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Order of Malta ― the Vatican’s second treaty-making “sovereign entity” (2017)

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has concordats with more than 100 countries worldwide and enjoys observer status at the United Nations. Called “cooperation agreements”, these treaties let it deliver state-funded social services in accordance with Catholic doctrine. This religious order is “sovereign” when it deals with nation states, but not when it deals with the Vatican. It is firmly controlled by the pope.
♦ Who knows? The Knights of Malta know: an excerpt from the National Catholic Reporter (1989) describing their behind-the-scenes activity.
♦ Concordat with the Order of Malta (2010): text: also the cloak-and-dagger origins of the concordat which controls most of the social services in Hungary.

Founded at the time of the Crusades, the Order of Malta, (at first called Knights Hospitaller), was a Catholic military religious order (like the Knights Templar). Its claim to "sovereign" status is curious, since it was no more than a fiefdom under the Spanish king who ruled over Malta.

The Order was originally based in Jerusalem, but withdrew successively from the Holy Land, from Cyprus and from Rhodes. In 1530 Charles V of Aragon, gave the landless Knights, now called the Order of St. John, a new fiefdom. He installed them in Malta, despite protests by the representatives of the Maltese. However, in order to honour the Maltese Charter of Freedom granted by his predecessor, the King established two separate jurisdictions on the islands. That is why, when Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798, there were two separate capitulations, one on behalf of the people of Malta and one by the Knights as vassals of the by then defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  Once again landless, withdrew to Rome.

By the 19th century their days of fighting Saracens were long gone. However, their mediaeval glamour appealed to captains of industry hoping to purchase acquaintanceship with princes and nobles, and the landless Order had become very rich. (Upon entering the Order they pay not only annual membership dues, but also “passage money” which was originally the price of the crusaders’ passage to the Holy Land.) Their wealth, powerful connections and aristocratic sense of entitlement gave them an independence that made the pope uneasy.

It took three popes to tame the Knights

It was Pius XII who first tried to rein in the scandal-plagued Order of Malta. Its Knights were accused of selling titles, [1] living in an unmonastic manner [2] and had even been caught “black-marketeering”, by using their diplomatic immunity to smuggle luxury items into Italy. [3] 

In 1951 the pope challenged their claim to independence by ruling that because the Order of Malta lacked land it only had “functional sovereignty”. [4] His point, of course, was that the State of the Vatican City, with 110 acres, enjoyed true sovereignty, thus outranking the Order of Malta.

Naturally the aristocrats who were used to running their own show argued back. [5] Pius didn’t succeed in placing the SMOM under the Vatican watchdog in charge of the other religious orders [6] and finally settled for their promise to revise their constitution in order to curb the practices that were causing criticism of the Church. [7]

A decade later his successor, John XXIII, made a renewed attempt to bring the Knights under papal control. This time the pope wisely avoided the whole sovereignty issue, which was a two-sided sword. After all, between the end of the Papal States and the signing of the Lateran Treaty the Vatican itself had been landless, yet it still claims unbroken sovereignty.

No further attempt was made to treat the SMOM like other religious orders and send along Vatican investigators for “apostolic visitations”. Instead, John XXIII tried to exercise control over the order through legal means. In 1961 the pope obliged them to adopt a new constitution which gave them in-house watchdogs. The pope appoint a Cardinal Patron (art. 14), who reports directly to him, and it required papal approval for the appointment of the Prelate to assist the cardinal. (art. 19) The pope also got control over election of the head of the order, since papal consent is necessary before announcing any new Grand Master.

The Order’s constitution further stipulates that the Grand Master is bound “to execute the acts of the Holy See, insofar as these relate to the Order” (art. 15.2.g). In other words, he has to follow the rules laid down by the pope. And, of course, obedience to the pope is an essential part of being a Grand Master since, in addition to claiming the title of prince, he is also a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. [8] On their appointment, cardinals must make a Profession of Faith, which states that they must observe all the Church laws. [9] Furthermore, the all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta, though not clerics, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope.

At the end of the ten-year power struggle between the knights and the Vatican it was the pope who emerged as the winner: The Order maintained that it was sovereign and therefore not subject to anyone. The Vatican replied that the Order was not subject to anyone except the Holy See”. [10]

The third pope to try to reign in the Knights was Francis I. The dispute erupted after a long-running struggle within the Order between traditionalists and those allied with the more pragmatic pope who disdained their pomp. The occasion was the revelation in 2016 that in Myanmar and Africa the Order had distributed tens of thousands of condoms. The official then in charge of the Order's international aid, the German aristocrat Albrecht Boeselager, had meanwhile become the Order's Chancellor. [11] He claimed that he had stopped this when he became aware of it, but the Grand Master fired him, nevertheless. This led to a Vatican commission to look into, not the condom affair, but the sacking.

