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Church with room for these knights must have room for nearly everyone

Knights may seem unlikely movers and shakers in a church whose founder advised his followers to put the sword aside. In a pontificate marked by a wide-ranging debate about multiculturalism, this week’s cover story (page 3) raises questions about the curious culture of the Knights of Malta. And in a defiantly monolithic institution, which rigorously insists on naming who is and isn’t Catholic, the knights, to say the least, deserve the same scrutiny as, for example, liberation theologians and the idea of women priests.

In light of the knights’ cozy relationship with the Holy See, it might be useful to make this a teaching moment.

No longer bloody warriors as in days of old, the Knights of Malta, who keep a notoriously low profile, are now best known for their individual wealth, works of charity and perhaps for their elaborate garb. But their history, though shrouded in myth, casts in bold relief the muscular Christianity that assumed worldly rather than spiritual ascendancy after the church emerged from the Dark Ages.

When the Turks, late in the 11th century, captured the Holy Land, Pope Urban II instigated what became the First Crusade. Faith was at that time a lively force in society, so Europe answered with fierce enthusiasm. But it soon became clear that the most effective fighters against the so-called Moslem hordes would be the knights, those who could afford a good horse, a coat of mail and a stout sword. Fighters in need of a cause, Urban supplied them with a religious mission and the ideal of chivalry was born.

The crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099. They found there the Hospital of St. John, run by one Br. Gerard, whose work impressed them greatly. So, in addition to fighting and praying, many knights decided they would look after the sick and the pilgrim. Everyone concerned seized the moment.

Writes H.J.A. Sire in The Knights of Malta (Yale University Press, 1994), “The resourceful Gerard was busy with vast schemes, not merely sheltering the pilgrim ... but setting up a great network of spiritual travel.” He became a glorified travel agent. Soon he had seven hospices around Europe. Out of this venture the Hospitallers, forebears of the Knights of Malta, were born.

Dipping into history at this point merely shows how one thing leads to another. War as a religious service had now been established amid the vast euphoria of knights returning from the crusades with mixed tales of devotion and heroism. This led to the founding of religious orders devoted to fighting.

The three greatest military orders were the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights. But the ideal of holy soldiers quickly swept across the Christian World. Archbishop H.E. Cardinale’s Orders of Knighthood, Awards and the Holy See (Van Duren, 1983) lists dozens of such religious orders, including five that were “pontifical,” an indication the church at the highest level once strongly recommended violence so long as it was for a good cause.

Perhaps the fiercest champion of chivalry was the Cistercian St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote: “Rejoice, brave warrior, if you live and conquer in the Lord, but rejoice still more and give thanks if you die and go to join the Lord.”

By today’s standards this fighting and praying were an odd combination and a hint that even in such timeless institutions as the church, the culture does change. Earlier popes had declared that warriors pure in heart who died fighting for the church would go to heaven: a sentiment similar to today’s Islamic suicide bombers whose leaders promise them paradise.

Thousands freely gave their lives. And the old soldiers who didn’t die didn’t fade away either. Writes Sire: “Only when a knight’s soldierly vigor was declining would he be sent to a priory or Grand Commandery in Europe where his task was to gather and pass on the revenues that kept his brethren in the field.”

One crusade followed another, amid great slaughter. The knights acquired immense power, which for the most part they placed at the service of the pope. They also acquired wealth, which for the most part they kept for themselves. Ancient Christendom is littered with fabulous fortresses, monasteries and similar relics of the heyday of chivalry.

Writes Desmond Seward in The Monks of War (Penguin, 1972): “These military orders were almost a church within a church.” When the patriarch of Jerusalem tried to bring them to heel, the hospitallers interrupted his sermons and shot arrows at his congregation.

As their immensely convoluted history ebbed and flowed, the knights, variously known as the Order of the Hospital and the Order of St. John, found themselves, in the 16th century, in possession of Malta and eventually were called the Knights of Malta.

