The leadership of the Knights of Malta is refusing to cooperate with a papal investigation into its decision to fire one of its senior leaders, claiming the inquiry has "legal irrelevance" because of the order's special historic status as a sovereign entity.
The group is also warning individual members of the prestigious lay order that if they choose to participate in the investigation they cannot make statements that would question the firing.
In a letter posted to the official website of the order Tuesday evening, the leadership states that Grand Master Matthew Festing's decision to fire Grand Chancellor Albrecht Boeselager was "an internal act of the government of the order."
With regard to Pope Francis' decision in December to create a five-member commission to investigate the firing, the leadership states: "Considering the legal irrelevance of this Group and of its findings relating to the legal structure of the Order of Malta, the Order has decided that it should not cooperate with it."
Tuesday's letter is the latest in a series of events that have rankled the normally reserved and solemn order.
Boeselager was asked to resign Dec. 6 following reports under his leadership a Knights-backed charity had distributed condoms in Myanmar. According to reports, Boeselager was asked for his resignation in a meeting that was also attended by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the order's spiritual patron.
In a personal statement distributed to members of the order Dec. 23, Boeselager said that he refused to resign as there were "no valid grounds" for his dismissal. He said that the decision to distribute condoms was made by local leaders without his knowledge in the context of three ongoing projects aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Two of the projects were closed immediately, he said. "An immediate closure of the third project would have led to the abrupt end of all basic medical services in an extremely poor region of Myanmar, so this dilemma was submitted to an ... ethics committee," he continued. "Subsequently the project was closed."
Adding to the controversy are reports that while the order told members the firing was "in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See," Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin had written to Festing clarifying that Pope Francis did not want to see Boeselager sacked.
"These measures must not be attributed to the will of the Pope or his directives," Parolin wrote in a Dec. 21 letter, as first reported by The Tablet.
"As I expressed to you in my letter of 12 December 2016: ‘as far as the use and diffusion of methods and means contrary to the moral law, His Holiness has asked for dialogue as the way to deal with, and resolve, eventual problems," the cardinal continued. "But he has never spoken of sending someone away!'"
The row led Francis to create the new papal commission Dec. 22, tasking its members, led by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, to report back to the Vatican "in short-order."
Tomasi, the former permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N. in Geneva, told the order in a letter made public Monday that the Vatican had grounds to investigate the situation because Boeselager's firing had taken place due to a supposed "refusal of obedience" on his behalf as part of a religious order.
"The issue is not the sovereignty of the Order, but the reasonable claim of questionable procedures and of lack of proven valid cause for the action taken as raised by the concerned party," Tomasi wrote in the letter, as first reported by The Tablet.
The order's leadership replied Tuesday that they are primarily recognized by the Vatican not as a religious order, but as a foreign state. They said that in the Vatican's Annuario Pontificio, a yearly address book listing Catholic prelates and entities, they are listed not as a religious order but as a state with an embassy accredited to the Holy See.
The leadership then warns that should individual members help the commission in its investigation, they cannot oppose their leader's decision.
"The position of the Grand Magistry is that the depositions that individual members consider that they could make to the Group cannot, in their terms and judgments, be in contradiction, directly or indirectly, with the decision of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council concerning the replacement of the Grand Chancellor," states the leadership.
The Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta, as it is formally known, is a lay religious order that was founded at the end of the 11th century to defend the faith and assist the poor.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]