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 fruitful.
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 time?
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 unacceptable.”
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 authority.
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 ahead.” 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.