The Knights of Malta and the Right to Life

I write from the island of Malta, a solid windswept rock in the middle of the Mediterranean, roughly equidistant between Sicily and Tunisia. It has been owned by the Muslims, the British, briefly by the French, and, for a long time, by the Knights of St. John, now known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

I am a Knight of Malta.

The Knights were given Malta for their defense of Christendom when they defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and their influence is everywhere evident here today. In the middle of the beautiful town of Valetta sits the Co-Cathedral of St. John, which is one of the wonders of the Catholic world. Almost every inch is covered in carved stone reliefs: snarling animals, flowering plants, cherubs, trumpets, angels, and Maltese crosses. One whole room is given over to a huge and magnificent work by Caravaggio, who painted it while imprisoned here by the Knights on a charge of murder.

Not far from the cathedral is a former hospital of the order, which boasts one of the longest halls in Europe, a space once devoted to the care of Knights injured in battle.

The Knights of Malta are among the oldest religious orders in the world, founded to care for and protect pilgrims to the Holy Land preyed upon by marauding Muslims. Through its long and storied history, the Knights have flown on two wings: first, defending the Church, the Faith, and the faithful, which are really all of a piece; and, second, caring for the sick and the poor. The motto of the Knights is “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum.”

Somewhere along the line, the great doctrinal debates subsided, and at least until recent days, the persecution of the faithful died down. And with these changes, the Order of Malta began flying almost exclusively on that second wing. The order now runs hospitals and ambulances, and intervenes in desperate situations. The Maltese cross is a welcome sight to suffering people all over the world.

But in the case of two desperate situations today, the Order of Malta, at least institutionally, is largely absent – situations where there are real and suffering victims – where the Church stands almost completely alone and comes under vicious and sustained attack. These are the battles to save the unborn, and in defense of marriage.

Just recently this absence has been underscored by a move to consider for membership the former mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams. Mr. Williams was nominated and, as of this writing, is still being considered for the extraordinary honor of papal knighthood, even though he is on record as supporting both legal abortion and homosexual marriage.

Over the past several days there has been a serious kerfuffle among the Knights in Washington, and many have threatened to resign. Calls of protest have gone out to the president of the Order of Malta Federal Association, U.S.A. and to its executive director.

And this is not the first time such a thing has happened. A few years ago, former top Clinton-era operative Terry McAuliffe was nominated as a knight in the Federal Association. McAuliffe is also a longtime supporter of legal abortion and homosexual marriage. After a tsunami of protest from some Knights, he was asked to remove his name from consideration.

When I joined the Knights of Columbus some years ago, there was a moment on investiture night when a senior knight said outright that if anyone being considered was not fully supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion, he should leave right then. I don’t remember a similar moment when I joined the Knights of Malta.

Some in the order are working to change things. There is a monthly Defense of the Faith meeting in Northern Virginia, which often hosts pro-life speakers. A group of Knights participate every year in the March for Life. There is an annual pro-life Mass. And a small pot of money is set aside for defense-of-the-faith expenditures.

It is good to recall the prayer the Knights are supposed to say every day. The first entreaty is to keep faithful to the traditions of the order, the second is to defend the Faith, and the third reminds us to care for the sick and the poor. How does it fit in with these entreaties to get deeply and even publicly involved on the wrong side of what successive popes have called the pre-eminent public policy issue of our time? And how does it fit in if the Knights avoid that issue?

It is reported that Mayor Williams will be asked to recant his positions on abortion and homosexual marriage or withdraw his nomination. This is good, but it should have never come to this.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.