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The Knights of Malta and the Death of Chivalry

On May 1, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which has just gone through one of its most tumultuous and troubling periods in its 900-plus-year history (see our coverage here), conducted its Chapter General. The purpose: to elect a new government. At the conclusion of the election, one thing has become clear: the takeover of the Knights of Malta is now complete.

It was the first election since the coup d’état of January, 2017, during which Fra’ Matthew Festing, the English grand master of the Order and a man with an impressive record of service, was pressured to resign by no less a figure than Pope Francis. The reason for Festing’s ouster would be almost impossible to believe if it had transpired under the leadership of a different pope: he had attempted to dismiss the Order’s grand chancellor, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, for being responsible for the widespread distribution of condoms as part of the Order’s charitable activities. Boeselager refused to go, and he appealed to the Vatican.

Indeed, it appears that Boeselager held a trump card: a bequest of some 30 million Swiss francs was due to the Order from a charitable trust. Boeselager had taken point in handling the affair, deploying a plan that allegedly involved canceling a lawsuit the Order had filed against the trustee for improper management and negotiating instead an agreement to have the money paid out with no questions asked. The Vatican appeared poised to take a cut of the money, and so did a certain papal nuncio in Switzerland. If Boeselager had been dismissed, the deal would, at the very least, have been delayed for an indefinite period of time, because Grand Master Festing believed in doing things by the book.

For Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, this appears to have been a more important consideration than the enforcement of the Church’s moral teaching. In an unprecedented intervention into the affairs of an organization that has sovereign status under international law, Cardinal Parolin commanded the Order to reverse Boeselager’s dismissal. A few days later Pope Francis summoned Fra’ Matthew Festing to the Vatican and told him he should resign as grand master, and that Boeselager should be reinstated. The pope also asked that “Fra’ Festing include in his letter of resignation that the Grand Master had asked for Boeselager’s dismissal under the influence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Order” — an accusation Cardinal Burke has flatly denied.

Boeselager, for his part, was reluctant to allow the public to believe he knew about the condoms or had his hands near the money, and he attempted to sue the Austrian Catholic news organization for merely reporting on what was already in the press about it. Unfortunately for him, an Austrian court threw out the suit, saying that “the compelling conclusion is, in the conviction of the chamber [of the court], that the claimant is himself responsible for all above-mentioned accusations, which necessarily also involves his knowledge of all the relevant circumstances.

For the Vatican, the question of Boeselager’s guilt seems to have been irrelevant from the outset. Again, we see a triumph peculiar to Francis’s papacy — one in which Catholic moral teaching counts for little and money or ideology counts a great deal. We again find that a religious superior who tried to enforce the Church’s moral teaching was punished, but a man who violated it was reinstated. More than reinstated, in fact, for it appears that Boeselager, who holds the lesser position of grand chancellor (i.e., prime minister) of the Order, nevertheless now has total control of the Order of Malta, with the Vatican’s backing. The new grand master who replaced Festing, Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre, is considered by Order insiders a nonentity who has neither the will nor the skill to oppose his powerful subordinate.

The rout doesn’t end there. The Order’s Sovereign Council — its body of governance — has ten members. Of these, Festing’s three leading supporters — Fra’ Duncan Gallie, Fra’ John Critien, and the American Geoffrey Gamble — have been pushed out, only to be replaced with members more amenable to the new regime.

A purge of the old government of the Order has thus been accomplished. It is worth examining how.

The fact is that the coup of 2017 did not come out of the blue. Instead, as insiders know, its foundations were laid in the election of 2014, when Baron von Boeselager first came to office as grand chancellor. His rise came as a candidate of the Order’s powerful German lobby, which won an unprecedented victory on that occasion. (We previously covered their influence in the Festing-Boeselager saga here.) As with the German episcopacy, the basis of power for the Order’s German faction is money: the German Association is the richest of the Order’s 47 national associations, inasmuch as it benefits from lavish subsidies from the German government, an advantage none of the other chapters enjoy. The German knights, under the leadership of their president, Prince Erich Lobkowicz, have taken advantage of this position of strength, and in 2014, they scored a decisive success with the election of Baron von Boeselager.

