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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis is revoking the four high offices of the Knights of Malta and instituting a provisional government, effective immediately.
The pontiff's latest decree, published on Saturday, comes as the latest installment of what many knights view as papal encroachment upon the sovereign order (formally known as the "Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta").
The papal decree approved the order's new constitutional charter and regulations, and dictated the following three major changes:
The pope named four men to fulfill the duties of the revoked high offices and added an additional nine to the provisional Sovereign Council.
Francis wrapped up his decree by calling for a convocation of the Extraordinary General Chapter on Jan. 25, 2023, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. His special delegate and the lieutenant of the grand master, in tandem with the provisional Sovereign Council, will take care of preparations for that meeting.
In 2015, the pope launched an investigation into the Knights of Malta when a scandal surfaced. The grand chancellor was allegedly involved in the distribution of condoms. That investigation turned into a power struggle among competing factions over the order's internal affairs and governance.
Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Lebanese Association of the Order of Malta, laments the demise of the once-respected status of the Knights. In a letter dated Aug. 26, he writes, "When I look at what we have become, I am ashamed."
Pope Francis' controversial involvement led to Cdl. Raymond Burke being sidelined as cardinal patron of the order by the appointment of Cdl. Giovanni Becciu as the pope's special delegate. Becciu was later stripped of his rights as a cardinal in the wake of a financial scandal and is currently on trial. Pope Francis replaced Becciu with Cdl. Silvano Tomasi in 2020.
Church Militant has covered this story since the pope first launched his investigation. A recent overview of the sordid affair states: "The order is a sovereign entity under international law, with the pope wielding authority over the order's religious affairs. But the Holy See has asserted that this religious authority extends to the activity of the professed knights, who control the levers of power within the order."
Many faithful Catholics are, therefore, having a difficult time reconciling Pope Francis' promotion of dialogue, collegiality and openness with his handling of the Knights of Malta.
His Synod on Synodality has the theme "For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission." The current phase involves listening to parishes at the local level. But Francis established no such process for listening to the Knights of Malta. He has taken matters into his own hands, despite opposition from many of its members.
The pope's latest decree on the Traditional Latin Mass seems to reveal a desire for its abolition. This leaves some Catholics wondering if the pope's authoritative approach towards the traditional Knights of Malta is an extension of his ongoing crackdown on traditional elements.
He also implies traditionalists are dabbling with heresy. For example, in Francis' recent address to Italian professors on the Liturgy, he remarked, "The worldly spirit of 'backwardism' — fashionable today — that is to think that going to the roots means needing to go backwards." He went on to suggest this spirit has traces of the gnostic and neo-pelagian heresies.
The Knights of Malta traces its origins to roughly 1048. It has been a traditional and valuable member of the visible Church for around 900 years.
Then there are questions surrounding what may be called "dark money."
In 2017, the National Catholic Register reported there had been a "mysterious 120 million Swiss franc ($118 million) donation to the Knights." Later that year, the Register further reported the order's grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, had "accepted a 30 million Swiss franc donation ($31 million) on behalf of the order" from what has been called a "dubious trust," with intentions of accepting millions more from the same trust in years to come.
As mentioned, Pope Francis replaced Cdl. Burke with Cdl. Becciu, who is involved in a fantastic financial scandal ― one so well-publicized that Francis was forced to fire him in 2020.
Extreme corruption in the Vatican bank only adds more questions about what is happening to the Knights of Malta's wealth in the wake of the pope's takeover.
What began as a scandal for the Knights of Malta has led to a complete restructuring of its governance. Pope Francis is now at the helm, triggering many questions while continuing to shroud his heavy-handed approach with confusion.