the current conflict in the Order. This alleged “Black Legend” effectively says, in Horst’s words:
The “liberal” camp of Boeselager and the German branch of the Order [of Malta] had looked on for a long time, noting how, in humanitarian projects of the Order, […] there took place in Asia and in Africa the distribution of contraceptives. The Grand Master [Fraʾ Matthew Festing] and the Cardinal Patron Raymond Burke had wished to preserve the moral integrity of the Order, and thus it came to a struggle with the Great Chancellor [von Boeselager] who finally had to leave. After his initial support for Burke, [Pope] Francis then made a volte-face and established a Vatican commission inclining with sympathy for von Boeselager and, with it, thus damaged the sovereignty of the Maltese [Order]. Now those “liberals” have won against the “conservatives.”
In Horst’s eyes, “this Black Legend was spread, not least of all, by English-speaking media outlets and organizations such as the ‘Lepanto Foundation’ which sharply criticize the pope with regard to Amoris Laetitia.” The German journalist then proceeds to defend von Boeselager himself:
Such a legend, however, does not correspond to reality. Boeselager himself had helped to end the condom cooperation. A liberal German branch of the Order does not exist, but, rather, only a financially strong German Association does exist, which has weight among the Maltese [Order]. [my emphasis]
Horst then proceeds to declare – he seems to like this peremptory tone of speech – that the Germans themselves had nothing to do with the fact that, in 2014, a new government of the Order (to include von Boeselager) had been elected which was not in accord with the Grand Master’s own ideas. Horst also affirms that the open conflict between Festing and von Boeselager then broke out, especially
when the German baron was told that the pope wanted him to retire from his office. That was false. Francis wanted a dialogue within the Order. So now the Grand Master has to go, too. Lies don’t travel far. The Order has now to resurrect itself out of the debris. [my emphasis]
What Horst implies here is that Cardinal Burke and Fraʾ Matthew Festing have been mendacious, and even lying to von Boeselager – since it was these two men themselves who had met with von Boeselager, in order to request his resignation. That is a serious claim. It would thus be helpful in this context if Cardinal Burke himself would now come out into the public and speak about the whole affair, stating at least the main facts.
Since Horst makes some grave charges against the so-called “conservative” camp (Festing and Burke) within the Order of Malta – as well as within the wider Catholic Church and the Catholic media – it might be useful now, for the sake of clarity, to quote another German journalist who has no ties or sympathies whatsoever with that same conservative camp. Here I speak of Julius Müller-Meiningen, the well-informed Rome Correspondent for the prominent German newspaper Die Zeit who, in spite of his very outspoken sympathies for the overall Francis reform, has a candor and willingness to speak truths even if they do not completely support Pope Francis and his followers.
Müller-Meiningen just wrote, on 26 January 2017, an article for Die Zeit‘s section Christ&Welt in which he describes the conflict concerning the Order of Malta; the article is entitled: “The Crisis with Tradition” (“Die Krise mit Tradition”). In it, he describes this ongoing conflict as a conflict between, on the one hand, the progressive camp of von Boeselager and the German branch of the Order, and, on the other hand, the conservative camp of Cardinal Burke and Fraʾ Festing. The journalist says:
In the Order of Malta, there is taking place a clash of cultures. If one wants to put it this way, there is being fought here a battle on a smaller scale which is also happening, in a similar but larger fashion, in the whole Catholic Church. The struggle – fought with different means – is about almost everything: about the right balance and about the right understanding of Catholicity, Tradition, Doctrine, and Mercy. With special – yes, nearly decisive – participation of German Catholicism. [my emphasis]
Müller-Meiningen describes how, in 2014, the German branch of the Order of Malta had gained great influence at the election of the new government, to include the choice of von Boeselager as new Grand Chancellor. He says that this development within the Order analogously went along with the new orientation within the whole Catholic Church stemming from Pope Francis’s turning away from “seemingly cold dogma” towards a “more pastoral leniency toward the sinner.” Cardinal Burke – who has resisted Pope Francis in his attempts to promote Cardinal Walter Kasper’s ideas concerning the “remarried” divorcees – was then sent, according to Müller-Meiningen, to the Order of Malta. Here, says the journalist, Burke decided to take a “hyper-active” role in his new position.
