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The Knights of Malta Capitulate:
Another Triumph for Legal Nominalism in the Church

by Christopher A. Ferrara
January 30, 2017

The “Sovereign” Military Order of the Knights of Malta, whose almost millennium-long history includes its critical role in the defeat of Islam at the Battle of Lepanto, has submitted like a whimpering puppy to a naked abuse of power it had every right to resist, and did resist for a few weeks. The effective demise of the Order’s sovereignty is a shocking and disheartening demonstration of the extent to which the Church is now being governed from the top in the manner of a banana republic, wherein the only law is the will of the leader.

First, as Edward Pentin reports, the head of the Order, Matthew Festing, was summoned to a secret meeting with Francis “on the strict instruction not to let anyone know about the audience — a modus operandi that has been used frequently during this pontificate…” Then he not only demanded Festing’s resignation, but also ordered him to write a letter of resignation “on the spot” lest there be any second thoughts after Festing had left the room and was free of immediate coercion.  Worse, in a move indicating that Cardinal Burke’s head was the next to roll, Francis demanded that Festing include language in his resignation letter, also written under coercion, implicating the “influence” of Cardinal Burke in the dismissal of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor of the Order on account of Boeselager’s involvement in the Order’s “charitable” distribution of condoms to prostitutes in the Southeast Asian Republic of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Second, Francis simply declared “null and void” all acts taken by the Order’s Sovereign Council since December 6, thus effectively reinstating the “condom Knight” and overriding the legislative activity of a sovereign nation with its own passport and diplomatic relations with more than a hundred countries, including the Vatican City State itself. The Order’s Sovereign Council has since made a vain display of “sovereign” action by a pro forma vote to accept Festing’s forced resignation, the annulment of its acts since December 6 and the “immediate” reinstatement of Boeselager — as if Francis would have been deterred by the Order’s refusal to ratify his destruction of its sovereignty.

Third, Francis has further declared that he will saddle the Order with an “apostolic delegate” who will oversee an unspecified “spiritual renewal” of the Order and will have “powers that he [Francis] will define in the act of appointing him” — a blatant usurpation of the role of Cardinal Burke, amounting to his de facto removal as the Order’s spiritual patron.

Fourth, in a mockery of the Order’s sovereignty, now in ruins, Francis will “permit” the Sovereign Council to elect a new Grand Master to replace the forcibly removed Festing, supposedly in recognition of the Order’s sovereign status — which he has just utterly disregarded!   Making the mockery complete, the Order issued a statement declaring that “the Holy Father’s decisions were all carefully taken with regard to and respect for the Order, with a determination to strengthen its sovereignty.” And this from the same Order that had at first resisted Francis’ “investigation” into its sovereign affairs, issuing a statement that the investigation was legally “irrelevant” and that Boeselager’s dismissal was purely a matter of internal governance over which the Pope has no jurisdiction.  And, no doubt, Francis considers himself entitled to remove any future Grand Master or other official of the Order who displeases him or to annul any of its legislative acts if he deems it expedient.

So, the same Order whose sovereign status Francis has brutally trampled on by removing its head and annulling its duly enacted legislation now thanks him for strengthening its sovereignty. Is this a joke?  If only it were.  Chalk up this sad affair to another triumph for legal nominalism in the Church since Vatican II, according to which concepts like “sovereignty,” “renewal” and “reform” — indeed the very concept of “Catholicism” — have no meaning beyond what the will of the ruler decrees on a given day.  And the reign of nominalism in any commonwealth, including the ecclesial commonwealth, can only mean oppression, division and ultimately chaos.

The problem is now so undeniable that even Philip Lawler, who can hardly be accused of “radical traditionalism,” is compelled to articulate it for his fellow Catholics: “The Roman Pontiff should be a focus of unity in the Church. Pope Francis, regrettably, has become a source of division. There are two reasons for this unhappy phenomenon: the Pope’s autocratic style of governance and the radical nature of the program that he is relentlessly advancing.”

I will leave the last word to him.