Knights of Malta Coup Turns Sights on Cardinal Burke

(Image Source: EWTN)

Last month, we recounted the long and sordid story of the toppling of the Knights of Malta. Three particularly troubling events stood out at the conclusion of that story:

First, the resignation of Fra’ Matthew Festing, Grand Master of the Order, forced by Pope Francis with an alleged demand that he state for the record that Cardinal Raymond Burke was responsible for what had transpired. Also, the subsequent nullification of his previous acts and decrees to such an extent that a number of important pieces of historical information on the Order’s website were erased.

Second, the Vatican-ordered reinstatement of Abrecht von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor, despite evidence that during his tenure as Grand Hospitaller for the order, he oversaw programs that distributed contraceptives as part of the relief services and aid that the Order provides.

Third, the imposition of a “papal delegate” — Archbishop Becciu —  who would act as liaison and “exclusive spokesman” between the Vatican and the Order — a task which should have fallen under the purview of the Order’s Cardinal Patron, Raymond Burke.

These are not the only troubling elements of the story, but are perhaps the most noteworthy for our purposes, all under the larger umbrella of papal interference in the governance of an entity that has sovereignty under international law.

In a January 7, 2017 report — before Festing was forced out but after Boeselager was dismissed — Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register asked Cardinal Burke what happened with regard to Boeselager’s removal from the Order:

Cardinal Burke told the Register: “I can’t make any comment on these decisions because I was never consulted. I was present at the dismissal.” But he added that what concerns him “very much” in the entire “unfortunate reaction to the grand master’s just action is the loss of the heart of what is at stake, namely, a grave violation of the Church’s moral teaching and, indeed, of the natural moral law by a high profile and historic Catholic institution.” [emphasis added]

This story did not, however, come to an end with Festing’s “resignation”.

On January 29, Vaticanista Sandro Magister wrote a column entitled, After the Grand Master, Another Head Is About To Fall: That of Cardinal Burke. If the headline were not descriptive enough, Magister made plain what was coming:

What reversed the fortunes within the Order, to the point of driving it to this act of total submission to the bidding of Pope Francis, were three acts carried out in rapid succession by the pontiff himself: the summoning of the Grand Master on January 24 with the order given to him to resign; the letter on the following day from secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin with the specification of the pope’s wishes; and finally two letters on January 27 from the pope himself, with a further specification of the role to be performed by the “special delegate” whose arrival has been announced: “for the spiritual and moral renewal of the Order.”

And it is this last element that is the most newsworthy in the statement released this evening by the Order. As Settimo Cielo had correctly reported, Pope Francis has in effect granted the Order the faculty of proceeding according to its constitutions concerning its interim regency – now assumed by the Grand Commander of the Order, Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein – and the appointment of the new Grand Master. So the pope’s “special delegate” will neither replace nor overlap the legitimate governance of the Order, as many had hoped or feared. Instead he will accompany it with the task of “spiritual” guide. A task, that is, very similar to the one that already belongs by statute to the cardinal patron.

The decapitation inflicted by Pope Francis on the Order of Malta is therefore twofold. Because what is falling is not only the head of Grand Master Festing, but also, de facto, that of cardinal patron Raymond Leo Burke.

Within days, Festing’s formerly quiet indignance exploded in a report from Christopher Lamb at The Tablet, known colloquially as “The Bitter Pill” for its hard-edged liberal bias. Why Festing, himself an Englishman, would give an interview to Lamb, who seemed eager to dig up dirt on the former Grand Master, remains a subject of mystery. But on February 3, Lamb had an exclusive featuring combative quotes from the man who had fallen to the Vatican’s coup:

The Knights of Malta’s former leader has come out fighting saying the saga involving him, the Vatican and his leadership of the order is “by no means finished”

Matthew Festing resigned as Grand Master last week after a meeting with Pope Francis, a move that signalled his capitulation in a very public battle between the knights and the Holy See.

But speaking to The Tablet, Festing has stressed the complex dispute is far from over, raising the possibility of him trying to make a comeback as Grand Master or even a legal challenge to the validity of his resignation.

“This is an extremely complex situation, it is extremely fluid, and by no means finished” he said in a brief telephone conversation. “Given all this it is not appropriate for me to say anymore.”


