The Knights have had painful clashes with the Vatican before. They can survive this too

Pope Francis talks with Fra Matthew Festing, grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, during a private audience last year (CNS)

For those who know a little of the Order of Malta’s history, the current dispute with the Holy See may prompt a case of déjà vu. The Order has found its way through a similar crisis before, and can do so again – although this time the happy ending will be more hard-won.

In his 1957 novel Les Chevaliers de Malte, Roger Peyrefitte told the real story, full of financial scandals, intrigues and plots, of a complicated conflict between the Holy See and the Order of Malta. On one side, as he told it, there was the clerical yearning of Cardinal Canali, who wanted to get his hands on the Order’s money and power. On the other side, the chivalric nobility of a handful of knights who strove to maintain their independence and their honour, gained over a thousand years of battles and recognised by popes, emperors and kings.

The novel had a ostensible happy ending for the knights, who found their sovereignty recognised by a sentence of a Vatican tribunal on January 24 1953 that sanctioned the “functional” sovereignty of the Order. But it wasn’t quite the resounding verdict the knights might have hoped for.

Today, history is repeating itself. But this time on Peter’s throne there is not a Roman aristocrat like Pius XII, but an Argentine pontiff. Oddly enough, Peyrefitte’s novel begins with a knight making a financial speculation on Argentine grain. And here’s another coincidence: on January 24 1953, the Vatican tribunal recognised the Order’s sovereignty; on January 24 2017, the Grand Master offered his resignation to the Pope, showing that in practice, official sovereignty isn’t quite enough.

Maybe the fact that the Patron of the Order is Cardinal Burke is also just another coincidence.

From a juridical point of view, Ed Condon has already brilliantly described the situation on this website. But there is another aspect to this. Professed knights of Malta, like the Grand Master, are bound by their religious vows. Even if one is a reigning prince, duke or count, first of all he is a professed knight. In the past, knights have obeyed popes who asked them to go on crusade. The essence of being a knight is obedience to the Church. At the end of this story of painful obedience, maybe the Order will find its deepest identity.