The Knights of Malta: Disunity and Disorientation

A few days ago, OnePeterFive published an article describing the epic reverse suffered by Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, grand chancellor of the Order of Malta, in his attempt to force through a “reforming” Chapter General with his own secularizing agenda. He was defeated by the papal delegate, Cardinal Becciu, who insisted on the Order’s laws being respected, which in this case means that the proposed Chapter General will have to be summoned by the new head of the Order to be elected in November. It is interesting to see that this descriptive article has prompted the appearance of a Memorandum on reform directed to Cardinal Becciu, signed by three acting heads of the Order’s Grand Priories.

Click image below to read the full letter (PDF):

Their letter accompanying the Memorandum begins artlessly: “The recently published article in OnePeterFive is trying to sow further unrest and disunity within our Order.” Such is the description given nowadays to dissent from the dictatorial rule of Grand Chancellor Boeselager, but one notices that the horror of unrest and disunity is a new priority with that gentleman. When in December 2016 he was dismissed by his grand master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, for his responsibility in the distribution of condoms as part of the Order’s charitable works, Boeselager did not hesitate to appeal outside the Order, to German cardinals and to the Vatican secretary of state, and so successful was his politicking that Pope Francis summoned Fra’ Matthew to the Vatican and ordered him to resign, a case of papal interference in the Order without precedent for centuries. At that time, the fear of sowing unrest and disunity was not uppermost in Baron Boeselager’s mind. He was focused on a loftier ideal, that of keeping his job at any cost.

Since then, Boeselager has governed the Order in all-controlling fashion, suppressing opposition and imposing his placemen in every position in government. When we hear “unrest and disunity” mentioned, we should therefore understand them in the terms of this totalitarianism, which the Order has suffered for the past three years. A central plank in Boeselager’s program has been the plan to “reform” the Order, which in his mind means secularizing it and abolishing the rule of the professed. These are the knights who take the three religious vows and who maintain the Order’s traditional character as a full religious order of the Church.

In this light, we need to read the document that accompanies the Knights’ letter to Cardinal Becciu, the “Memorandum regarding the reform of the Order.” It seems to be not the work of the Boeselager party, but rather a competing proposal. Ostensibly, it is devoted to preserving the role of the professed, but it suffers from having been produced under the conditions of Boeselager’s crushing regime, thus under a secularizing vision. It offers no basis for any effective role of the professed in a future Order of Malta.

For such a role, two requisites are essential. One is an economic organization, such as the Order had until it lost most of its endowments in the French Revolution and afterward. The lack of such corporate resources is what has weakened the role of the professed knights of Malta in modern times. It has reduced them to scattered individuals obliged to earn their own living, without organization as a religious community and without unity of action. The Memorandum makes no proposal to remedy this weakness and is thus condemned to failure.

But the second, far more important, requisite is a strategic vision, and in this the Order in recent times has been totally empty. At one time, beginning in the 19th century, an attempt was made to provide such a strategy by taking the focus of the Order’s charitable action back to its origin: the Holy Land. Through a combination of accidents, these attempts proved rather ill fated, but the most serious of the accidents appeared in our own times, in the shape of Albrecht von Boeselager. Ever since he became grand Hospitaller in 1989, he has steadily opposed any attempt to bring the Order’s vocation back to its origins in the Holy Land. Instead, his concept for the Order is one of generalized and secularized do-goodery, a vision of which the condoms fiasco was the natural product. The Order of Malta is the most ancient of the Hospitaller orders of the Church, representing a vocation that for nine hundred years has sought to bring charity and spiritual support to the sick, and Boeselager’s interpretation of that heritage is that the Order should be distributing condoms to the ends of the earth. It is obvious that in such a vision, no place is found for the dedication of a community of religious men.

Not only is the Holy Land the cradle of the Order’s vocation, but there is no part of the world today where Christianity is so much under threat, and which cries out so much for a Western religious body to give aid and spiritual support. It would be the ideal venue for the deployment of an active religious vocation, as that of the Knights Hospitaller is supposed to be. But Baron Boeselager wants nothing to do with it. Now, it is conceivable that some other strategic ideal could be proposed, something that would provide an alternative center for the Order’s activity, but no such alternative has in fact been suggested. Without it, the Order’s works are an international mishmash, and it is useless to propose any coherent role for the professed knights among them.

On this subject, we need to realize that the scandal of the condom distribution was only part of the corruption behind the German coup d’état. In 2016, Fra’ Matthew Festing had grown appalled at the ignorance and disregard of the Church’s teaching shown by members of the Order responsible for its medical work, and he was trying to set up a comprehensive ethics commission to ensure that the Order, in its charitable work, conducted itself as a genuinely Catholic organization. With Boeselager’s seizure of power, that has all, of course, been buried. The point to be made is that what the Order of Malta stands in need of is a radical re-education of its members in Catholic ethics. Without that, trying to revivify it with a body of religious knights is like trying to purify a dung heap by sprinkling sugar on it.

That is the moral aspect of the real reform that is required, but we need to look also at the constitutional side. The quiet scandal of the Order over the past half-century is the way it has been allowed to drift into being essentially a secular institution. In the past, the Order of Malta was seen as fully a religious order, and it was governed solely by its professed knights. The new constitution brought in (at Vatican prompting) in 1961 provided that the grand master and at least half the ten-member Sovereign Council should be professed. A maximum of five places on the Council could be filled by Knights of Obedience — those who made only religious promises instead of vows. But this was supposed to be exceptional and required papal dispensation for each case. By an unscrutinized abuse, the custom has grown up of invariably electing Knights of Obedience to the maximum allowed by statute. This has resulted in the growth of a nakedly secularizing party, of which Boeselager is the all-powerful spokesman.

It is essential that this trend be reversed and that the Order be brought back to its character as a religious order. The Knights of Obedience have to be confined again to what they were always supposed to be: a tolerated minority in its government. In this respect, the vision expressed in the Memorandum to Cardinal Becciu is disastrous; it represents a complete surrender to Boeselager’s secularizing plan. Its section “d” obviously contemplates the religious being reduced to a monastic sideshow. Particularly damaging is this sentence: “the role of the Grand Master and Grand Commander — while obviously being head of the religious order — must in other governmental respects be essentially representative.” In other words, they are to be mere figureheads, while the real government of the Order is carried on by secular members. The phrase even suggests a change of statute whereby the grand master and grand commander (the only officers who are required to be professed) would be reduced to being the only professed knights in the Order’s government.

By making these proposals, the authors have surrendered to the thesis concocted by Boeselager that, under the Order’s Constitution, the grand master is supposed to be a figurehead. He has invented the myth that Grand Master Festing, in seeking to govern the Order effectively, was overstepping the Constitution and that he, Boeselager, by concentrating power in his own hands as grand chancellor, has brought the Order back to constitutional propriety. He further implemented this vision by contriving the election of the late Grand Master Dalla Torre, who was a mere puppet.

But Boeselager’s thesis is pure fiction. There is no hint in the Constitution of 1961 that the grand master is anything but the authoritative ruler of the Order that he was for nine hundred years. In practice, however, much ground was lost by two rather weak grand masters in recent times who were inclined to leave too much power to their grand chancellors. This was part of what Grand Master Festing wanted to change when he was elected. The last thing the Order should be doing now is entrenching the abuse of the late twentieth century and condemning the Order to rule by a succession of nonentities, with real power held by a secularizing grand chancellor.

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