The Vatican takeover of the Order of Malta has a possible precedent – from 1981, when St John Paul II intervened in the internal affairs of the Jesuit Order.
then General, Padre Arrupe, elected for life, had been incapacitated by
The Jesuits decided to elect a certain Fr O’Keefe to run the
Order in the incapacity of Arrupe, but the Pope intervened and appointed
Fr Paolo Dezza
to run the order until such a time as a new General could be
After a period of two years the Pope gave permission to the
Jesuits to elect a new superior.
At the time, this extraordinary intervention by the Sovereign Pontiff
was considered by some as an outrageous interference in the affairs of a
religious order which, like all religious orders, had been until then
allowed to govern itself and rejoice in its own autonomy.
many who saw this action by John Paul II as a sign of creeping papal
power, and an arrogation to himself of powers that no other Pope had
used for centuries.
But amidst all the noisy criticism, others were
quietly pleased by the Pope’s action, seeing it as a necessary take over
of the Jesuits who, under Arrupe, had lost their way. One thing was
certain: as Supreme Pontiff, the Pope was quite within his rights to
intervene as he had.
The Pope has “supreme, full, immediate and
universal ordinary power” in the Church, as Canon 331 puts it.
No Catholic could possibly dispute the claims made by Canon 331.
Whether they permit the Vatican intervention into the Order of Malta is
another matter: Ed Condon has argued
that they do not.
But whatever the legal situation, such huge powers
lose their force and effectiveness the more they are invoked.
authority, paradoxically, is diminished through use. As in the British
Constitution, the Royal Prerogative is best left unused and
For the Pope’s power, though having a sound legal basis in
Canon Law, is something more than that – it is a moral authority, and
to be preserved by being used sparingly.
That the Pope should now intervene in the affairs of the Knights of
Malta, at the behest, it seems, of the friends of a disgruntled member
of the Order, sacking the Grand Master for no very clear reason, brings
the papal power into disrepute.
As with the reports of the sacking
of three officials from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the
Faith, this seems to be an example of the papal supreme power used for
the purposes of micromanagement.
One of the unique selling points of this papacy was supposed to be
synodality and the devolution of power to the margins.
Instead what we
seem to be seeing is the centralisation of power and decision making to a
degree unimaginable in previous papacies.
Members of Protestant and
Orthodox churches may perhaps with some justification point to this sort
of behaviour as an abuse of papal power.
So what is happening in the Order of Malta?
One thing is certain, and
that is Fra’ Matthew Festing, the former Grand Master, a true son of
the Church, will not tell us, but will keep loyally silent.
who read about these things in the papers will ask the question.
they may well ask, too, what is happening in the Catholic Church?