Knights do battle over Order of Malta

Knights of Malta walk in procession to the Villa Magistrale in Rome before the election (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty)

“When you come to a fork in the road,” Yogi Berra is said to have recommended, “take it.” That is more or less what the Order of Malta have just done in their elections. The 56 voters had a choice between the old order, represented by previous Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing, and the reformist movement dominated by German knights, most prominently Albrecht von Boeselager.

That is an oversimplification, of course; but the two sides certainly exist. The Festingites believe that the order’s constitution works tolerably well. They merely want to expand the order’s charitable work in 120 countries around the world, and deepen its spirituality, particularly by encouraging religious vocations. (The number of knights professing poverty, chastity and obedience stands at about 60.) Their critics say they are stuck in the past – “frilly old diehards”, according to one critic – and can’t see the need for reform.

The Boeselagerians, meanwhile, believe that the constitution needs updating if it is to meet the challenges of the modern age – an aim which Pope Francis supports. Their critics suspect them of wanting to secularise the order, particularly after a scandal involving the German-run humanitarian arm, Malteser International, which distributed abortifacients and defended contraception.

The order did not elect a passionate advocate of either side. Their choice, instead, was a temporary leader, the Italian Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, former Grand Prior of Rome.

While a Grand Master is usually elected for life, Fra’ Dalla Torre will only serve for a year, before another round of elections. But though his title is “Lieutenant ad interim”, this will be less an interim period than a struggle for the future of the order. The reformists’ plans would transform the very character of the organisation.

What do Boeselager et al want to do? First, they would like to reform the office of Grand Master. At the moment, he is elected for life and has, in theory, absolute power. For instance, he can choose whether to put into effect the proposals of the sovereign council. Moreover, the Grand Master must be a knight who has professed poverty, chastity and obedience. The reformers would like the Grand Master to have a fixed term, and to be bound to accept some of the sovereign council’s decisions.

This is part of a larger project: a reduction in the role of the professed knights. Many of the reform party believe that the professed should concentrate on spiritual things, opening the senior roles to those with relevant professional experience.

This is presented as “modernisation”, but it leaves untouched another requirement – that the Grand Master must be from a noble family. Johannes Lobkowicz, whose brother is head of the German Association, has circulated proposals in which he argues that the nobility requirement is essential: “The aspect of Nobility,” he writes, “has shown in the past to be a safeguard of [the order’s] good traditions.”

One member complains that these proposals “are the very opposite of what is needed: they strengthen the noble aspect while weakening the religious life at the heart of the order.”

Some members take a cynical view. In a piece for the Catholic Herald’s website, canon lawyer Ed Condon related one exchange with a knight. Why, he asked, do the German reformists want to keep the emphasis on nobility? The reply came back: “There are no noble Americans.”

In other words, “more nobles, fewer professed knights” is a way of saying “more of the reformist party, less of everybody else”.

Sadly, this language of national factions will become unavoidable over the next year. The reform party is dominated by Germans, plus some significant Italians. The opposition includes many Italians, Englishmen and Americans.

The reformers’ success will depend partly on Fra’ Dalla Torre himself. “He’s a charitable guy,” says one knight who knows the new lieutenant. But Fra’ Dalla Torre is not the kind of leader to assert his authority, so reformers may be able to acquire a lot of influence. They can also look to the Vatican, which in Pope Francis’s time has become progressively friendlier to the cause of reform.

The reformers have already replaced the organisation’s leadership in the space of six months. Now they are set to put the order through one of the greatest upheavals in its history.

This article first appeared in the May 5 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here