Pope Francis’s intervention in the Knights of Malta has allowed his critics a potent new line of attack.
“Where is your mercy?” the posters
that appeared in Rome last Saturday sarcastically asked, after listing
what Breitbart News called “recent misuses of papal power.”
The idea of the news organization behind Trump and his constitution-defying executive orders on refugees calling out the pope as an authoritarian is so rich that comment is superfluous. But it’s the
outrageousness of the new narrative that makes it so attractive.
It allows those who, in the Church, would in other circumstances be enthusiastic authoritarians and centralists - those who cheered St. John
Paul II’s hammering of the heretics, his clampdown on dissent, and so
on - now to frame themselves as advocates of pluralism.
Yet they claim that the real irony here is that the pope popular for
being - Breitbart again - “an open-minded, grandfatherly figure with an
emphasis on mercy over doctrine” turning out to be, after all, a
dictator bent on an “ideological purge”.
Having set up this frame, traditionalists and conservatives can then
reach for the narrative of victimhood, which, in the modern West,
guarantees righteousness with astonishingly little effort.
Yet literally nothing in this account is true.
First, anyone who ever knew him up close in Argentina could tell you
that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a tough leader and radical reformer, who
assumes the truth of doctrine but wants the Church to help people live
it, rather than use it to throw at rivals. The emphasis on mercy is not a
softening or a reducing of doctrine. It is doctrine.
Second, Francis is not imposing his way of thinking - a theological
school, say - on anyone. He is a pluralist, who sees the Church as a
place of “reconciled diversity” in which disagreement can be dynamic and
No one could describe Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the
Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), as someone who thinks like
Francis, yet the pope appointed him.
Equally, Cardinal Gerard Müller,
whose tortuous zig-zagging over Amoris Laetitia offers at best fitful support to the pope, remains as prefect at the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
If they are loyal to the pope and his mission, which they are, he does not mind that they take a very different view.
True, he has renewed personnel in both congregations. But does that
make him a dictator?
The Vatican bureaucracy has no purpose outside, nor
justification beyond, enabling the Successor of St. Peter to fulfill
his mission. If Francis wishes to replace priests and religious who are
under vows, why shouldn’t he, especially if they have been there a long
If those that remain feel “intimidated” and “anxious” - as critics claim - they have an attitude problem rooted in careerism.
As one senior Vatican official put it to me recently in Rome:
“Surely we exist to serve the Holy Father, and if he sees a better way
of achieving his objective by not using us, why should we object? The
attitude that he should operate this or that way is making the pope
serve the curia, not the other way round.”
Yes, the pope is deeply intolerant, but not of those who disagree
with him or do not share his outlook, but of obstacles to
evangelization. Where God’s name is defaced, he is fierce in restoring
it. Yes, he is a purger - but of what he identifies as spiritual
worldliness, the selling-off of the treasures of the Gospel for what St.
Ignatius of Loyola called “riches, honor and pride.”
In the case of the Knights, Francis is not intervening because he
dislikes the medal and epaulette-strewn scarlet uniforms or Mass ad orientem, but
because of serious problems, brewing over many years, in the governance
of the order, especially among its professed members. They have led
to corruption and abuse of its primary purpose, which is evangelization
and assisting the poor.
One senior Knight I spoke to this week said there was “little doubt”
of the need for reform, especially in the area of financial transparency
and governance. He said there were too many “dubious transactions,”
while appointments to the head of the order often operated according to
an “old boys’ network, without proper vetting.”
He also said that the system by which the Grand Master is elected
only by the professed Knights - a small group of 50 - requires reform.
The professed have not succeeded in securing many new vocations, yet the
order has 13,000 lay members.
My source, speaking on background, also said he knew of one group of
Italian knights who had turned out also to be secret Freemasons.
“I detect a certain determination by the Holy Father to root this
out, and he is absolutely right,” he said. “This is totally
The Order of Malta is not a charity or NGO; nor is it a club for
social and business advancement. It is a lay religious order, whose
leaders are under vows, and which should lead its members to holiness
through working closely with the elderly, refugees and other poor. It
exists to testify to God’s mercy to the poor, not primarily to
fund-raise through elaborate gala dinners.
If the Knights’ modus operandi - its traditions, its culture,
and so on - enable the sanctification of its members and the
proclamation of God’s mercy, then it is doing what it exists to do. But
if they exist predominantly for the interests and enjoyment of its
members, with ‘charity’ as its legitimization, then the order is worldly
and needs reform.
Hence Francis’s instructions to his legate, Archbishop Angelo
Becciu, that he should work to bring about “the moral and spiritual
renewal of the order, especially of its professed members, so that it
might carry out fully its end of ‘promoting the glory of God through
the sanctification of its members, the service of faith and the Holy
Father, and assisting neighbors.'”
Some canonists claim that the pope has no right to do this, that the
Knights’ status as an entity in international law constrains his potestas. (This was the basis of the former Grand Master’s resistance, encouraged by the order’s patronus or chaplain, American Cardinal Raymond Burke.)
Yet canon law itself recognizes no such restriction. It enshrines what the Catechism
calls the pope’s “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole
Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” This power is
not merely claimed but divinely instituted.
The law above all laws - the lex suprema - is the spiritual health of souls, the salus animarum, and popes that make of use this power are not dictators but fulfilling their role as vicar of Christ.
No organization is obliged to belong to the Catholic Church, but
those that do accept papal authority, which includes the right to
intervene in any Catholic organization and shake it down when it
gets snarled up. Francis has done this already a number of times: with
the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, and more recently with the
Sodalitium de Vitae Christianae.
In each case there were serious divisions and dysfunctions that could
not be resolved internally, leading the pope to suspend its leaders and
impose a temporary governance.
This is what a pope is for. Shepherding sheep mostly involves
healing, nurturing, teaching and leading by example; but sometimes
bleating creatures obdurately headed for the cliff edge need to be
forced to get back on the path.
Canonists who argued that the Order of Malta is sovereign and
therefore cannot be intervened might have been, on paper, correct - the
question had never been put to the test before.
But if they were
correct, they begged the question of whether the pope should continue
to recognize a Catholic organization that claimed autonomy from his
This was why the Knights gave up their defiant fight. Had
they pressed the sovereignty argument, the Vatican would simply have
withdrawn its recognition, implicitly respecting the order’s wish to be
an aristocratic club or NGO rather than a Catholic organization.
Still, the furious reaction is to be expected.
There is a line attributed to Don Quixote (although he never actually
said it): “If the dogs are barking, Sancho, it’s a sign we are moving
It is a phrase Francis likes to use when people point to the
growing noise of opposition.
Reforms hurt, and conversion is painful.
When people are screaming
‘dictator!’ or putting up anonymous posters in Rome, it’s a sign,
Sancho, that real progress is being made.