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Knives Out: Knights of Malta Saga Reaches New Crisis Point

Editor’s Note: Malta Insider is a pseudonym that encompasses the collaborative efforts of multiple concerned insiders with knowledge of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. 

The internal civil war that has been running in the Order of Malta for the past four years shows no sign of slackening. In fact, it has just taken a dramatic turn, as the two letters recently sent to Cardinal Becciu posted here show. For those Catholics who wonder what this almost Dan Brown–like story has to do with them, it is worth noting that this is no sideshow; it is a microcosm of the crisis of the Church, involving many of the world’s most influential Catholic lay people including key figures in the German church.

To recapitulate, hostilities originally broke out in December 2016, when the former grand master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, tried to dismiss his grand chancellor, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, for his responsibility in the widespread distribution of condoms as part of the Order’s charitable works. Boeselager appealed to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Parolin, and the result was that Pope Francis in January 2017 summoned Festing to the Vatican and ordered him to resign, while Boeselager was reinstated. At the same time Pope Francis named Cardinal Becciu as his special delegate to the Order — in effect violating the Order’s sovereignty and putting it under Vatican control.

The financial and other entanglements behind this coup d’état will be familiar to those who have kept up with the story. What has followed since then has been the campaign of Boeselager to consolidate his grip on power and crush the party who believe that Festing was right in trying to dismiss him. Boeselager is backed by the rich and powerful German Association of the Order, whose president is Prince Erich Lobkowicz, and they have shown themselves past masters in running circles around a weak and disorganized opposition. They scored a triumph in June 2019, when the new government of the Order was elected. Of the 18 government places to be filled, all but one were filled by candidates on the German-prepared slate. The linchpin of the campaign was the election as new Grand Master of the elderly Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre as a compliant figurehead, which occurred in 2018, but he unexpectedly upset the conspirators’ plans by dying “too early” in April of this year.

In practical terms, the program of Boeselager and the Germans is to “modernize” the Order by effectively doing away with its character as a religious order, which it has possessed since the 12th century, and to have it run by its lay members as a kind of posh medical NGO. They want to cut down the powers and voting rights of the professed knights, those who take the three religious vows and who are alone eligible to hold the leading offices, including that of grand master.

To do this, Boeselager had been working toward an Extraordinary Chapter General, a kind of constitutional convention, to have been held this coming November. Unfortunately for him, he was caught napping by the death of Grand Master Dalla Torre, at the height of the coronavirus lockdown. The significance of this is that only a grand master (or a duly elected lieutenant of the grand master) has the power, under the Order’s statutes, to summon such a special meeting of the Order’s leadership. The result was that, as soon as the death occurred, a decree was rushed out, bearing the grand master’s signature with the date April 28, summoning the Chapter General. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the grand master was already dead then, as publicly announced by Prince Lobkowicz himself on the morning of the 28th. The story was then changed, and he was said to have died a few minutes after midnight on the 29th. Even if that is true, the decree summoning the Chapter General would have been signed on his deathbed.

The Order was thus confronting two events: an election for a new grand master and the Chapter General with its radical “reforms” — and here a new cause of conflict arises. Under the Order’s statutes, an Extraordinary Chapter General can be presided over by only a grand master or a permanent lieutenant elected as such — not an Interim Lieutenant such as the Order has at present. But Boeselager and his party were insisting on holding the Chapter General first, illegally and against the statutes, so that the rules might be changed and the grand master elected under the new ones. Over this they were in conflict with the papal delegate, Cardinal Becciu, who has insisted on the legal dispositions being respected.

This brings us to the paradoxical situation that has been developing over the past three years. Boeselager’s position as ruler of the Order depends entirely on the support of the Vatican, which reinstated him as grand chancellor and blocks the return of the former grand master, Festing. Yet Boeselager’s relations with Cardinal Becciu have been going from bad to worse. They have now reached a crisis point over Boeselager’s wish to reverse the order of the election and Chapter General. In the past few weeks, Boeselager is known to have been lobbying Cardinal Parolin to have Cardinal Becciu overruled, or even removed as papal delegate. To put it mildly, this has not helped Becciu to look on him as a friend.