Prior to those elections, Boeselager was confined to the position of Hospitaller, which is why he was responsible for the order’s charitable works, through which the distribution of contraceptives he was accused of orchestrating was accomplished. When he sought election as grand chancellor, insiders say, Fra’ Festing opposed him, not because he knew about the condom scandal at that time, but because he saw Boeselager as unsuitable for the post. Unfortunately, the election was mishandled. Festing and his partisans made tactical errors, and the Germans were well organized and ready to pounce. Not only was Boeselager elected grand chancellor, but two other Germans, Count Henckel and Count Esterhazy, were also elected to the Sovereign Council. For the Germans, having three members in a governing council of ten was itself a national representation beyond that of any other country. As if that were not enough, two of the other members elected were also nominees of the German lobby, effectively giving the Germans five votes out of ten. It was a success said to have taken even the Germans by surprise. According to circles close to Prince Lobkowicz, he is said to have commented at the time: “There will be a price to pay for this.”

He didn’t know how right he was.

The upshot of this earlier victory was that when the condom distribution scandal came to light in 2016, Festing’s hands were tied. According to the Order’s constitutions, the dismissal of a high officer requires a two-thirds majority in the Council. But the Germans’ control of the votes blocked that. Festing, therefore, attempted an end run around the procedure, ordering Baron von Boeselager to resign under his religious promise of obedience (also allowed under the Order’s law, but only when justified for moral reasons). Ultimately, it was that unusual exercise of the grand master’s authority that enabled Boeselager to appeal to the Vatican. Had he been voted out by the Council, he would have had no recourse.

The outcome of all of this, as we now know, was that Pope Francis not only reinstated Boeselager, but forced the grand master who tried to rein him in to resign — an act without precedent in the Order’s long history, and controversial among canonists familiar with the order’s position in the Church. As the beneficiary of this coup, Boeselager has made attempts — in some instances, at the business end of legal injunctions — to silence criticism and stamp out any resistance from those who believed that Fra’ Festing was in the right. He has followed a policy of threatening journalists who reported unfavorably on his case, as when he brought the aforementioned libel action against for merely repeating an account that had been published in the German-language magazine Bild. (It is noteworthy that Boeselager did not sue Bild itself, which had more resources at its disposal with which to fight back.) After the court in Hamburg dismissed Boeselager’s suit — a decision he made no attempt to appeal — those in the Order of Malta who understood the legal significance of the case were reportedly astonished that he did not resign. Insiders tell me that it has become customary to refer to Boeselager as Kondomlager (“condom-shop”), in reference to the scandal that he has successfully buried since his triumphant, Vatican-backed return to office. But Boeselager’s iron-fisted control of the Order’s apparatus, I’m told, has allowed him to suppress these critical voices and further extend his power and influence.

And so he has. At the May elections, he secured another five-year term as grand chancellor. The German power bloc of 2014 prevailed again. Prince Lobkowicz is said to be a master at managing the representation of the presidents of the Order’s National Associations, of whom he is the dean. These presidents represent a secular element in an electoral body whose other members either are full religious (the professed knights) or have taken promises of religious obedience.

But the Germans were not content with that advantage. Grand Master dalla Torre, who critics say now acts as Boeselager’s puppet, ordered two of the professed knights to withdraw their candidacies during the election. Since they felt obliged to obey their religious superior, they acquiesced, in precisely the way that Boeselager did not when he refused to obey Grand Master Festing’s order that he resign in 2016.

The critical difference is that Festing was justified by the laws governing the Order, whereas dalla Torre’s command violated canon law, which guarantees freedom of election in any religious order. Under the present regime in the Vatican, however, there is no hope of an appeal against this abuse. It is worth asking, however, how long the current government of the order can rely on that support, which has been so vital to their takeover. After all, popes don’t live forever.

For the time being, the methods deployed by Boeselager and his partisans have steamrolled the opposition. At the Chapter General, they drafted a list of those candidates they found acceptable for election to the positions of the four high officers; the remaining six members of the Sovereign Council; and the six members of the Government Council, which has an ancillary role. Of these, all four of the high officers were elected according to their demands, together with five out of the six other members of the Sovereign Council, and all six members of the Government Council. The echoes of a communist nomenklatura are difficult to miss.

Though many Knights of Malta are deeply troubled by what has transpired within their beloved order, the Germans have succeeded in crushing all effective opposition to their ascendancy. Prince Lobkowicz’s prescient comment, in 2014, was that “there will be a price to pay” for what they had done. This applies even more strongly to both the 2017 coup and their recent electoral victory, both of which have all the appearance of a serious overreach. Thus far, the only members of the order who have paid any price were Fra’ Matthew Festing and his loyalists, and that for merely upholding the morals and standards of the Order.

The weakness of the new regime appears to lie in just how dependent it is upon the favor of the present Vatican. When power shifts at the Holy See — and it is certainly a question of when, not if — Grand Chancellor von Boeselager may find that he has to answer not only for the evils for which Fra’ Matthew called him to account in 2016, but also for the manner in which he sought retribution for it and has governed the Order ever since.

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