Since 1206, writes Sire, the order had been divided into three classes: knights, chaplains and sergeants at arms. But the more successful they became, the more they were beset by the problem of the rich young man who came to Jesus. Although they took vows, each knight had his own set of rooms and was waited on by a servant. Life became a tug between personal austerity and public splendor. The knights always had a marked hankering for pomp and circumstance, with a particular weakness for nobility.

Since the mid-14th century, a knight had to have nobility on both father’s and mother’s side, and a century later this had to extend back four generations, called “four quarters of nobility.” Writes Sire: “The Knights applied to the breeding of valiant warriors the same principles as to the breeding of a good hunting hound or warhorse.”

This at times assumed titanic proportions. By the middle of the 17th century the Germans were insisting on territorial nobility, as much as 16 “quarters” of it, in order to squeeze out the urban and academic patricians -- or gentry -- who had begun to slip into the organization by the back door.

But history rolled relentlessly over the old ideals and practices of chivalry. While most military orders fell by the wayside, the Knights of Malta, though frequently buffeted by modern times, survived. In 1798 the order was forced to give up the island of Malta.

The members retired to Rome and set up international headquarters there. They fought fiercely to retain their sovereign status. The leaders consider their Rome palazzo a sovereign state and exchange ambassadors with approximately 60 countries. Writes Seward, “another of the reasons for their survival also explains why they have acquired so many enemies: the fact that they provide the last defendable bastions of hereditary nobility. They alone preserve the mystique of rank and birth in a world which finds aristocracy not merely alien but incomprehensible. For the military orders are the final refuge of the ancien régime.

The paradox of these nobles flourishing in a church founded by the homeless Jesus, a church whose primary mission has always been identified with the poor, must frequently have made Rome uncomfortable. The books cited here, all positive accounts, offer page after page of this century’s crowned heads and minor aristocrats receiving one or another of the myriad honors the knights love to bestow. But as nobles dwindle in number, the knights have begun to settle for ordinary heads of state.

The New World presented a new challenge. The American Association of the Order of Malta was founded in 1926. New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman used the knights to maximum advantage. Spellman’s rather worldly approach to religion made them natural allies. On becoming archbishop of New York, he had himself named “grand protector” of the American Association. In this way he placed himself ahead of all Catholic crowned heads who historically were merely called “protectors.” Throughout much of the reign of Pope Pius XII a fierce battle raged to determine who or what the knights would be and who would control them. It is not always edifying reading, though perhaps a worthy echo of the rambunctious knights of previous centuries.

The order has cultivated a more sedate image late in the century. In America, as Seward writes, it “consists almost entirely ... of Knights of Magisterial Grace [one of a wide variety of subgroups], who are not asked for proofs of nobility. Mainly of Irish-American descent, they are frequently men of great wealth and influence.”

The U.S. knights have given a great deal of money to the church, which in turn rewards them with Old World honors. Their charities are traditional: hospitals and pilgrimages. But, despite some high-profile hospitals and such well-publicized charities as AmeriCares, it must be said that the order’s charitable legacy does not begin to compare with the heritage of devoted lives, institutions and sacrifices of dozens of humbler orders of nuns, brothers and priests in recent centuries.

Sire’s account of today’s pilgrim knights puts the order’s current relevance in perspective: “The [annual] Lourdes pilgrimage is the principal meeting of the most aristocratic association in the world, and it would be impossible to imagine greater simplicity. Chivalry is apparent in the custom which fits out the ladies in a beautiful red and white nurse’s uniform, with the eight-pointed cross resplendent on a black cape; the uniform of the knights, by contrast, is a sort of superior boiler suit, that of the senior dignitaries distinguished, if at all, only by its hoary antiquity.”

Whether viewed as romantic or sinister, there ought to be room for the Knights of Malta in a multicultural church. But a church that has room for their often silly shenanigans ought to have space for wider religious expression than this pontiff is prepared to tolerate. Sincere though the knights may be, it’s not likely they represent where the church is headed.

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 1997