The Knights of Malta have done the Vatican’s bidding – and the stage is set for a power grab

Knights of Malta walk in procession in Rome (Getty)

On Saturday, the Council Complete of State of the Knights of Malta declined to elect a new Grand Master. Instead, they submitted to the express instructions of Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Pope Francis’s delegate, and elected a Lieutenant ad interim to govern the order for one year. During this time, the new Lieutenant will work with Archbishop Becciu and others to produce a new Constitution for the order, under the terms of which the next Grand Master will be elected in a year’s time.

Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre Del Tempio di Sanguinetto, the order’s Grand Prior of Rome, was elected to the surprise of almost no one. His name, along with that of the serving Lieutenant Ludwig Hoffman von Rumerstein, were widely known as the two “acceptable” choices. Both were among a select group of knights invited by Archbishop Becciu to a private audience with the Pope immediately before the election and the Pope’s departure for Egypt last week. Not among their number, and definitely not an acceptable candidate, was Fra’ Matthew Festing, the deposed former Grand Master of the order. His attendance at the Council became a point of public speculation when it was revealed that Archbishop Becciu had taken the remarkable step of demanding Fra’ Festing not attend the vote or even travel to Rome.

This demand, which purported to command Fra’ Festing under religious obedience, was then publicly rescinded by the Holy See when it was pointed out that Archbishop Becciu, who had copied the Pope in on the instruction, did not have the authority to command the religious obedience of Fra’ Festing, and whose enforced absence would have invalidated the vote.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the order made the formal recommendation to its electors that, rather than electing a new Grand Master, a temporary leader be installed with a mandate to rewrite the order’s Constitution. This option was widely understood to be one endorsed by both Archbishop Becciu and Albrecht von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor, whose dismissal last year after a scandal involving the distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients began the current crisis.

This election was only ever going to have one outcome. One knight told me that they had, in effect, received the following message: either they produce the acceptable result of an interim leader and constitutional reform, or it would be imposed on them.

This seemed to be confirmed by a special letter from the Pope, publicly released by the order on the eve of the election, in which he derogated from the order’s constitution and empowered Archbishop Becciu to “receive the oath of the newly elected”. Tellingly, the letter did not say the newly elected Grand Master, and explicitly noted the possibility of an interim leader being produced. The canonical subtext of the letter was equally interesting. Previously, the Grand Master self-administered the oath upon his election and informed the Pope of the fact of his election. This was a deliberate manifestation of the order’s sovereignty and governmental independence from the Holy See.

The insertion of Archbishop Becciu into the process was a subtle but powerful act of subordination. It carried the unarticulated but distinct legal possibility that he could refuse to administer the oath if he disapproved of the person elected, effectively giving him power of veto over the results.

With the election now over, attention shifts to the process of constitutional reform and the direction it will take. Some speculate that reforms aim to broaden the criteria for those who can be elected Grand Master. Currently, only professed religious knights, those of the first degree and who take full religious vows, are eligible. It has been suggested that this could be widened to include knights of the second degree which would include, inter alia, Albrecht von Boeselager. It is certainly true that there is a shortage of professed knights eligible for election, fewer than sixty met the criteria this time around.

Last week a document surfaced on the proposed direction of the reforms. It was apparently authored by Johannes Lobkowicz, Chancellor of the Grand Priory of Bohemia and brother of Erich Lobkowicz, who is head of the German association of the order and who was among the select few invited to the audience with Archbishop Becciu and the Pope just before the election, and who publicly attacked both Fra’ Festing and the order’s Patron, Cardinal Burke, during the fracas following Boeselager’s dismissal from the office of Grand Chancellor.

The document explicitly calls for the breaking of the link between the fully professed religious and the governance of the order, thus supposedly widening the pool of candidates for higher offices. Paradoxically, it also insists on the retention of the requirement of noble blood, though perhaps with the potential for case-by-case exceptions. This seems totally at odds with the supposed thrust of the reforms. Moreover, it appears totally counter-intuitive given that the rationale for breaking the link between the professed religious and the governance of the order is that such an arrangement is anachronistic and debars better qualified candidates; noble blood on the other hand is championed as a very relevant “safeguard” of the traditions of the order and good corporate governance.

I asked one knight about this apparent contradiction in the reform movement’s logic. The response I received was “There are no noble Americans.” Indeed, many see the push for reform within the order as being not for modernization and enfranchisement, but rather as a power grab from one small group (the professed religious) by another (the German-led clique supporting Boeselager). At stake is the governance of what is still technically, the Holy See’s recent interventions notwithstanding, a sovereign international government which prints its own passports, wields enormous international influence, and controls considerable sums of money.

The credibility of the reforms, the religious and Catholic character of the order itself, and the true motivations of those who have triggered this whole process will be fiercely tested in the next year; and the new constitution which emerges will show not only who won, but what they were really fighting for in the first place.