Founded in 1099 to provide hospital care and military defence in the Holy Land, it has retained much of its medieval tradition and ceremony.
But it has also, by gradual reform, become a powerhouse of international aid.
More than 100,000 members, medical staff and volunteers are offering practically every form of charitable assistance around the world, from handing out sandwiches to the homeless in Britain, to running Aids clinics in Africa, to rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.
The order attributes this vast network in large part to its sovereign status. Thanks to its diplomatic links with more than 100 countries, it often has access to places that other agencies cannot reach.
It is a religious order, some of whose knights take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
But the order also values its independent sovereignty, which it has jealously guarded.
In the early 1950s, when Cardinal Nicola Canali tried to bring the order more under the sway of the Vatican, the knights successfully resisted what they saw as a power grab. Since then Rome has mostly let the order get on with things – right up until last month.
The crisis was brought about by the dismissal of Albrecht von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor (number three).
Boeselager’s previous job was running the order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International.
A few Malteser projects had been handing out condoms – since 2005, according to the watchdog the Lepanto Institute. The order says that Boeselager had known about this since at least 2013 and had failed to respond properly. Moreover, it alleges, he had concealed the problem from his superiors. Boeselager denies this, saying he acted as soon as he knew about it.
This would have remained an internal matter, except that Pope Francis himself became involved.
On November 10, he had a meeting with the order’s patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who serves as an intermediary between the Vatican and the order.
At the beginning of December, according to sources within the order, the Pope wrote Cardinal Burke a letter asking the order to take action against any possible cause of moral scandal. The exact content of the letter is unknown; but it was universally taken as a reference to the Boeselager situation.
I’m told that the mood at the Order of Malta’s headquarters was largely one of relief. The issue of Boeselager’s alleged wrongdoing had dragged on for some time without resolution.
The German aristocrat has been as much part of the Order of Malta community as anyone.
His late father Philipp, who took part in the July Plot which narrowly failed to assassinate Hitler, is one of the order’s most celebrated members. And Albrecht, like his father, has given his life to the order. This was a delicate situation for an organisation that often works more like a family than a bureaucracy.
But now that the Pope was expressing his alarm, it seemed impossible to put off decisive action. On December 6 the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, called in Boeselager for a meeting. Fra’ Festing, a former art expert for Sotheby’s, is not the most obviously fierce disciplinarian. In person, he seems more like a jovial uncle than a reigning prince in charge of a chivalric order of knights.
But now, sources in the order suggest, the obvious response was to ask for Boeselager’s resignation.
Some Boeselager supporters say that Fra’ Festing and Cardinal Burke (who was also present) claimed the sacking was on the Pope’s explicit advice. According to the well-connected Vatican reporter Edward Pentin, of the National Catholic Register, that is not quite right. The Grand Master and the cardinal did not claim direct authority; rather, “the Knights’ leadership could not see how the matter could be otherwise rectified, when great scandal was involved and no one was taking responsibility for it.”
Fra’ Festing invited Boeselager to resign; Boeselager refused. Festing commanded him, under his promise of obedience, to resign; remarkably, Boeselager refused again. He was removed from his position, and the order began to look for a new Grand Chancellor.
A few days later, they received some unexpected news. Boeselager had appealed to his allies, who in turn had appealed to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
Cardinal Parolin wrote to Fra’ Festing telling him the order had misunderstood the Pope’s thinking. “His Holiness asked that dialogue be the approach used to address and resolve potential problems,” Cardinal Parolin wrote, according to a leaked letter. “He never mentioned, conversely, expelling anyone.” Cardinal Parolin did not stop there: at a meeting with Fra’ Festing soon afterwards, he told him that he would launch an inquiry.
In a public statement, the order expressed surprise. Boeselager’s dismissal was, it said, an “act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence”. A Vatican inquiry would be “unacceptable”.
Fra’ Festing has asked members of the order not to help the Vatican’s inquiry. He has said publicly that the order is loyal to the Pope.
But that doesn’t mean members must do the bidding of any official in the Vatican.
How to make sense of this strange clash between two tiny sovereign bodies? There are two possible explanations: dirty tricks or a misunderstanding.
Supporters of the first theory point to the tension (to put it mildly) between Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke. The cardinal is one of the four who, with their dubia, have asked Francis to answer five yes-or-no questions about whether Amoris Laetitia is compatible with previous Church teaching. Cardinal Burke has also said that the quartet may issue a (possibly private) correction of the Pope, maybe in the next few months.
For some observers, the whole thing cannot be a coincidence. They argue that discrediting Cardinal Burke is the real goal of the inquiry. Some even theorise that the Pope had that in mind from the start.
It would not be the first time that the Pope has intervened against someone perceived as unsympathetic. After Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, invited priests to celebrate Mass facing east, he was publicly rebuked and his department was overhauled.
The John Paul II Institute, seen as too conservative, had its leadership replaced.
In the last few weeks, the seasoned Vatican-watcher Marco Tosatti reported that the Pope was replacing members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) who were too attached to traditional teaching – and that, when asked for an explanation, Francis said: “I am the Pope, I do not need to give reasons for any of my decisions.”
Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior correspondent of the American magazine The Week, reports that the Pope is also looking into removing child abuse cases from the oversight of the CDF – and allegedly moving them to friends of his who are more lenient in how they deal with some abusers.
And yet, much of this is still at the level of speculation – as are the theories about Francis and Cardinal Burke. It’s arguable that the whole dispute results from a series of misunderstandings. First, the Pope did not make quite clear what he wanted from the order.
Then Fra’ Festing felt he had no choice but to sack Boeselager.
Boeselager turned to Cardinal Parolin, who mistakenly thought this was the Vatican’s business.
The commission will be led by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, a Vatican diplomat who has recently dismissed claims that the Secretariat of State is overstepping its legitimate authority. Also on the commission are a canon lawyer and three members of the order.
The word in Rome is that the commission is “stacked” with Boeselager supporters. Of the order’s 40 national associations, I understand that only four have come out strongly in support of Boeselager: but one is the influential German association, headed by Boeselager’s ally Erich Prinz von Lobkowicz, who has close Vatican links.
That makes some in the order fearful of a major intervention when the commission reports in the next few months – maybe even an overhaul of the order’s constitution.
Past experience has taught them to value their sovereignty.
One longstanding knight, who is also a lawyer, says: “It is very important that the order remains independent, so that it can provide aid to all the countries in the world – including, for instance, Islamic countries. Such access might be compromised if it was ever generally thought that the order was merely another aid agency of the Catholic Church.”
On the other hand, some members are in good spirits. “It’s a sign of the order’s success that we’re running into a crisis,” says one. “The Devil only starts making trouble when things are going well for you.”