Can a well-connected Grand Master hold the Knights together?
The Knights of Malta, in which Pope Francis has taken a direct and personal interest, have elected a new leader. The development might have been easy to overlook, coming as it did in the midst of other events more apparently touching the common weal of the Universal Church. The vote is noteworthy, for reasons that require a little articulation.
Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre’s election to a life term as Grand Master follows his 2017 election as head of the order ad interim in the wake of internal turmoil that saw the highly unusual involvement of the Holy See. The short version of that complex and convoluted story is that the former Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, was forced to resign after ousting his chief lieutenant, Fra’ Albrecht von Boeselager, whom he accused of giving at least tacit support to charitable initiatives inconsistent with Church teaching on human sexuality. Von Boeselager contested his removal, and won.
Basing his defence on procedural grounds, von Boeselager obtained reinstatement, while Festing was forced to resign. The Knights then held a snap election in which they chose Dalla Torre as “lieutenant” to serve for a year under the supervision of Archbishop Angelo Becciu, whom Pope Francis had appointed Special Delegate to the sovereign military order – a move that placed the order under a sort of Pontifical receivership and effectively sidelined its Cardinal Patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke – a state of affairs that will persist until the reform is complete.
The intrigues and machinations involved in all this could serve as the plot for an airport novel or popcorn screenplay. They also tend to distract from the real issues, two in particular: the attitude of Pope Francis towards sovereignty – which has direct implications for the situation of the Holy See and Vatican City – and the Holy Father’s general approach to governance.
To casual observers, the Knights of Malta may appear to be a bunch of well-heeled, mostly European aristocrats, many of whom are long in the tooth and inclined to play dressing-up. While there may be something to that, it does not tell anything close to the whole story of the order, which is almost 1,000 years old and has provided both military and humanitarian service to pilgrims, the poor, and the marginalised throughout its history. Today, the Knights employ some 25,000 professional care-givers, mostly in the medical field, supported by a veritable army of permanent volunteers – 80,000 of them, to hear the Knights tell it – all serving the poor and downtrodden, many of them in some of the world’s most difficult regions. So it might seem natural or logical that a leader with Pope Francis’s sensibilities would take an interest in the Knights’ doings.
The Knights are not styled the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta for nothing. They are a sovereign subject of international law, and can trace the remote origins of that status to the early 12th century, when Pope Paschal II issued a bull recognising the order’s right freely to elect its leadership.
The Knights maintain diplomatic relations with more than 100 nations, and have permanent observer status at the United Nations. Their situation is unique, in that the Knights have a base in Rome but no real territory to speak of, nor any army. They are protective of their sovereignty, which has faced challenges from legal scholars and state governments.
The Holy See has been supportive of the sovereignty of the order, for obvious reasons: the parallels and similarities of their situations are apparent.
So are the potential threats, for example from an ambitious prosecutor in a foreign country where the Church has been negligent in dealing with child sexual abuse, or an avowedly anti-clerical politician (perhaps a climber in Italy’s ascendant Five Star Movement), either of whom might look at the way the Holy See has intruded on the internal politics of the order – in essence acting as though the Knights are as sovereign as the Pope wants them to be – and decide what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
It is almost certainly in everyone’s interests to sew up the politics of this quickly and quietly, and get back to the business of helping those in need.
The question is whether Pope Francis’s willingness to involve himself in the inner workings of the organisation, circumventing normal procedures and applying ad hoc remedies, will have the desired effect. The jury is still out on that one.
In any case, the new Grand Master, the 73-year-old Giacomo Dalla Torre, is an Italian, and more specifically a Roman (though his family traces its origins back to the nobility of Treviso). His Vatican credentials are impeccable: his grandfather edited L’Osservatore Romano for several decades in the middle of the last century; his father was head of the Vatican Museums in the 1960s and 70s; his brother, Giuseppe, is head of the Tribunal of Vatican City.