The Pope’s five-year intervention in the affairs of the Order of Malta has not been particularly happy. Some of the Order’s knights and dames feel that the effect of his involvement in its affairs and constitution has been to diminish its autonomy and amounts to an attempt to turn a sovereign order with a unique character into a religious institution under the direct control of the Vatican. At one point, the Pope virtually handed control of the Order’s governance to his delegate, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, including the power “to resolve all internal conflicts” and convene elections to vote for a new Grand Master – an unwelcome move.
It is good, therefore, that Pope Francis has now instructed his delegates in dealing with the Order, notably Cardinal Tomasi and the Jesuit Fr Gianfranco Ghirlanda to be more accommodating. They should not, he says, insist on dealing with delegates from the Order of their choosing, but those nominated by it. Cardinal Tomasi caused grave offence by refusing to recognise Marwan Sehnaoui, the delegate nominated by the Order’s Sovereign Council, inviting the President of the Order’s Italian Association to take his place. This more conciliatory tone is welcome, as is Cardinal Tomasi’s assurance that the Pope has no intention of undermining its sovereignty.
The controversy could be seen to be about more than the Order of Malta. It is to do with the rights of Catholic institutions, organisations and religious orders to control their affairs and their constitution independently of Vatican control while respecting the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Church. The urge to centralise and control is almost reflexive in the Vatican. It is a tendency which must be curbed and is no more acceptable when it comes from liberal figures as from conservative ones.
Ideally, the Pope’s exercise of authority should be limited to those occasions when his intervention is called on, to settle disputes or identify error. Imposing new leaders and reforms on the Order of Malta is a retrograde move.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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