Pope Francis has issued a new decree in the form of a letter which some believe marks a wholly illegal papal power-grab over one of the world’s most ancient and unique institutions. To understand the complexity of this case, it is necessary to recall the events that have led up to this.
In late 2016, Pope Francis—in an act we all thought belonged to the history of the ‘dark age’ papacy—pressured the ruler of a sovereign state into abdication and seized control over it. The Pope thereby effectively toppled a monarch: Fra’ Matthew Festing, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (known simply as the Order of Malta), and the Order’s religious superior in full religious vows.
This 900-year-old military and hospitaller order is unique in being a religious order, an order of chivalry, an international aid charity, and a recognised sovereign state with its own territory (comprising the site of the Grand Magistry in Rome’s centre, and the Villa del Priorato di Malta on the Aventine Hill). The Order maintains diplomatic relations with many countries, has official positions with the European Union, and enjoys General Assembly observer-status at the United Nations. The Order even has its own currency and issues its own passports.
Photo: Image courtesy of the Order of Malta.
The controversy that led to Festing’s abdication began back in 2014. At a Chapter General, a group of theologically liberal German members attempted a takeover of the Order to marginalise Festing, whom they regarded as too conservative. Then, in 2016, Festing discovered that a leading figure in this group, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor of the Order (effectively the Order’s Prime Minister), had not reported his involvement in the distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients in the Order’s medical projects in the Third World, and also omitted to report properly the existence of a fund of 200 million Swiss francs of which the Order was a partial beneficiary. Consequently, Festing dismissed Boeselager from office.
Boeselager then appealed to the Vatican, which immediately set up an inquiry. Festing saw this interference as an illegitimate intervention in the Order’s affairs as a sovereign state. Festing had sought to uphold Catholic moral teaching (and financial probity), but the Vatican sided with the man who had acted in a way contrary to such teaching. In January 2017, Pope Francis prevailed upon Festing to abdicate and, perhaps unwisely, he agreed to do so.
Festing’s abdication was the cue for the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Parolin, to (illegally, some members claim) set up a commission, consisting mostly of Boeselager’s friends, to examine whether or not Boeselager had been suspended justly. Unsurprisingly, they all agreed that he had been unfairly suspended. The governing body of the Order, the Sovereign Council, under intense pressure from the Vatican, then reinstated Boeselager as Grand Chancellor.
Many of the Order’s members believe that the Pope felt obligated to give recognition to this group on account of their direct access to the German bishops—the astonishingly wealthy German Church has a notoriously powerful financial hold over the Vatican.
In November 2020, the Pope appointed Silvano, Cardinal Tomasi to be his ‘special delegate’ to the Order. Tomasi was one of the commissioners who found that Boeselager had been unfairly suspended. However, a source from within the Order (who wished to remain anonymous) told The European Conservative that “Tomasi’s relations with Boeselager began to sour as he tired of Boeselager’s increasingly dictatorial attitude, and that of his allies, who have adopted the habit of treating the Cardinal with dismissive arrogance and haughty disdain, all the while publicly pretending to be closely allied with him.”
Much of the unhealthy internal politics of the Order centres on the so-called reforms currently being proposed, largely at the instigation of Boeselager and his group. Many members of the Order believe that these ‘reforms’ are bound up with an emerging power-play between the Vatican and the group of Germantheological liberals. These concerned members believe that the real point of the proposals is for the religiously professed knights (i.e. those who have taken vows, like monks and friars), who have always been the central part of the Order, to be side-lined, if not phased out. This would, therefore, bring about a fundamental change to the nature of this ancient and revered Order. And this would allow for the unprofessed members—like Boeselager—to take over control and governance of the Order and its multi-billion pound finances.
The only legal power that the Vatican has over the Order relates to its status as a religious order, and thus concerns only the professed religious knights. If the professed knights are side-lined, the Holy See will lose any legal power that it had in relation to the Order. Hence, the Vatican is engaged in a power-play over the Order. Its representative, Cardinal Tomasi, appears to oppose the secularising plans of the Germans supposedly to retain the influence and power of the Holy See over the Order.
Thus, the two sides have stood at odds—the German clique and the Vatican effectively neutralising each other—until now, that is.
Turning the tide decisively in favour of the Vatican, Pope Francis has issued a decree to the Order of Malta in the form of a letter to Cardinal Tomasi, his ‘special delegate’ to the Order. By this decree, the Pope has handed Tomasi complete, untrammelled, and apparently arbitrary power to govern the Order exactly as he pleases. The Pope begins this letter by euphemistically describing the liberal German conquest of the Order in terms of “the positive steps taken in the spiritual and moral renewal of the Order.” He continues:
In order to be able to continue this important work of renewal, as my special delegate you have all the powers necessary to decide any questions that may arise in the implementation of the mandate entrusted to you. As my special delegate, you have the power to take upon yourself aspects of the ordinary government of the Order, even derogating, if necessary, from the current Constitutional Charter and the current Codex Melitense, as well as to resolve all internal conflicts within the Order ex auctoritate Summi Pontificis.
