Pope Francis Vanquishes the Knights of Malta

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Pope Francis Vanquishes the Knights of Malta

A skirmish between the Vatican and a medieval order of Catholic knights unveiled a proxy war between reformists and traditionalists.

In an extraordinary display of papal power, Pope Francis has taken control of the Knights of Malta. To non-Catholics, this move may seem like an obscure intramural skirmish, but it has sent shock waves throughout the Roman Catholic world.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is recognized as a sovereign entity under international law, so the pope’s firing of Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing amounts to a Vatican takeover of an autonomous state. This intrepid move sends a signal to Catholics around the world that Pope Francis isn’t afraid to play hardball with ultratraditionalists who oppose the way he is running the Catholic Church.

While the Knights of Malta was founded during the First Crusade to protect Christian pilgrims from Islamic persecution, it has since evolved into a global humanitarian organization with over 100,000 staff members and volunteers. Yet the tiny clique of around 50 professed “knights” who lead the order is still drawn from the aristocratic families of Europe.

The situation that led to Festing’s firing started in 2005, when the “foreign minister” of the Knights of Malta, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, allegedly oversaw a humanitarian project in Myanmar that distributed condoms to the local population. This action violated the Catholic moral teaching against artificial contraceptives.

Baron von Boeselager is the son of Baron Philipp von Boeselager, a participant in the 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, and the husband of Baroness Praxedis von Guttenberg, the aunt of current Christian Social Union politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of Germany. Due to Boeselager’s alleged role in the Myanmar scandal, Festing demanded his resignation in a meeting held on Dec. 6, 2016. Also present for Boeselager’s dismissal was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Knights of Malta. Burke is perhaps the most influential critic of Pope Francis’s approach to Catholic moral teachings, especially on the subject of Catholic divorce and remarriage.

Because Boeselager has a close relationship with German Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, however, the German aristocrat was able to appeal his dismissal to Pope Francis. The pope decided to put together a committee to investigate whether or not Boeselager’s dismissal was warranted, but Festing refused to cooperate with any investigation. He said the investigation violated the sovereignty of the Knights of Malta. This refusal to cooperate with the Vatican prompted Pope Francis to demand Festing’s resignation on January 24.

When Festing officially resigned four days later, he became the first grand master to relinquish his position in 218 years. The last grand master to abdicate was Ferdinand Hompesch in 1799, after French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Malta.

After Festing’s resignation, Pope Francis declared all recent decisions by the group’s leadership to be “null and void.” Boeselager was reinstated as “foreign minister,” and Boeselager’s friend Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein was instated as interim grand master until Festing’s official replacement can be chosen.

The reaction to the sacking of Festing reveals the definite divide between ultratraditionalists who oppose Pope Francis and progressive reformers who support him. While the ultratraditionalists paint Francis’s intervention as an autocratic violation of the rule of law, supporters of the pope say his decision to appoint a delegate to govern the Knights of Malta brings a chance for needed reform. The president of the Knights of Malta’s German Association, Prince Erich von Lobkowicz, described the struggle between Boeselager and Festing as “a battle between all that Pope Francis stands for and a tiny clique of ultraconservative frilly old die-hards in the church—die-hards that have missed the train in every conceivable respect.”

Even though Cardinal Raymond Burke was absent for Grand Master Festing’s abdication, the entire legal drama between Boeselager and Festing is widely seen as a proxy war between Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke.

In 2014, Pope Francis removed Burke as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura, allegedly because of his opposition to Francis’s proposed reforms to Catholic moral teaching on divorce and remarriage. Since then Burke has been a prime mover behind a letter made public last November challenging the pope over the orthodoxy of his latest exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. The attempt by Burke and Festing to remove Boeselager is seen as a power play to weaken Catholic reformist efforts within the Knights of Malta.

Pope Francis put an end to this power play with a display of papal power that few expected.

Over the course of his papacy, Francis has relaxed the rules on communion for Catholics in “irregular marriages,” and indicated that he is sympathetic to calls to end the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests. One German bishop even indicated that communion for non-Catholics with a Catholic spouse is a real possibility under Francis. Some in the traditionalist fringe of the Roman Catholic Church are opposing such reforms, yet such moves remove stumbling blocks on the way to ecumenical unity between Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations.

For over 40 years, until his death in 1986, Plain Truth editor in chief Herbert W. Armstrong predicted that the Roman Catholic Church would pull its Protestant daughters and their Eastern Orthodox sisters back into its fold as it rose up to rule over a united Europe. The November 1963 Plain Truth stated:

The mighty problem of achieving unity is twofold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East—Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Near East—from Rome. Second, it involves the restoration to the Roman Communion all Protestantism which developed from 1517 onward.

While Pope Francis has exhibited some willingness to make slight modifications to Catholic dogma in an attempt to draw more people into the Roman Catholic fold, he has also shown he is willing to use an extraordinary display of papal power to enforce his decisions. Regardless of what doctrinal modifications the Vatican implement’s in the months ahead, the way Protestant and Orthodox churches will be accepted back into the fold is by recognizing the authority of the papacy. The Vatican’s push for church unity, or ecumenism, actually reveals the Vatican’s imperial spirit and desire for dominance!

For more information on what the Bible has to say about the future reunification of Catholic, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox churches under the pope, read “Returning to the Fold” by Stephen Flurry.