On January 14, 2014, The Tablet, the international Catholic journal published in Britain, carried an article headed “Errant knights tilt at the power of the Pope.” When I started this blog over 300 posts ago (seems hard to believe) I didn’t give much thought to the inclusion of the word “curiosities” in the title. It certainly applies to the present topic.
The Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta was founded in Jerusalem in 1099 to protect and care for Christians in the Holy Land and across the eastern Mediterranean. The kingdom of Jerusalem, one of the Crusader states, had been reconquered by Muslim forces, but the Order was given the title of “sovereign” because it had established a wide network of armed outposts in the region. Its full members were knights (hence the word “military”), but also monks, having vowed chastity, poverty, and obedience. Its centers moved from Cyprus to Rhodes to Malta, which they ruled until 1789, when that island was first conquered by the French, then by the British. Malta became an independent republic after World War II as the British Empire was rather rapidly dismantled. The headquarters of the Order are now in Rome; the Palazzo Malta is on the Via Condotti, one of the most expensive streets in the city.
In the heyday of its history the Order acquired enormous power and wealth. It is still a very wealthy outfit, though it obviously has less power. Full members still have to be from Catholic aristocratic families. In addition to the circa 13,000 full knights, the Order also has a female, equally aristocratic auxiliary, the Dames of Malta. There are also affiliated priests who are not monks, and lay associates. The major activity of the Order is charitable (similar to Catholic Caritas), with many doctors and other lay persons as local staff members in 120 countries. “Sovereign” is not just an honorific: The Order has territorial enclaves in Malta and Rome (almost like Vatican City), holds observer status at the United Nations, and issues its own passports, currency, and (not to forget) postage stamps. (I believe that, if you find yourself in Rome, you can mail letters in the post offices of the Vatican State, the Knights of Malta, and that upstart sovereign entity known as the Republic of Italy.) Neither is the word “military” just a metaphor: The Order deploys three armed brigades integrated with the Italian military (I have no idea what they are supposed to do).
The current crisis between the Knights of Malta and Pope Francis I erupted on December 6, 2016, when the Grand Master of the Order, Matthew Festing, ordered its Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, to resign. Boeselager (a German aristocrat who has the title of “Freiherr”) was in charge of much of the charitable work in developing countries. He had authorized the distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among Muslim-minority women in Myanmar. They are frequent victims of rape by the military (Buddhist thugs in Myanmar apparently regard infidel women, here Muslim ones as it happens, very much like Muslim thugs in Syria regard infidel women, in that case Christians or Yezidis). (Yezidis do not believe in hell, since their benevolent God will eventually forgive even a repentant Satan. It might take a few thousand years. But traditional Christian and Muslim morality has a special hell ready to receive men who torment and rape helpless women.)
Present on the occasion when Festing gave his order to resign was Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Curia’s overseer of the Order. Boeselager refused to resign and was then dismissed from his position by Festing for violating Catholic teaching on contraception and for the refusal to obey a superior. Festing claimed that his actions were approved by the Pope; the claim was promptly denied by Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. The Pope ordered an investigation of the entire incident to be headed by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, a respected Vatican diplomat. Boeselager’s successor appointed by Festing ordered all members of the Order to refuse to collaborate with Tomasi’s investigation, on the grounds that the Pope had no right to interfere with the internal affairs of the “sovereign” Order.
The incident has escalated because of the involvement by Raymond Burke, a major conservative critic of the Pope. Burke was a former Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to head the highest court administering the Roman legal code, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. (I just love these Roman titles, evoking images of elegantly tailored monsignors whispering about secret conspiracies—reminiscent of films like The Da Vinci Files or the more recent The Young Pope.) Burke has objected to Francis’s liberalizing moves on issues such as homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”), the procedures for the annulment of marriages consecrated as sacraments, and the question of whether Catholics divorced and remarried without annulment should receive communion. Burke has now threatened to work toward a procedure of so-called “formal correction” (an ecclesiastical parallel to the impeachment of a President in U.S. law). This would mean a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Pope, not only for a violation of Catholic morality (on various issues south of the navel), but for violating the rights of a “sovereign” entity. There is a curious analogy here to what happened at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, whose 500th anniversary is being widely commemorated this year. Luther’s “95 Theses” attacked the sale of indulgences. But he also questioned the authority of the Pope to issue indulgences at all, for sale or not. That challenge could not possibly be tolerated, and was met with a furious response from Rome. But Luther did not originally claim that the Pope had no right to interfere with the sovereign authority of a prince (Saxony?). It was left to Henry VIII of England to assert such a claim.
The conservative opposition to Francis has long been brewing, with Raymond Burke stirring the ensuing soup with a big spoon. But Francis has been broadly popular in the global Catholic community, but also in the secular media and among many non-Catholics. One does not have to believe that Jesus intended to found the whole Catholic institution with the papacy at its top to sympathize with Francis’s inclination to soften the rigid principles of Roman canon law. Public images can of course be manipulated, but I think he means it when he indicates solidarity with all marginalized people, and unlike most politicians, he seems to really enjoy kissing babies. Some of the issues fought over by conservatives and progressives within the Catholic Church are strictly of internal relevance only, such as the question of divorced individuals being given communion (as they say in Texas, non-Catholics “have no dogs in this fight”). Other issues are much more widely relevant. I will only mention two: I am worried by Francis’s repeated anti-capitalist rhetoric, possibly under the influence of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian Catholic thinker who was one of the founders of Liberation Theology. There is also the influence of Peter Turkson, the cardinal from Ghana who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and who apparently combines left-leaning Third Worldism with an embrace of global warming orthodoxy.
I would, with both sympathy and respect, suggest that Pope Francis develop some skepticism about two empirically questionable progressive dogmas: That global capitalism causes and perpetuates poverty—and that global warming is an immediate and potentially catastrophic threat to life on earth. The empirical evidence against the first dogma is very strong: Capitalism and the economic growth it generates is not the cause of poverty, but the most powerful means of moving large numbers of people out of it. (The most important recent evidence is what happened in China since the economic reforms that began in 1979 and have accelerated since then, despite the growth-inhibiting effects of the corruption and residual socialism of the regime.) As to the second dogma, contrary to the rhetoric of the environmentalist movement, “the science is not all in.” Science never is. As far as I can see, there is indeed evidence for global warming, but it is less clear how massive it is, how much caused by human activity, and how negative its effects will be. The Roman Catholic Church should be careful before repeating an earlier mistake of insisting on a view, in that case pre-Copernican astronomy, just as it was being dismantled by empirical evidence. (Though it mostly avoided the Protestant mistake of refusing, for a longtime, the evidence for biological evolution.)
To those who still cling to the aforementioned dogmas I would say what Oliver Cromwell said to Parliament when it disagreed with him: “I beseech you, by the bowels of Christ, consider that you might be mistaken.”