Müller-Meiningen adds that von Boeselager – among “many other members of the Order” – was “not happy” with Burke’s appointment. Here, again, the Germans took a prominent resistant role, as Müller-Meiningen now explains: “Especially the German Maltese clique [“Seilschaft”] feared and demurred at the ultra-conservative [sic] approach of the U.S. Cardinal, who is himself one of the four signatories of the letter with doubts – the so-called dubia – concerning Francis’ Magisterium and which was published weeks ago.” During the same period, says the German journalist, in which the larger conflict over the “Kasper proposal” intensified, this smaller internal conflict with Burke grew, as well, in the Maltese Order. Müller-Meiningen then adds:
Especially the Grand Chancellor von Boeselager is said to have been very indignant about Burke’s nomination [as the Cardinal Patron] because he sensed that the cardinal would try to bring the Order into line [sic].
Following Burke’s formal appointment, von Boeselager increasingly was asked by his superiors to justify certain of his own actions as the coordinator of the international social services of the Order. There were internal investigations. Müller-Meiningen then quotes a German representative of the Order, Erich von Lobkowicz, who said that there was taking place a “battle between all that Pope Francis stands for and a tiny clique of ultraconservative fastidious old diehards in the Church — diehards that have missed the train in every conceivable respect.” The Zeit-journalist himself sees that Burke and his camp “wanted to preclude the danger that this Catholic Order – though sovereign – would now change into a charitable non-governmental organization [NGO],” while the progressive camp comparably feared that the Order would now be turned into “a traditionalist flagship.”
It is in this context that Müller-Meiningen draws a comparison with the German role in the larger Church with regard to the indulgent relaxing of some of the Church’s moral teaching. Here he explicitly mentions: Cardinal Kasper; the German-speaking group at the 2015 Synod on the Family; Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s official presentation of Amoris Laetitia; as well as Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s own recent distancing of himself from the Four Cardinal’s dubia and because of his claim now that the doctrine of Amoris Laetitia is “very clear” – after which statement many “staunch Catholics did not understand any more the world.” Last but not least, Müller-Meiningen adds Cardinal Reinhard Marx to that progressive list “of the phalanx of pioneers of reform Catholicism” because Marx definitely has “a good connection” with the German Maltese Knights, especially with Erich von Lobkowicz, their President; and thus Marx is now said also “to have intervened in Rome in favor of von Boeselager.”
Müller-Meiningen himself is skeptical, however, as to whether Pope Francis’ decision to establish a Vatican commission for the purpose of investigating the Maltese Order case “was a good idea.” (His article was written before the retirement of Fraʾ Festing.)
Thus Müller-Meiningen’s presentation of this topic of the current conflict with – and within – the Order of Malta is quite helpful, inasmuch he gives an objective description of the major lines of conflict. He thus effectively contradicts – though most probably without entirely knowing it – Guido Horst’s own stern rejection of the “Black Legend” allegedly spread by the “English-speaking media” and the purportedly biased Lepanto Foundation.
Another German-speaking source should be quoted in this context, moreover. The conservative Austrian Catholic website, Kath.net, had investigated the incipient conflict within the Order already, even as early as 15 December 2016. It has several of its own well-informed sources within the Order and in the Vatican, so that it was able to gather and present facts that might not yet be well known, or known at all, to the English-speaking world.
For its own truthful reporting, Kath.net has consequently been now recently threatened with legal consequences by lawyers on behalf of Albrecht von Boeselager. Kath.net wrote about this “aggressive” litigious letter publicly and said that it essentially requested from the Austrian website that they be “silent on well-known matters of fact – for which there are renowned witnesses within the [highest ranks of the] Order and in the Vatican.” However, Kath.net did not rescind any of its own articles on the matter of the Order of Malta, and especially those specifically on von Boeselager himself.
Therefore, let us now consider more deeply two of those articles already published by Kath.net – which is neither an “English-speaking media” nor part of the “Lepanto Foundation.”
On 15 December, 2016, Kath.net reported on the incipient conflict between “two camps” within the Order of Malta. The website says:
A small circle from the German-speaking realm merely wants to preserve the advantages of exclusivity and sovereignty; but it wants to loosen the ties to the Catholic teaching and the connections with the pope which are, in their view, too strong. The far larger part [of the Order] is loyal to their founding mission of the defense of the Faith and wishes – after recent negligences – to strengthen this dimension [and ethos].
As Kath.net is able to show, moreover, it was no other than von Boeselager himself who opposed such a strengthening of the spiritual dimension of the Order:
For this [a strengthening of the spiritual dimension], a few years ago it happened that an internal commission was established which was to produce new guidelines for the lived-out spirituality among the members of the Order. After a year, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager – who was then the Order’s Great Hospitaller – took these nearly finished guidelines and discarded them, favoring, instead, a more watered-down re-making of the old statutes and rules, which, consequently then disappeared into a drawer.
