On 16 May OnePeterFive described the takeover of power in the Order of Malta by the German, secularising party led by the Grand Chancellor, Baron von Boeselager. The story goes back to December 2016, when the then Grand Master, Fra Matthew Festing, attempted to dismiss Boeselager. The latter got Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to intervene and annul the Order’s acts. Next, in January 2017, Pope Francis ordered Fra Matthew to resign as Grand Master, and Boeselager was reinstated. In 2018 Boeselager insisted on the election as Grand Master of a nonentity, Fra Giacomo dalla Torre, who is now the figurehead for Boeselager’s regime. Then, last May, the takeover was completed by the elections to the new government of the Order, which amounted to the total victory of the German party. As OnePeterFive revealed, the list that the Germans presented was elected almost unchanged: all four of the high officers of the Order, five out of the six other members of the Sovereign Council, and all six members of the Government Council, which has an ancillary role.
Within weeks, any thoughts that this absolute power might be exercised with discretion and moderation have gone by the board. In Portugal, an emissary of the Grand Magistry has arrived, dismissed the entire council of the Portuguese Association, and appointed a new council by fiat, in defiance of the custom that such bodies are elected by the local members. In England, the Grand Prior has been dismissed and a Procurator has been imposed, again without election. In Rome, the entire council of the Delegation (the body that assembles all the knights of the Roman area) has resigned. This is significant, since these are the members of the Order closest to what is going on in the Grand Magistry, and what they see horrifies them. What the foregoing acts seem to show is a Stalinist purge by the new regime, when they have been in power for less than two months.
Another incident in this dictatorship was the letter of the Grand Master banning the Old Rite in the Order’s ceremonies, an act on which I commented a few days ago. Marco Tosatti cast a new light on the letter by revealing that the President of the Scandinavian Association, who had asked for the ban, is in fact a German woman – a bitter opponent of the traditional liturgy – who was imposed on the Association as President by the regime in Rome, with the aid of another German woman resident in Scandinavia. The Scandinavian Association as a whole had hitherto distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm for the Old Rite; but the ban on it was demanded and imposed behind their backs. This is typical of the way Boeselager manipulates the various branches of the Order, sneaking in his own moles, and is then able to pretend that an act of intolerance such as this comes from an independent source.
The German regime is invoking a pretext of “reform” for what it is doing, but in that light it is useful to look at the treatment of the Grand Priory of England. The Grand Prior, Fra Ian Scott, was the only knight in it with noble qualifications, and therefore eligible to be Grand Prior without dispensation. Removing him has made it impossible for a new Prior to be elected, because the one feature of the old regime that the Germans do not want to change is the nobiliary rules. The German Association is the most exclusively aristocratic in the Order (and one must regret that it has fallen under the control of a faction completely at enmity with its traditions). As I pointed out in my account of the bringing down of Grand Master Festing in The Dictator Pope, that move was an aristocratic coup d’état in the Order, against the Grand Master’s party who were more interested in the Order’s religious character. The three German members of the Sovereign Council, then as now, are noblemen: Baron Boeselager, Count Esterhazy and Count Henckel. For all the sanctimonious claims of reform being made by the present government, what reforming purpose is served by keeping the Grand Priory of England without its regular head by insisting on nobiliary qualifications?
The Boeselager regime is in fact an exercise in institutionalised hypocrisy, and last week it produced its masterpiece with the issue of a letter from the Grand Master to the professed knights regarding the vow of poverty. For years, Baron Boeselager has been working for a policy in which the professed knights will be forced to give up their property to the Order, which would then pay them a living allowance. The Grand Master’s letter last week required the knights to make a declaration of the property they own, with an estimate of what they need to live on. Now, at first sight it seems anomalous that men who make a vow of poverty should own property; yet that is necessary because the Order of Malta, unlike other religious orders, has hitherto lacked the means to support its religious. In fact the Order in modern times has not merely allowed but required its professed to retain sufficient funds to support themselves. Knights of Justice who made their religious profession on this understanding are now unilaterally being asked to give up their property. Nobody doubts that this is a way to force some of the knights – those who will not accept the change – out of the Order, and to make the rest helpless dependants on the German regime. What more powerful threat could there be than to take away people’s livelihoods? This is Stalinism with a refinement – not simply the confiscation of property but the pretence of religious duty in imposing it.
