Analysis: why are emotions running high in the Order of Malta election?

Knights of the Order of Malta at the Vatican in 2013 (Getty)

Elections always provoke excitement, but in the run-up to the Order of Malta’s leadership vote this weekend, something more can be detected: anguish, anxiety, even a distinct note of panic. The 60 voters – most of them professed knights, who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – are being intensely lobbied. Members are sending emails to the voters, asking them to save the order from “corruption and destruction”. Meanwhile, Pope Francis has asked to see 15 of the voters this evening.

To simplify things hugely, the contest is about whether a German-led reform party will get what they want. Normally, the Grand Master is elected for life; but the Germans want to elect an interim leader, who can reform the Constitution. Johannes Lobkowicz, whose brother Erich heads the German Association, has proposed sweeping changes. At the moment, several senior positions, including Grand Master, can only be filled by professed knights. This “link” between religious vows and holding office, Lobkowicz writes, “must be deleted.” Meanwhile, Albrecht von Boeselager, the de facto leader of the German party, says he wants new rules which “limit the autonomy of the Grand Master”.

The Germans say these reforms avoid fiascos like what happened last December. Boeselager faced allegations, which he denied, about his previous job in charge of Malteser International (MI), the order’s humanitarian arm. Fra’ Matthew Festing, the Grand Master, asked for his resignation; Boeselager refused, precipitating an internal crisis. Eventually, Fra’ Festing resigned at the Pope’s request – hence the need for an election.

Critics of the German party say that the professed knights are at the heart of the order’s identity, and that the proposed reforms would secularise the order. They point to the crisis over Boeselager and MI. For years, MI had been giving out contraceptives, some of them with the potential to cause abortions. The charitable view is that the leadership had no idea: a big aid organisation has many moving parts, and it’s hard for the Grand Hospitaller in Cologne to know what is being given out at a clinic in Rangoon.

What is certain, however, is that the leadership knew by 2013. And as the Catholic Herald revealed yesterday, their response raises a few questions. For one thing, they did not tell the Grand Master or the Sovereign Council – who found out by accident a year later. In 2013, Boeselager asked his MI colleagues to keep the matter internal, as “this is an extremely sensitive matter that, without an appropriate background and know-how, could lead to serious misunderstandings”. Boeselager’s allies vehemently insist that he wasn’t proposing to conceal the problem. But the question remains: why didn’t he tell his superiors about a crisis that he evidently considered important?

Yet more strangely, MI’s response was to issue new ethical guidelines which were – as a 2016 internal report politely put it – “inconsistent with the Church’s teaching”.

Then there is the money. The labyrinthine story of trusts, donations, frozen accounts, legal cases, allegations, investigative journalism and legal threats has been summarised by Edward Pentin. The evidence is difficult to weigh up for those of us who do not know much about the world of finance. Someone who does is George Hope, a member of the order (he’s a Knight of Honour and Devotion) who spent a decade on HSBC’s internal audit team as a bank inspector. Hope says: “While at HSBC, I gained considerable in-depth knowledge of banking and bank fraud. To put it bluntly, both my experience and my instinct tell me that there has been serious financial irregularity within the order.”

Hope thinks the problems extend well beyond the recent allegations, and could have severe repercussions further down the line. The solution, he believes, is to re-elect Fra’ Matthew Festing – even if only for a year – with a mandate to clean up the order’s finances.

Hope is not the only knight who wants Fra’ Festing re-elected. While writing a profile of the former Grand Master, I spoke to several people who have worked for him, and found that he inspires a remarkable degree of loyalty. Fra’ Festing was asked to step down by Pope Francis earlier this year. But Francis also gave the green light for him to be re-elected. Members of the order who value Fra’ Festing’s legacy – above all, his emphasis on the spiritual identity of the order, reinforced by the professed knights – could choose to elect him, or someone of a similar school of thought.

However, the German party have tactical advantages. Boeselager has personally written to the voters, asking them to elect an interim leader (who could initiate the German-backed reforms). Moreover, the Vatican appears to back the German party. Since the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity, it’s curious for the Vatican to be so closely involved, and officials seem unsure about how to act. The Vatican delegate tried to ban Fra’ Festing from Rome, a ban which has now been lifted. But the papal delegate is heavily involved in preparations for the vote, and may choose to exert his influence over the knights.

Gary Lineker once explained the rules of football as “22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win.” Threescore knights in Rome will now decide whether a similar law of nature applies to the Order of Malta.