Analysis: why are emotions running high in the Order of Malta election?


The reformist German party want sweeping changes. But can they win over the voters?

Elections always provoke excitement, but in the run-up to the Order of Malta’s leadership vote this weekend, something more can be detected: anguish, anxiety, even a distinct note of panic. The 60 voters – most of them professed knights, who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – are being intensely lobbied. Members are sending emails to the voters, asking them to save the order from “corruption and destruction”. Meanwhile, Pope Francis has asked to see 15 of the voters this evening.

To simplify things hugely, the contest is about whether a German-led reform party will get what they want. Normally, the Grand Master is elected for life; but the Germans want to elect an interim leader, who can reform the Constitution. Erich Lobkowicz, who heads the German Association, has proposed sweeping changes. At the moment, several senior positions, including Grand Master, can only be filled by professed knights. This “link” between religious vows and holding office, Lobkowicz writes, “must be deleted.” Meanwhile, Albrecht von Boeselager, the de facto leader of the German party, says he wants new rules which “limit the autonomy of the Grand Master”.

The Germans say these reforms avoid fiascos like what happened last December. Boeselager faced allegations, which he denied, about his previous job in charge of Malteser International (MI), the order’s humanitarian arm. Fra’ Matthew Festing, the Grand Master, asked for his resignation; Boeselager refused, precipitating an internal crisis. Eventually, Fra’ Festing resigned at the Pope’s request – hence the need for an election.

Critics of the German party say that the professed knights are at the heart of the order’s identity, and that the proposed reforms would secularise the order. They point to the crisis over Boeselager and MI. For years, MI had been giving out contraceptives, some of them with the potential to cause abortions. The charitable view is that the leadership had no idea: a big aid organisation has many moving parts, and it’s hard for the Grand Hospitaller in Cologne to know what is being given out at a clinic in Rangoon.

What is certain, however, is that the leadership knew by 2013. And as the Catholic Herald revealed yesterday, their response raises a few questions. For one thing, they did not tell the Grand Master or the Sovereign Council – who found out by accident a year later. In 2013, Boeselager asked his MI colleagues to keep the matter internal, as “this is an extremely sensitive matter that, without an appropriate background and know-how, could lead to serious misunderstandings”. Boeselager’s allies vehemently insist that he wasn’t proposing to conceal the problem. But the question remains: why didn’t he tell his superiors about a crisis that he evidently considered important?

Yet more strangely, MI’s response was to issue new ethical guidelines which were – as a 2016 internal report politely put it – “inconsistent with the Church’s teaching”.

Then there is the money. The labyrinthine story of trusts, donations, frozen accounts, legal cases, allegations, investigative journalism and legal threats has been summarised by Edward Pentin. The evidence is difficult to weigh up for those of us who do not know much about the world of finance. Someone who does is George Hope, a member of the order (he’s a Knight of Honour and Devotion) who spent a decade on HSBC’s internal audit team as a bank inspector. Hope says: “While at HSBC, I gained considerable in-depth knowledge of banking and bank fraud. To put it bluntly, both my experience and my instinct tell me that there has been serious financial irregularity within the order.”

Hope thinks the problems extend well beyond the recent allegations, and could have severe repercussions further down the line. The solution, he believes, is to re-elect Fra’ Matthew Festing – even if only for a year – with a mandate to clean up the order’s finances.

Hope is not the only knight who wants Fra’ Festing re-elected. While writing a profile of the former Grand Master, I spoke to several people who have worked for him, and found that he inspires a remarkable degree of loyalty. Fra’ Festing was asked to step down by Pope Francis earlier this year. But Francis also gave the green light for him to be re-elected. Members of the order who value Fra’ Festing’s legacy – above all, his emphasis on the spiritual identity of the order, reinforced by the professed knights – could choose to elect him, or someone of a similar school of thought.

However, the German party have tactical advantages. Boeselager has personally written to the voters, asking them to elect an interim leader (who could initiate the German-backed reforms). Moreover, the Vatican appears to back the German party. Since the Order of Malta is a sovereign entity, it’s curious for the Vatican to be so closely involved, and officials seem unsure about how to act. The Vatican delegate tried to ban Fra’ Festing from Rome, a ban which has now been lifted. But the papal delegate is heavily involved in preparations for the vote, and may choose to exert his influence over the knights.

Gary Lineker once explained the rules of football as “22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win.” Threescore knights in Rome will now decide whether a similar law of nature applies to the Order of Malta.

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4 Responses to Analysis: why are emotions running high in the Order of Malta election?

  1. If the “German party” wins, it will represent a defeat for decency, honesty, and loyalty to the teachings of the Church, instead of loyalty to the teachings of the “fake” Church of Bergoglio and a whole host of “arch”-bishops (“arch” in the sense of “arch-enemy” or “arch-criminal.”)


  2. Mary Salmond says:

    If the Order of Malta has worked for 900 years, why would they change it? The stability of antiquity is worth something; corruption is internal.
    That is what has to change. How does an organization ensure it does not fall into corruption, and how does it ensure the purity of the intentions of their leader and of its members – all of them? Go back to basics! I am not sure how or why the Pope is involved unless the church contributes to its operations? Are major donors asking for input into its inner workings? Perhaps their vow of poverty is in question? Are does the organization expect the money to roll in? If condoms are passed out, chastity is out of the question. Obedience? Who is obeying whom now a days? I have more questions than answers to this problem. Solution: study what has worked for 900 years.


  3. marysong says:

    Why does the Pope care so much about the use of condoms? He sure is causing a heap of trouble about the sinfulness of condoms. It seems … well, … a little odd. And Freemasons? He wants them all thrown out too. That might upset the Feemasons in the Phillipines who were so glad to see him that they had a huge welcoming poster when he visited there. Sure beats me. But then, whom am I to judge? Nobody. After all He is still the Holy Father.


  4. thecatholicvoter says:

    Reblogged this on The Catholic Voter and commented:
    Considering that the Knights of Malta and the Vatican State are both sovereign nations, this is a deeply political issue as well as a religious one. Very informative on the ongoing situation between the Vatican and the Knights of Malta.


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