In playing his trump card, which is his close relationship with Cardinal Parolin, Boeselager has failed. This was the weapon that enabled him in 2017 to get the Grand Master thrown out and himself reinstated, and his record in the condom distribution scandal brushed under the carpet. Yet Cardinal Parolin has shown himself unwilling to be used again. His intervention in 2017, bringing down a grand master who is supposed to be a sovereign head of state, exposed him to extensive criticism, and Cardinal Parolin, it seems, has said no to a permanent role in pulling Baron Boeselager’s chestnuts out of the fire.

Some signs of the undercurrents in this war are given by a series of comments recently placed on the internet by an anonymous Italian knight under the name “falconemaltese.” The last of these, on July 8, so incensed the German chaplain Fra’ Georg Lenerke that he published a reply in very inelegant language. Fra’ Georg has for years been the main agent in blocking German knights from taking vows and ensuring the present situation, in which there is not a single German professed knight in the Order — a state of affairs that bolsters the German wish to reduce the role of the professed and exalt that of the lay members. In his reply to “falconemaltese,” Fra’ Georg accused the professed knights of desiring only “more power.” This accusation stands on its head the real situation in the Order, which is that for years, the professed have been reduced to the absolute minimum of places in the Order’s government that the statutes permit, and the German plan is to entrench this abuse and indeed extend it.

Fra’ Georg’s tirade drew a quick response from an American professed knight, Fra’ James-Michael von Stroebel in Washington, D.C., who has shown himself as one of the few ready to stand up to the German offensive. Fra’ James-Michael pointed out the irregularities in the methods whereby Boeselager and his party have been preparing the “reforming” Chapter General, and he asserted, against Fra’ Georg, that what the professed are seeking is the defense of their position as the core members of what is and has always been a religious order.

But the major bombshell in this war came with a letter to Cardinal Becciu written on July 6 by the presidents of the four North American Associations of the Order (three in the U.S. plus the Canadian one). They complain that their Associations have been excluded from the reform process that is supposed to be in progress, and that this has been kept limited to the small circle of European Associations within the German orbit. They express their concerns about a meeting of presidents of Associations due to be held in Switzerland this September, and they point out in fairly unambiguous language that such meetings have a record of being rigged by Prince Lobkowicz. They say to Cardinal Becciu: “We respectfully request your assistance to restore the Order to normal governance.” Their core demand is that an election for grand master be held first, and that grand master should then summon the intended Chapter General. The implication is that the existing arrangements for its summons are seriously irregular.

The significance of this American intervention could not be missed by anyone. They were appealing to Cardinal Becciu to take action against Boeselager, and if he did so, the latter’s whole position as instrument of the Vatican in the Order would fall to the ground. The magnitude of the danger was shown by the response it elicited. Prince Lobkowicz issued an immediate letter of reply, in tones that suggest a touch of hysteria, signed by the circle of presidents of European Associations whom he has under his thumb. It was quickly followed by another letter of reply signed by the members of the Government Council (remember: the collection of yes-men whom Boeselager managed to install in government last year).

Events since then have shown that they were right to be panicked. On July 11, just five days after the American letter, it became clear that the German party had been routed. Summons were sent out for the magistral election, to be held on November 7 — i.e., before the date set for the “reforming” Chapter General. But more than that, the Chapter General itself has been canceled. No official pronouncement on the subject has been issued, but this measure shows that the subterfuge by which the Germans tried to get their “reform” under the signature of a dead grand master has been exposed for what it is.

There is still a battle ahead, for the new grand master, when elected, is expected to summon a Chapter General under his own authority, and that will presumably meet at six months’ notice. So the struggle between the secularizing and the religious parties in the Order continues. It is a matter of what the balance of forces will be after this massive defeat of the grand chancellor. One significant factor may be noted: the group of European presidents who signed Lobkowicz’s letter against the Americans does not include the Italian Association, which is by far the largest in Europe. Indeed, the Italians, together with the four North American Associations, account for a large majority of the worldwide Order. If they make common cause against the clique that has taken over power since 2017, the German grip over the alleged “reform” process may be ended. And Boeselager’s days as de facto absolute ruler of the Order could be numbered.

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