In addition to this more spiritual facet of von Boeselager’s dubious actions, Kath.net also shows how under von Boeselager’s authority – and for some years – certain putatively charitable programs (in collaboration with the UNHCR) took place in Africa which included the distribution of condoms. The Austrian website adds:
Von Boeselager and the German branch of the Order to which he belongs simply ignored the work of an investigatory commission concerning these allegations – which were established upon request from the Vatican – which showed that there were taking place violations against the teaching of the Church. Other problems were added in and by and through Germany which included direct interventions against the Great Master and the Order’s government in the Vatican – but nevertheless, the influence of the German Association continued to grow.
According to Kath.net, in 2008, the newly elected Grand Master Fraʾ Festing (it was still then during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI) “tried to follow the guidelines of the Vatican’s Secretary of State and thus especially proposed the election of [celibate] Knights with perpetual vows – so-called Professed Knights – for the four highest offices of the Order’s government.” This attempt failed, because three of the new positions were then filled by the Order with three Knights who were without perpetual vows.
Thus it seems that the original guidelines coming from the Vatican under Benedict XVI were not sufficiently heeded, in spite of Festing’s own attempts to do so and to implement them. This might explain why von Boeselager was later so indignant about Cardinal Burke’s appointment as Patron Cardinal, since Burke had been an important collaborator of Pope Benedict XVI, who had also appointed him in 2008 to be the official head of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome.
This further piece of evidence, as presented here by Kath.net, might give us an idea that this current conflict is, indeed, a conflict between Pope Benedict’s attempt to Catholicize the Order of Malta more fully, and Pope Francis’ collaboration with those other elements within the Order who did not want to go along with that kind of religious restoration.
In this context, it is also important to note that it was already Kath.net which had claimed – already on 28 December (i.e., even before Edward Pentin’s own reporting on Cardinal Marx’ role) and with reference to its own special sources – that it was Cardinal Reinhard Marx who had intervened with the pope in favor of von Boeselager. As we all know, Cardinal Marx represents that part of the Church’s hierarchy which wishes more leniently to allow Holy Communion for the “remarried” divorcees, according to Cardinal Kasper’s ethos – and against Pope Benedict XVI’s own final teaching in this matter.
Do we not likewise now effectively see here a continuation of a breach with Pope Benedict that has been subtly worked out by Pope Francis – and which has, even publicly, been quiescently tolerated and effectively ignored by Benedict himself?
It is, indeed, noteworthy that Julius Müller-Meiningen – in his own recent above-quoted article on the Order of Malta – ends his analysis with the following quite piercing – and yet truthful – comment:
The progressive wing of the Order [of Malta] sees Pope Francis as a pioneer for an updated and contemporary organization of the Maltese Order. For the others, he is a phenomenon that will pass away one day. Much like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who retired four years ago. He was, in the eyes of the Catholic traditionalists, once an unswerving rock in the turmoil of the Zeitgeist. But, he was, after all, also a German who then became weak, who came down from the cross and who, with his retirement, thereby made the current disorder altogether possible in the first place. [my emphasis]
Does it, then, still astonish us – in light of these tragic changes since Benedict’s resignation – that Stephan Freiherr Spies von Büllesheim himself, the Chancellor of the German Association of the Order of Malta, at once rushed in to thank Pope Francis for his recent intervention (and unmistakable intrusion into the Order’s sovereign affairs) – as we see in his 27 January interview with the German Bishops’ website Katholisch.de? Von Spies speciously insisted in that interview that “a German clique [“Seilschaft” – interestingly exactly the expression used the day before by Julius Müller-Meiningen] does not exist” in Rome and that “we are utmost grateful that the Holy See has assisted the Order in this constitutional crisis so quickly and so safely [by requesting Fraʾ Festing’s abdication].”
Significantly, the German Bishops’s own website also asked von Spies the rhetorical question as to whether “Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke is now still tenable to be the Cardinal Patron of the Order of Malta?” [my emphasis]
Nonetheless, it seems that some of the important pieces of this complicated puzzle are now falling into place. And they do not appear to support – much less to argue in favor of – Guido Horst’s own ethereal claims and twofold thesis: namely, (1) there does not in fact exist any “liberal German branch of the Order of Malta”; and (2) there is no truth at all in the conservatives’ currently proposed “Black Legend” concerning the Order, as it is now purportedly also being circulated by them in Rome. Therefore, on the evidence of the varied above-quoted German and Austrian sources, Horst’s own claims appear not to correspond to reality.
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.