Knights of Malta condom scandal stretches from Myanmar to the Vatican

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Split in lay order after senior official was dismissed over distribution of free prophylactics and the Holy See hierarchy sought to intervene

The Knights of Malta, the ancient Catholic lay order, is refusing to cooperate with a Vatican investigation into the sacking of a senior official over a condom scandal and is warning its members to toe the line if they choose to speak with investigators.

In a statement on Tuesday the Knights called Pope Franciss investigation legally irrelevant and aimed at limiting its sovereignty. It insisted that the ouster of its grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, was an act of internal governance that in no way involved religious superiors.

The order told its members that if they spoke with Vatican-appointed investigators they must not contradict the decision of the orders leadership to replace Boeselager.

Boeselager was suspended on 8 December after he refused a demand by the top Knight, Matthew Festing, to resign over revelations that the orders charity branch distributed tens of thousands of condoms in Myanmar under his watch.

Church teaching forbids the use of artificial contraception; Boeselager has said he didnt know about the condom distribution programme and eventually stopped it when he learned of it.

Albrecht von Boeselager was dismissed after a Knights of Malta charity distributed tens of thousands of free condoms in Myanmar. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Boeselager has said Festing in the presence of conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke indicated that the Holy See wanted him to quit. But the Vaticans secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has since said the pope wanted no such thing.

Burke, who is a top critic of Francis but also the pontiffs ambassador to the Knights of Malta, is a hardliner on enforcing church teaching on sexual morals.

As a result the dispute in some way reflects the broader ideological divisions in the Catholic church that have intensified during Franciss papacy, which has emphasised the merciful side of the church over its doctrinaire side.

In a more narrow sense, though, the scandal within the ancient aristocratic Catholic group is about a power struggle and the possibly questionable application of promises of obedience within a religious order.

As a second-class knight Boeselager promised obedience to his superior. But Boeselager has said church law doesnt require him to obey an act that violates the Knights own constitution. He maintains that Festing committed a series of legal and procedural errors in demanding his resignation that violated the orders constitution.

Festing and Burkes allies have justified the ouster by arguing that Boeselagers refusal to obey Festing was disgraceful and that the condom scandal represented an irredeemable breach.

The conservative, anti-abortion Lepanto Institute, for example, compiled a detailed dossier of United Nations reports that showed the orders Malteser International group distributed thousands of condoms through anti-HIV and family planning programs.

Members sympathetic to Boeselager have denounced what they consider a coup and reminded Festing that he, too, took a vow of obedience: to the pope. They welcome the Vaticans investigation but canon lawyers have cautioned that the sovereign nature of the Knights of Malta makes Vatican intervention problematic.

The Order of Malta employs many trappings of a sovereign state. It issues its own stamps, passports and licence plates and holds diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.

But in its 22 December announcement of its investigation, the Vatican cited its status as a lay religious order that is at the service to the faith and the Holy Father.

The Order trace its history to the 11th century with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for pilgrims of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who provide health care in hospitals and clinics around the world.

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