This, in turn, revived the whole issue of the Order's sovereignty vis-à-vis the Vatican. The Grand Master called the Vatican investigation legally "irrelevant", citing its status as a sovereign entity under international law, and asked members not to cooperate with it. [12] This was a predictable reaction to the historically sensitive question of Vatican investigations. Even worse, from the point of view of Francis, was that the papal watchdog, Cardinal Burke, was taking the part of the rebellious Order. The pope's control mechanism had failed and, after receiving the report of the papal investigators, Francis fired the disobedient Grand Master, reinstated the Chancellor and put the Order temporarily under a "pontifical delegate".

The move was similar to one in 1983 when the Pope John Paul II named a delegate to temporarily run the Jesuit order, which he feared was becoming too leftist. More recently, the Vatican named a delegate to run the conservative Legionaries of Christ, which has hit by a sexual abuse scandal. [13]

The delegate appointed by the Pope, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, was originally to remain in control until a new Grand Master could be elected. [14] Then, However, after the election, Francis decided to keep his trusted delegate in place to continue supervising the reform that he demanded ― indefinitely. [15] So much for the independence of the new Grand Master!

In the end the Order of Malta, for all its pretensions, was treated like any other troubled Catholic order. Once again it was made crystal clear who really controls this curious, landless, "sovereign entity under international law".

Broad scope of Vatican medical doctrines 

On the one hand, the Order of Malta is utterly dependent on the Vatican ― in its constitution which binds it to the pope, in the Grand Master’s religious role as cardinal, in its status as a lay religious order and in its top members' vows of  obedience to the pope. Yet on the other hand, despite having no territory, the Order claims to be independent ("sovereign") ― issuing its own passports and stamps and conducting diplomatic missions. [16] A former Grand Master, Andrew Bertie, claimed that The Order is sovereign, it does not depend on any other state or government and it does not pursue any economic or political goal.” [17] The head of this ostensibly independent organisation is now on the road to sainthood: his beatification process is reported to be getting underway. [18]

Yet, despite his protestations, there is one "government" the SMOM most certainly depends on ― that of the Catholic Church (which is also a national government of the Vatican City State). And this dependence on the Church has wide-reaching medical consequences. With 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide, the Order controls the health care of many of the world's poor.

One branch of the SMOM says on its website that “It supports Catholic positions in bioethics and opposition to campaigns to promote abortion, euthanasia and the harvesting of human embryos.” [19] In fact, it opposes not only “campaigns” for these, but also refuses to offer these services or even to refer patients who want them.

Furthermore this policy is more restrictive than may appear at first sight. That’s because the Vatican has redefined all these words. For the Church “abortion” includes the morning-after pill which prevents implantation, “euthanasia” includes letting a patient who wants to die refuse food and drink, and “the harvesting of human embryos” includes using aborted embryos, which would otherwise be wasted, to help save lives. And it doesn't even allow the distribution of condoms to women in Africa whose husbands are infected with HIV. [20]

Well positioned to enforce Vatican health doctrines worldwide

♦  SMOM fundraising includes a new foray into the lucrative American market. In 2015 a social fund-raising event was launched in New York, where, as the organiser said, “The mystique of the order is on our side”. [21]

♦  SMOM distribution of medical supplies: The Order of Malta collects, sorts and distributes medicines and medical equipment to hospitals worldwide. [22] What are the chances that the SMOM is going to include condoms or that it will supply hospitals with family planning programmes, let alone abortion clinics?

In Honduras, the AIDS capital of Central America, the SMOM is increasingly active, reporting that “in the last few years distributions amounted to a value of US$45 million.” [23] Honduras is also where the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI was confronted with open defiance of Vatican policies by Catholic-run AIDS prevention programmes. In 2005 the director of a hospice said, “As a Catholic charity we can’t hand out condoms but we give advice about them and make sure people know where to get them”. [24] However, the SMOM which is expanding its influence in Honduras is directly under Vatican control. There is no need to rein in the SMOM, as was done in 2011 to the worldwide Catholic charity, Caritas. [25]

♦  SMOM control of end-of-life care: “Care for the terminally ill in hospitals, hospices and at home has developed during recent years into one of the key projects among the Order’s activities.” [26] 