We need to realise that there is no religious order that requires its professed to surrender their property to the order itself. Such a demand would savour of a protection racket, all the more so in an order which recruits its members typically from the higher classes; and the Church has always guarded well against allowing it. Religious orders vary a great deal in the strictness with which the vocation of poverty is interpreted, but normally those who enter an order are allowed to keep their property until they profess; they then renounce it but are free to distribute it to whoever they please. In the Order of Malta, the historical practice was rather different, as was natural in an order recruited from noblemen who were expected to keep up their status. Knights of Justice were allowed the use of their property during their lifetime, on the condition that when they died they bequeathed four fifths of it to the Order. It was also the custom that a knight did not normally profess until he was appointed to a commandery or other benefice of the Order, which he held for life, so that the renunciation of his property was in the nature of a quid pro quo.
If such a requirement were made now, it would be in line with historic practice, but the “reform” that is being talked of shows a quite different inspiration. In the first place, an order that had a genuine project of reform would begin by defining what the role of the professed is intended to be in the new dispensation. No such vision has even been suggested. It is being demanded that the professed in future live in community, but no-one has revealed where such a community would be, or what its nature is. Historically, the Knights Hospitaller lived in Convent to serve as the garrison of the headquarters of the Order, and when they had fulfilled their military service they left the Convent and were appointed administrators of the Order’s estates. Without such a military function (and without the estates), what would be the purpose of a community of knights? The plan is based on an assumption that a religious community can only be monastic in type, which is contrary to the nature of a military order, and it betrays Boeselager’s resolve to reduce the professed knights to a useless monastic appendage in the Order.
To demand that the professed knights give up their property without any attempt to assign a role to them is an exercise in confiscatory cynicism. It has been foreshadowed in the attempt that Boeselager was making for years to make the three Grand Priories in Italy surrender their institutional property to the Order’s treasury. Those properties are the basis for the Priories’ existence as religious communities. It was never considered appropriate to cede them to the Grand Magistry even in the days when the Order’s central government was conducted exclusively by professed knights; it is even less appropriate now when, abusively, the Order’s treasurer is a layman, heading a department staffed wholly by lay people. We saw the same materialistic drive at the root of the whole present-day scandal, when Boeselager was able to get his dismissal reversed because the Vatican was concerned at the loss of a Swiss fund whose money he was supposed to be recovering. The motto of the present regime is “Grab the money.” That simple aim has allowed them to run rings round their brethren, who were under the innocent illusion that they were engaged in the vocation of a religious order.
The letter of the Grand Master to the professed ostensibly gives them until the end of August to make a declaration of their property; but the evidence is that this is just a formality. The recent actions of the Grand Magistry seem to be a front for a much more radical show of force. A hint of this was provided by a bullying sermon given on St John’s Day, the patronal feast, by Cardinal Becciu, the Commissar appointed by Pope Francis in January 2017, when Cardinal Burke was suspended as Patronus of the Order. Now the inside news from the Vatican is that a manufactured crisis is about to be sprung, under which most of the professed Knights of Malta are going to be forced out of the Order, leaving its government wholly at the mercy of the present Stalinist regime. Observers should take note therefore: there is every indication that within a few months the nine-hundred-year-old Order of Malta will have joined the list of the religious orders that Pope Francis has managed to destroy in his brief six years of power. We can be sure that the work will be carried out with the same hypocrisy and false pretext as in the other cases. It remains to be seen whether the Knights of Malta will allow themselves to be led to the slaughter.
Henry Sire, historian and writer of The Dictator Pope, is the author of six books on Catholic history and biography, including one on the famous English Jesuit, writer, and philosopher Father Martin D’Arcy. The Dictator Pope is the fruit of Henry Sire’s four-year residence in Rome from 2013 to 2017. During that time he became personally acquainted with many figures in the Vatican, including cardinals and curial officials, together with journalists specializing in Vatican affairs.