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The Knights of Malta must understand that they are a religious order – not a country

26 January 2017

12:14 PM

26 January 2017

12:14 PM

There are some strange goings-on in Rome at the moment. Two of the world’s smallest sovereign states, both headquartered there, are having a spat over who is in control.

The head of the Knights of Malta, the former Guards officer now Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing has announced he will step down. He has been obliged to do so by his oath of loyalty to the Pope. Their clash of wills arose after he refused to co-operate with a papal commission of enquiry.

The dispute came about when a senior official of the Sovereign Military order of Malta (The Knights of Malta), the Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was forced out under protest. He was instructed to resign by Festing. He initially refused to go, but was reminded of his oath of obedience – so he went. His offence apparently had been to sanction the supply of condoms to combat the spread of Aids as part of the Order’s extensive charitable operations. The use of condoms, even to save lives, is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

Now the Pope, seemingly of a more liberal persuasion, called for the setting-up of a special committee, chaired by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, to look into the controversy. The Order objected and Festing wrote a disingenuously flattering letter to the Pope with a sub-text that told him, in effect, to mind his own business.

‘In response to Your Holiness’ message,’ Festing writes, ‘I offer my total support and that of the entire Order of Malta which, even in a difficult and complex time, seeks to render its service in closely adhering to the teaching of the Church and the directions which come from the Successor of St. Peter.’

The Knights’ publicly issued statement makes the opposite point more forcefully.

The Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Order of Malta has learnt of the decision made by the Holy See to appoint a group of five persons to shed light on the replacement of the former Grand Chancellor.

The replacement of the former Grand Chancellor is an act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence.

Herein lies the rub; the Order’s claim to be independent has a dubious foundation – the Knights cannot be, for they owe ultimate allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican State. It follows therefore that it is a vassal and not a sovereign state.

This ‘state’ fails to fulfill the basic requirements of nationhood; it has no land to speak of, almost no citizens and is subsidiary to a larger state even though it may issue passports, make its own laws and send ambassadors to 102 countries. But these are not sufficient conditions for statehood.


The Order was officially constituted by a bull of Pope Paschal II in 1113 and given the islands of Malta in 1530 by the Emperor Charles V of Spain. Its leader is elected for life and goes by the portentous title, His most eminent highness …… Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign, Military, Hospitaller, Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. If we unpick this, we would expect to find a state with sovereign territory in Rhodes and Jerusalem. But it has none. It has no army, so it is not military in any current sense. The title is a history lesson, not a substantive reality.

The Order relinquished its territory in 1798 when Napoleon forced it to quit Malta. In 1998, Malta granted the Order a 99 year lease of part of an abandoned fort. Other than this, the Knights have a lavishly appointed palace on the Via Condotti and a villa on the Aventine Hill, both in Rome. This is the total sum of their land holdings. By what right should an aristocratic gentlemen’s club be granted the privilege of being deemed a country? It makes no more sense than according nationhood to Whites Club.

The Knights undertake a great deal of charitable work in many countries and have built hospitals; but then so have Medecin sans Frontiers. The Aga Khan is a hereditary Prince who builds hospitals and has many more adherents than the Knights of Malta. One does not have to be a state to do good works.

Can we conclude from this dispute that the Pope is having second thoughts about the supply and use of condoms? If so, this is momentous news. The Catholic Church has rightly been criticised for their refusal to accept that condoms are the best prevention for the spread of Aids, other than total abstinence.

What does the order do apart from occupy lavish properties and award each other pompous titles? It has branches in countries with large Catholic populations such as UK. The branches hold banquets where the male knights feast, dress in archaic uniforms and conduct ceremonies. Women are only permitted to play a minor role.

The ‘Sovereign Council’ governs the Order; it is elected from the highest rank of knights, the so-called ‘knights of justice’ who have sworn vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The officers of the Sovereign Council are holders of pretentious titles such as Grand Commander and Grand Hospitaller. To reach the highest level of knighthood within the order it is still necessary to be male, European, have ‘noble blood’ and be invited to join – one cannot apply. Many Knights have hereditary titles of nobility; so it follows that the Pope would not qualify on any count.

The order justifies this wholly unacceptable discrimination as follows: ‘The knighthood nature explains and justifies the maintenance of the noble nature of the Order, as most of its Religious Knights came from chivalrous and noble Christian families.’ What humbug. Surely Christians believe that all are equal in the sight of God?

Does the Pope think the Order was wrong to dismiss von Boeselager? It would seem so. The Pope has stood his ground and insisted, just as Festing insisted, on obedience. His statement reads:

‘The Holy See counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage,’ adding that it ‘rejects … any attempt to discredit (commission) members.’

The disagreement is in reality a power struggle between the liberal and traditional wings of the Church.

The Pope should go further and demonstrate his liberal credentials by taking firm action to reform this archaic backwater of the church; it represents the church of old and not the modernity he espouses. A light should be shone into the secret finances and workings of this archaic institution.

The Order and its Grand Master must understand that they are a charitable religious order not a country. If they fail to grasp this, they have no meaning in 21st C. They are as Festing now admits, like all Roman Catholics, subject to the ultimate authority of the Holy See.

The Order, having bent its knee, must now drop its claim to nationhood and come clean about its sources of finance. History moves on and so should the Knights of Malta.

Recommended reading: Damian Thompson’s take on the affair, which he regards as a brutal papal power grab

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