Festing’s resignation was formally accepted by the Sovereign Council of the Order last Saturday in a meeting that he chaired where, according to sources inside the Order, he described the Pope as his “enemy.”

On February 15, as Cardinal Burke was preparing to leave for Guam to conduct depositions in a sexual abuse investigation regarding the Island’s Archbishop, Anthony S. Apuron, Ludwig Hoffman von Rumerstein, the Knights of Malta’s former Grand Commander, now acting Grand Master, gave an interview to the Austrian daily Der Standard in which he blamed Cardinal Burke for Boeselager’s ouster. In an English-language piece on that interview, papal biographer and Crux contributing editor Austen Ivereigh related Rumerstein’s accusation:

Journalists’ accounts that sourced the cardinal have described Festing asking the German to resign, while Burke sat silently present. Burke has elsewhere denied Boeselager’s account that the cardinal invoked the pope’s authority for the dismissal.

But in an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Hoffman-Rumerstein presents a very different picture.

“The conversation took place in a normal conversation form,” he told the Austrian daily Der Standard. “Boeselager said no to Cardinal Burke’s call for him to stand down. And I followed the cardinal to the car.”

Asked for the cardinal’s reaction, Hoffman-Rumerstein said: “He shook his head. He was displeased, one could say. He would have expected Boeselager to resign.”

Later in the interview, Rumerstein confirms that the December 6 meeting “was actually a conversation between Cardinal Burke and Boeselager.”

Sources in the order have long insisted that the cardinal was behind the dismissal, but until now no one has claimed on the record that Burke actually made the request.

The revelation will also prompt fresh questions about statements made by the order in December in response to letters from the secretary of state calling for Boeselager to be reinstated.

The statements, which insisted that the Order of Malta was sovereign and had no need to give an account of itself to the pope, are said to have been at Burke’s instigation.

But if Hoffmann-Rumerstein’s account is accurate, it was Burke, not the pope, who may have violated the Knights’ sovereignty: a decision to sack a member of the Sovereign Council can only be made by the order’s General Chapter, not by the pope’s chaplain, or patronus, who represents the Holy See.

Burke’s own words from Pentin’s January 7th report stood in immediate contrast to Rumerstein’s account: “I can’t make any comment on these decisions because I was never consulted.”

Pentin, therefore, reached out to Burke in Guam to ask for a comment, and received an incredulous reply:

“The account given by Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein is not accurate. I had no authority to ask the Grand Chancellor to resign. I simply stated that the person who knowingly permitted the distribution of contraceptives in the Order’s works should take responsibility, and then the Grand Master once again asked the Grand Chancellor to resign which he refused to do. Then the Grand Master proceeded to his dismissal without my involvement at all. The account of the Grand Master and myself stands.

To be frank, I am stunned by what Hoffmann von Rumerstein states in the article. I consider it a calumny.” [emphasis added]

Pentin indicated, in his brief report on the matter, that there would be more on the story this week. Thus far, however, no additional details have emerged. One source told me that Burke was unusually difficult to reach over the past few days, though his work in the sex-abuse investigation in Guam may well explain that. Burke is reported to have left Guam earlier today, so it is possible that more information will be forthcoming as he returns to Rome.

Faced with directly contradictory statements about what transpired, important questions are raised. Cardinal Burke is known as a man of strict integrity, and not even his opponents can credibly accuse him of dishonesty. Rumerstein’s account on its own would, therefore, be odd; in conjunction with the pope’s alleged insistence that Festing put the blame for Boeselager’s dismissal at Burke’s feet in his apparently involuntary resignation letter adds weight to questions of a conspiracy against the American cardinal.

Now, in a new report, Boeselager himself has indicated that Burke has been superseded by the papal delegate in his duties at the Order of Malta:

In comments translated by The Tablet, Von Boeselager told the Archdiocese of Cologne’s website,, that delegate Archbishop Angelo Becciu is now fulfilling Cardinal Burke’s role.

Becciu “has the full confidence of the Pope and is his spokesman,” von Boeselager said. “That means that Cardinal Burke as Cardinal Patron of the Order is now de facto suspended.”

As the most visible leader of the resistance to Amoris Laetitia via the dubia, opposition to Cardinal Burke has become very ardent indeed. It would be a worthy thing to pray for his safety, before another trap is sprung.

This post has been updated to reflect Boeselager’s comments about Burke’s “de facto” suspension. 

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