Francis isn’t the first Pope to intervene in an Order’s affairs. But papal power can go too far

Pope Francis leads a Marian vigil in St Peter's Square at the Vatican in October (CNS)

The Vatican takeover of the Order of Malta has a possible precedent – from 1981, when St John Paul II intervened in the internal affairs of the Jesuit Order. The then General, Padre Arrupe, elected for life, had been incapacitated by a stroke. The Jesuits decided to elect a certain Fr O’Keefe to run the Order in the incapacity of Arrupe, but the Pope intervened and appointed Fr Paolo Dezza to run the order until such a time as a new General could be elected. After a period of two years the Pope gave permission to the Jesuits to elect a new superior.

At the time, this extraordinary intervention by the Sovereign Pontiff was considered by some as an outrageous interference in the affairs of a religious order which, like all religious orders, had been until then allowed to govern itself and rejoice in its own autonomy. There were many who saw this action by John Paul II as a sign of creeping papal power, and an arrogation to himself of powers that no other Pope had used for centuries. But amidst all the noisy criticism, others were quietly pleased by the Pope’s action, seeing it as a necessary take over of the Jesuits who, under Arrupe, had lost their way. One thing was certain: as Supreme Pontiff, the Pope was quite within his rights to intervene as he had. The Pope has “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power” in the Church, as Canon 331 puts it.

No Catholic could possibly dispute the claims made by Canon 331. Whether they permit the Vatican intervention into the Order of Malta is another matter: Ed Condon has argued that they do not. But whatever the legal situation, such huge powers lose their force and effectiveness the more they are invoked. The Pope’s authority, paradoxically, is diminished through use. As in the British Constitution, the Royal Prerogative is best left unused and unchallenged. For the Pope’s power, though having a sound legal basis in Canon Law, is something more than that – it is a moral authority, and to be preserved by being used sparingly.

That the Pope should now intervene in the affairs of the Knights of Malta, at the behest, it seems, of the friends of a disgruntled member of the Order, sacking the Grand Master for no very clear reason, brings the papal power into disrepute. As with the reports of the sacking of three officials from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, this seems to be an example of the papal supreme power used for the purposes of micromanagement.

One of the unique selling points of this papacy was supposed to be synodality and the devolution of power to the margins. Instead what we seem to be seeing is the centralisation of power and decision making to a degree unimaginable in previous papacies. Members of Protestant and Orthodox churches may perhaps with some justification point to this sort of behaviour as an abuse of papal power.

So what is happening in the Order of Malta? One thing is certain, and that is Fra’ Matthew Festing, the former Grand Master, a true son of the Church, will not tell us, but will keep loyally silent. But those who read about these things in the papers will ask the question. And they may well ask, too, what is happening in the Catholic Church?