The Order of Malta, the ancient Roman Catholic aristocratic lay order, has told Pope Francis that his decision to launch an investigation into the ouster of a top official over an old condom scandal is "unacceptable."
In an extraordinary rebuke of the pontiff, the group said late Friday that the replacement of its grand chancellor was an "act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence."
Francis on Thursday appointed a five-member commission to investigate the Dec. 8 ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager amid suggestions that Francis' own envoy to the group, conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke, helped engineer it without his blessing. Burke has emerged as one of Francis' top critics.
One charge used against von Boeselager concerned a program that the order's Malteser International aid group had participated in several years ago with other aid groups to help sex slaves in Myanmar, including giving them condoms to protect them from HIV infection.
Church teaching bars the use of artificial contraception. Von Boeselager has said as soon as the order's headquarters in Rome learned of the condom distribution, two of the projects were immediately halted. A third continued, he said, so as not to deprive a poor region of Myanmar of all basic medical services. The project eventually ended after the Vatican's doctrine office intervened.
Burke is a hardliner on enforcing church teaching on sexual morals. As a result, the dispute roiling the order reflects the broader ideological divisions in the Catholic Church that have intensified during Francis' papacy, which has emphasized the merciful side of the church over its doctrinaire side.
Von Boeselager has said he was asked, and then ordered to resign Dec. 6 during a meeting with Burke and the order's leader, who suggested that the resignation was "in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See." He said he subsequently learned that the Holy See had made no such request.
In its statement, the Knights of Malta said the pope's decision to appoint a commission to investigate von Boeselager's replacement was a result of a misunderstanding with the Vatican's secretariat of state.
The Order of Malta has many trappings of a sovereign state, issuing its own stamps, passports and license plates and holding diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.
The Holy See, however, has a unique relationship with the order since the pope appoints a cardinal to "promote the spiritual interests" of the order and its relationship with the Vatican. Francis appointed Burke to that position in 2014 after removing him as the Vatican's supreme court justice.
Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, says the pope's investigation was complicated, given the sovereign nature of both the order and the Holy See under international law.
"The way it has been perceived, it's as if they're looking into the order, and that's why there is the backlash from the order," he said in a phone interview.
Martens also suggested that nominating Knights of Malta members as part of the pope's commission could be problematic.
"It makes sense that you ask members" because they are familiar with the order, he said. "But then you have a huge conflict of interest because they are investigating their 'head of state.'"
The knights trace their history to the 11th-century Crusades with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people 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.