♦  SMOM care of pregnant women, including rape victims: In the Dominican Republic the Order of Malta runs mother-and-child clinics which offer “a wide range of antenatal and postnatal services”. [27] The SMOM does not permit abortion and those family planning methods that it defines as such (like the pill, the IUD and the morning-after pill). Since 2009 the Dominican Constitution has defined life as beginning at conception, which obliges compliance with this Vatican doctrine. [28]

Another focal point for the SMOM is Kenya, where abortions are rarely provided in public hospitals. Thus unsafe abortions account for 35 percent of maternal deaths in Kenya, versus the global average of 13 percent. [29] Rich Kenyans can get safe abortions by travelling abroad, but poor women risk injury or death when terminating a pregnancy. Many are reported by neighbours to the police and jailed for up to 14 years if convicted of terminating a pregnancy. Some women are believed to have died in police cells as they bled to death. [30]

The SMOM points out that Kenya also provides an operational base for the countries to the north, including South Sudan. [31] This is where mass rape was used as a “weapon of war” against the population there [32] and even, by their own army as an electoral tactic in 2010. [33]  However, according to the Vatican doctrine enforced by SMOM health services, these injured girls and women must be forced to bear the resulting babies, whatever the cost to themselves. 

The Order of Malta makes quiet “concordats”

By the end of 2016 the SMOM had made 102 of these “cooperation agreements”. These enable it to provide medical services in 120 countries across the world employing tens of thousands of medical professionals and volunteers. [34] In some of its concordats it manages to insert itself between donor and recipient, by operating as the intermediary which delivers the aid funded by others. The agreements it makes with both donor nations and the recipients of aid are not the usual memoranda of understanding or contracts [35], but instead are set in stone as international treaties between two sovereign nations. In everything but name they are Vatican concordats. Here are a few recent examples (from pp. 18-19) of international treaties of varying degrees of formality, from memoranda of understanding to full "cooperation agreements" (concordats): 

2010 ― with Czech Republic, Hungary (making it the country’s largest social service provider), Portugal, Russian Federation.

2011 ― with Liberia, Dominican Republic, Morocco, Kenya (which serves as a base for the Horn of Africa) and Mali (where the SMOM currently acts through the Ordre de Malte France). 

2012 ― with UN Office on Drugs and Crime, International Atomic Energy Agency, France, Guinea, Belgium, Monaco, Republic of Congo.

For later ones try substituting the year into this URL:

A cardinal has asked why his own church needs a diplomatic service. [36] The same has been asked for the Order of Malta. The Knights have been criticised for “the maintenance of expensive embassies whose benefit to the local needy and poor is highly questionable”. [37] Shrewd observation. It could be argued that the whole diplomatic apparatus of the SMOM only makes sense if this strangely ceremonial charity was interested in more than just delivering aid. A worldwide charity with diplomatic status is well positioned to further the social and political goals of the Vatican. It specialises in maternity hospitals and hospices which are pivotal for advancing the Church’s “pro-life” programme ― one which could also be called “life at all costs”.  


This Order has trademarked nine names: “Warning - Self-styled ‘Orders of St John’”

The largely Protestant counterpart, the Venerable Order of Saint John / four Orders of St John of Jerusalem, generally known as the Order of St John, also complains about “the ever increasing number of organisations which misuse the symbols and emblems of the Orders of St John, causing confusion in the minds of the public”. 

* Zedler, Universal Lexicon, vol. 2 (1733), col. 438. “Hand-Kuß, zum Hand Hand-Kuß lassen, ist eine Gnaden-Bezeigung, so grosse Herren einem geringeren erweisen.”

The picture is of former Grand Master Fra’ Andrew Bertie and the video of his successor, Fra’ Matthew Festing.

1. “Vatican ends rift with Malta Order”, New York Times, 5 April 1953.

James J. Algrant, “A more measured view of The Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem” [no date].

The Order of Malta ... required modest contributions from those who could furnish nobiliary proofs and much heavier ones from those admitted in the category of Magistral Grace for which nobility was not required. It boiled down to supplying an illustrious name for the order's roster or funds for its coffers. 

2. “Religion: Chastened Knights”, Time Magazine, 20 April 1953.,9171,822784,00.html

“...some 20 ‘Professed’ Knights, bound by religious vows, must start living something like the communal life of a religious order”

3. “Religion: Chastened Knights”, Time Magazine, 20 April 1953.,9171,822784,00.html

In 1946, a shipment of penicillin, ordered in the U.S. by an unnamed representative of the Knights, turned out to contain not only drugs but radios and other luxury goods, which the Knights' diplomatic immunity had got past Italian customs. [Etc.]