Our unnamed source from the Order explained to The European Conservative why this decision is so extraordinary:
This is simply a coup d’état by a nakedly dictatorial Pope. He has no authority to over-ride the Constitution and Code of the Order of Malta. The most he can do is tell the Order to change whatever is not Catholic, allow cases of appeal to go to the Church’s courts, and he has the usual authority over the professed religious of the Order. But that is about it. The nations who send diplomats to the Order, as a sovereign state, will now question its sovereignty and understandably wonder if it is necessary to have an ambassador to the Holy See and one to the Order, since the Order now appears to be little more than an emanation of the Holy See.
What we appear to be witnessing is a clericalist overthrow of what is a sovereign lay institution by a pope who seems to think that the rule of law is unimportant. It is worthwhile to understand the lay character of the Order of Malta. Clerical members are merely chaplains to the Order, which comprises the professed consecrated religious knights and the secular, unprofessed knights and dames—all of whom are laity. Even the cardinals whom popes have appointed to the Order—a custom that only arose in the 1960s—have simply been ‘patrons’ installed to promote the Order’s relations with the Holy See. These new powers given to Tomasi are wholly novel and unprecedented in the history of the Order, and they mark the Pope’s assertion of power in the affairs of a state.
In his letter, the Pope claims the right to bestow upon Cardinal Tomasi the power to “convoke the Extraordinary General Chapter for a date that you will determine, and to co-chair it,” to “define ad hocregulations for the composition and celebration of the Extraordinary General Chapter” and to “convene the full Council of State for the election of a new Grand Master.” To quote again our source within the Order:
It is entirely beyond the Pope’s legal power for him to behave in this way. He has authorised Cardinal Tomasi to govern the Order as he pleases and arbitrarily, to ignore the Sovereign Council, to ignore the ancient 900-year-old Constitution and Code of the Order, to stand in judgement over the Order, to call the Chapter-General only when he feels like it, to decide its composition (ignoring the Order’s Constitution thereon) and to call an election of a new Grand Master, whenever he feels like it and as he likes, or not, as he pleases.
This situation chiefly came about because during the crisis largely caused by Boeselager, “against all advice,” our source tells us, “Boeselager opened the doors of the Palazzo di Malta to the Vatican, and now they have turned against him. He compromised the sovereignty of the Order to save his own selfish hide, and now the tables are turned. It is hard to feel much sympathy for him.”
The ‘tables are turned’ because, ironically, Cardinal Tomasi is said to be on the side of the professed religious in the Order, even if not for altogether honourable reasons. Some say that he is protecting the professed knights from being side-lined or secularised by Boeselager and the other modernists on the Order’s Sovereign Council. Rumour has it that Tomasi has already told Boeselager that he is not to attend some of the preparatory meetings.
Henry Sire, a well-known historian of the Order of Malta, told The European Conservative:
Boeselager has dug his own grave. He did so from the moment he sought Cardinal Parolin’s intervention in December 2016 and thus put the Order completely under the thumb of the Vatican. Any honourable man, however much he believed he was in the right, ought to have said at that point, ‘I am not going to pursue my case at the expense of the Order’s sovereignty.’ And now Boeselager is the main victim of his own revolution. The worst of it is that he may have dug the Order’s grave as well, but that may not be the case as rumour has it that Tomasi wants all the professed knights to take part in the Chapter General, thus standing on its head Boeselager’s plan to marginalise them.
Our unnamed source (who also informed us that Boeselager was largely responsible for engineering the expulsion of Henry Sire from the Order), responding to the rumours of Tomasi’s friendly disposition towards the professed knights and his lack of fondness for Boeselager, said the following:
God can use evil acts to achieve good. God may be using [the Pope’s actions] to save the religious character of the Order. But the acts still remain evil and there will be unintended consequences. We are witnessing a Church that is increasingly in disarray, and when institutions are in disarray their leaders become dictatorial and fascistic; liberty, human dignity, and justice are all soon thrown on the garbage heap. That is where we are heading. God is allowing this, however, just as He will allow the chaos that will likely follow from it. One thing is clear: there is already a new Grand Master of the Order of Malta—his name is Pope Francis.
God may indeed, in His wisdom, redeem this situation, but the Pope’s decree marks what many members deem an unlawful interference with the Order’s Constitution.
There is a legal process by which the Pope may call to account any illegitimate ongoings by the Order’s government, and that is to ensure that issues are dealt with in the Order’s own courts; then, by appeal, if necessary, to the supreme court of the Church, the Apostolic Signatura. Instead, however, ignoring the requirements of subsidiarity, the Pope has disregarded due and legal process and ridden roughshod over all law and proper procedure. He has, thereby, side-lined his own legal organs and courts, rendering them irrelevant.
This state of affairs, then, is much bigger than the Order of Malta. The picture emerging is one of a pope, with little or no regard for law and due process, governing a Church that has made this disregard for law part of its ecclesiastical culture. The faithful witnessed a startlingly clear performance of this oppressive voluntarism with the issuing of Traditionis custodes in July of this year, the papal edict aimed at suppressing an ancient liturgy that fosters the spiritual lives of so many loyal Catholics. Now, in his dealings with the Order of Malta, we see the same behaviour, the despotic exercise of arbitrary power, a feature of Francis’s papacy which is quickly becoming its interpretive key.
Sebastian Morello was trained in philosophy by Sir Roger Scruton, by whom he was supervised for his master’s and doctoral degrees. He is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist, and has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.