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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Why the Knights of Malta resist the Vatican—and the Knights of Columbus should have done the same

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 20, 2017

The escalating dispute between the Vatican and the Knights of Malta brings to mind a somewhat similar debate from years past.

During the 1980s, as the abortion issue gave rise to the most contentious arguments on the American political scene, the Knights of Columbus (KofC) faced a tough question: Could a Catholic man who supported unrestricted legal abortion—in flagrant disregard for the teaching of the Church—remain a member?

Membership in the KofC is open to men who are “practical” Catholics. The KofC does not require members to be saints, nor even to prove that they practice their faith regularly. But if a member of the KofC formally breaks with the Church, he cannot remain a member. Until the time of the abortion debate, the meaning of that standard had never been much in doubt. But now some very prominent members of the KofC were leading the fight for abortion. The KofC, as an institution, was and is very strongly committed to the pro-life cause. How could it tolerate such opposition to its own goals and to the clear moral guidance of the Church?

Months and years rolled past, and Catholic politicians who identified themselves as Knights continued to be leading advocates not only of unrestricted abortion, but also of compulsory taxpayer subsidies for the slaughter. While the debate within the KofC simmered, it gradually became clear that the group’s leaders would not expel abortion advocates.

In 1990 the Supreme Grand Knight, Virgil Dechant, revealed that the question had been resolved for the KofC—not by a consensus among the members or leaders of the organization, but by an instruction from the Vatican. Dechant said that Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, then the Vatican Secretary of State, had told him: “Don’t you dare make a move without the approval of Church authorities.”

When I first heard of Dechant’s explanation, I wondered aloud why the group felt obliged to accept such a directive from Cardinal Casaroli. The KofC is a private organization, free to set its own standards for membership. If the Knights chose to disqualify pro-abortion politicians, wasn’t that their own affair? They would not be handing down doctrinal decisions; they would not be excommunicating anyone. They would simply be saying that advocacy for the slaughter of unborn babies is incompatible with the purposes of their fraternal organization.

At the time, the KofC was not beholden to the Vatican—except in the sense that every loyal Catholic is bound to show fealty to the Holy See. On the contrary, as a heavy financial contributor to the Vatican, the KofC exercised a great deal of clout in Rome. Nevertheless the group accepted the Vatican directive, and abortion advocates retained their membership.

Now flash forward thirty years, and once again the Holy See is (or at least certainly seems to be) questioning the decision of an important Catholic organization to expel an influential member because of his involvement in a program that violated Catholic moral principles. But unlike the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Malta have chosen to resist the Vatican directive.

(A word of caution is in order here. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) has not offered a public explanation for the ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager, saying only that the matter is confidential and “more complex” than reports might suggest. But it has been widely reported that the former chancellor had involved the SMOM in a condom-distribution scheme, and Boeselager himself has said that he was targeted as a “liberal Catholic.”)

Like the KofC, the SMOM carries a great deal of influence in Rome. Founded at the end of the 11th century, the venerable Order has been an international powerhouse of charitable work for nearly a millennium. The members are wealthy Catholics, from prominent families, who have a strong track record of generosity in supporting the Church: the sort of people bishops would certainly not want to alienate.

The SMOM has two special characteristics that make its case quite different from that of the KofC:

  1. Some Knights of Malta take the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In some respects, the SMOM can be seen as a religious order.

  2. However, the SMOM has also established itself as a sovereign body under international law. From their headquarters in Rome, they issue their own passports and maintain formal diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries.

Insofar as they are a religious order, the Knights of Malta are subject to Vatican authority. But insofar as they are a sovereign body, they are not. Thus the current debate. Since the dismissal of a chancellor is a matter of internal governance, the SMOM argues, the Vatican has no cause for involvement in the matter. The Vatican Secretariat of State evidently thinks otherwise; despite the protests from the SMOM headquarters, an investigating committee appointed by Pope Francis continues its work.

The details of this dispute are not public knowledge, and probably never will be. We do not know exactly why Albrecht von Boeselager was ousted from the SMOM. Nor do we know why his dismissal provoked such concern at the Vatican Secretariat of State. But if the common public perception is even roughly accurate—if the conflict was precipitated by Boeselager’s involvement in a condom-distribution program—it is difficult to understand why Vatican intervention is necessary.

Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that a Catholic who promotes the distribution of contraceptives can remain in good standing with the Church. Why shouldn’t a lay Catholic order—and a sovereign order at that—be allowed to establish its own, tougher standards?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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