4. Decree of Pius XII, 10 December 1951, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XLV, 1953, pp. 765-767. Mentioned in “Sovrano Militare Ordine di Malta”, Wikipedia.

“The Holy See in 1953 proclaimed that the Order had only functional sovereignty, being free of land (as per official statement already issued two years earlier).”

5. Count Charles Zeininger de Borja, “Quelques Considerations sur la Souveraineté de l'Ordre de Saint-Jean dit de Malte”, Rivista Araldica, XLIX, 1951, pp.171-176.

6. It was then known as the “Sacred Congregation for the Religious”, and is now called the “Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life”.

7.  “Vatican ends rift with Malta Order”, New York Times, 5 April 1953. 

8. Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, “The Prince and Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing”.

9. Canon 833.2, Code of Canon Law, 1983.

10. “Pope and Malta Knights End Feud”, New York Times, 25 June 1961.

11. “Knights of Malta Remove Senior Member amid Contraception Distribution Scandal”, Lepanto Institute, 22 December 2016.

12. “Knights of Malta refuse to assist ‘irrelevant’ Vatican investigation”, Catholic Herald, 11 January 2017.
Nicole Winfield, “Pope embroiled in new row over handing out condoms to the poor”, Independent, 25 January 2017.

13. “Pope intervenes in Knights of Malta after head resigns under pressure”, Reuters, 25 January 2017.
For a good summary of the condom controversy see:
“Ten Centuries Later, a Pope and Knights Do Battle”, New Yrok Times. 28 January 2017.

14. “Pope names Archbishop Becciu personal delegate to Order of Malta”, CNA, 4 February 2017.

15. “Pope Francis extends mandate of special delegate to Knights of Malta”, Catholic World Report, 4 May 2018.

16. Richard Owen, “New Grand Master’s crusade to explain his ancient Catholic order”, Times, 9 April 2010.

17. Fra Matthew Festing, “Address of the Grand Master to the diplomatic corps”, 9 January 2007.

18. “Process for beatification of Grand Master Andrew Bertie initiated”, Times of Malta, 14 August 2012.

19. Australian Association of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, (accessed 18 July 2011).

20. “A Black-Tie Ball Fit for a Knight”, New York Times, 25 September 2015.

21. “South Sudan Army Commits Rape Crimes Ahead Of Coming Elections”, Sudan Vision Daily, 28 March 2010.

22. Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Activity Report 2003, p. 33. 

23. Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Activity Report 2010, p. 65. 

24. “Catholics’ anti-condom stance turns to rubber”, Reuters, 12 May 2005.

“AIDS-hit Honduras disobeys Vatican”, Reuters, 11 May 2005. Reposted at: 

25. Patrick B. Craine, “Vatican official criticizes outgoing Caritas secretary-general”, Life Site News, 7 March 2011.

26. Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, “Hospitals, medical centres and health programmes”.

27. “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Activity Report 2010”, p. 64. 

28. “Political deal lets Vatican in on new Dominican Republic constitution”, Concordat Watch.

29. Katy Migiro, “Kenya backstreet abortions kill thousands every year, Reuters, 25 October 2011.

30. Jody Clarke, “Abortion: a class issue”, Irish Times, 8 November 2011.

31. SMOM, “Cooperation Agreement between the Kenyan Government and the Order of Malta”, 10 October 2010.

32. Amnesty International Report, “Sudan: Darfur: Rape as a weapon of war: sexual violence and its consequences”, 18 July 2004.

33. “South Sudan Army Commits Rape Crimes Ahead Of Coming Elections”, Sudan Vision Daily, 28 March 2010.

34. “Order of Malta top official removed from post”, The Tablet, 9 December 2016.

35. Victorian Government Solicitor’ s Office, “Memoranda of understanding”, 2008.

An aid agreement can take the form of a flexible memorandum of understanding (MOU), for example: Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, “Aid Agreements With Cambodia”, 19 May 2000.

36. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “Il cardinale Martini ‘Un Concilio sul divorzio’”, La Repubblica, 18 June 2009.

37. Mark Karydis, “Worthy work of another sovereign order” [letter to the editor], Times of Malta, 16 July 2011.

Who knows? The Knights of Malta know

Penny Lernoux’s article, published in the National Catholic Reporter in 1989, depicts the behind-the-scenes activity of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Since then the swashbuckling Knights have been reigned in by successive popes, so that today their activities are more closely monitored by the Vatican and better directed to its goals.

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