FP Explainer

Who Are the Knights of Malta -- and What Do They Want?

They're a secretive religious order with a long and bloody history and unique status under international law, but that doesn't mean they run the world.

In a speech in Doha on Monday, veteran New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had been infiltrated by Christian fanatics who see themselves as modern-day Crusaders and aim to "change mosques into cathedrals." In particular, he alleged that former JSOC head Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- later U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many other senior leaders of the command, are "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta." What was he talking about?

Not exactly clear. There's not much evidence to suggest that the Knights of Malta are the secretive cabal of anti-Muslim fundamentalists that Hersh described. (For the record, when contacted by Foreign Policy, McChrystal said that he is not a member.) But they are certainly an anomalous presence in international politics and have provoked their share of conspiracy theories over the years.

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta is a Roman Catholic organization based in Rome with around 13,000 members worldwide. The group was founded in 1048 by Amalfian merchants in Jerusalem as a monastic order that ran a hospital to tend to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. At the height of its power, the order was also tasked by Rome with the additional military function of defending Christians from the local Muslim population. The Knights of St. John were just one of a number of Christian military orders founded during this period -- including the fabled but now defunct Knights of Templar.

When the Sultan of Egypt retook Jerusalem in 1291, the Knights of St. John went into exile, settling in Rhodes 20 years later. In 1523 they were forced from Rhodes by the Sultan's forces and settled in Malta, which they ruled until they were dislodged by Napoleon's army in 1798. The order settled in Rome in the mid-19th century, where it remains to this day.

Despite its name, the Knights haven't had any military function since leaving Malta. Instead, the order has gone back to its charitable roots by sponsoring medical missions in more than 120 countries.

When the order was founded, knights were expected to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience upon joining. Nowadays, obedience is enough. Membership is still by invitation only, but you no longer have to be a member of the nobility. In recent years, the organization has become increasingly American in membership. The leader of the order, referred to as the prince and grand master, is elected for life in a secret conclave and must be approved by the pope.

Despite having no fixed territory besides its headquarters building in Rome, the order is considered a sovereign entity under international law. It prints its own postage stamps and coins -- though these are mostly for novelty value -- and enjoys observer status at the United Nations, which classifies it as a nonstate entity like the Red Cross. The Knights maintain diplomatic relations with 104 countries. The order does not have official relations with the United States, though it has offices in New York, for the United Nations delegation, and Washington, for its representation at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Because of its secretive proceedings, unique political status, and association with the Crusades, the order has been a popular target for conspiracy theorists. Alleged members have included former CIA Directors William Casey and John McCone, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, and GOP fixture Pat Buchanan, though none have ever acknowledged membership. Various theories have tied the Knights to crimes including the Kennedy assassination and spreading the AIDS virus through its clinics in Africa.

In 2006, a newspaper article in the United Arab Emirates claimed that the Knights were directly influencing U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, reprising their role in the Crusades. Following the article, Islamist websites in Egypt urged followers to attack the order's embassy in Cairo, forcing the organization to issue a statement denying any military role.

To be fair, the Knights have been involved in their fair share of political intrigues. In 1988, the charge d'affaires at the order's embassy in Havana confessed to being a double agent, reporting to both the CIA and Cuban intelligence. According to journalist Jeremy Scahill's book Blackwater, Joseph Schmitz, a former executive at the company who also served as inspector general for the U.S. Department of Defense, boasted of his membership in the Knights in his official biography. The defense contractor now known as Xe's chief executive, Erik Prince, reportedly espoused Christian supremacist beliefs, and its contractors in Iraq used codes and insignia based on the order's medieval compatriots, the Knights of the Templar. However, there's no evidence to suggest the Knights of Malta had any direct influence over the company.

So while the group is, for the most part, a charitable organization with little resemblance to the sinister portrait painted by its detractors, an image-makeover might be in order as it finishes off its 10th century.


FP Explainer

How Does the Vatican Decide What's a Miracle?

Some theology, a little science, and a whole lot of politics.

The Vatican announced Friday that Pope John Paul II will be beatified on May 1, meaning it has been decided that he has performed at least one miracle. If he is found to have performed a second miracle, he will be canonized as a saint. The miracle in question concerns a French nun, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease but was reportedly cured in 2005, one morning after writing the pope's name on a piece of paper. (John Paul II had died of the same disease just two months earlier.) But how does the Catholic Church decide what constitutes a miracle?

It's a multistep process including an investigation by a specially designated Vatican office culminating in a final decision by the pope himself. Global celebrities like John Paul II or Mother Teresa -- beatified in 2003 -- aren't particularly representative examples of the process. Most beatifications (the church carries out around 30 every year) are granted to people who were little known outside their communities.

In an ideal version of the process, a grassroots movement grows in a community as people come to the conclusion that the person lived a saintly life. The local bishop then "opens a cause" and performs his own investigation. If he's satisfied, the cause is then referred to Rome. The investigation is then taken up by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, a Vatican office tasked with "approving results on miracles, martyrdom and heroic virtues of various Servants of God." As with much of the Vatican hierarchy, the criteria for membership in the Congregation is a bit opaque, but the head prefect -- currently Cardinal Angelo Amato -- is directly appointed by the pope.

Theoretically, miracles can be of any type. But in recent years, the vast majority of cases have been miraculous healings of deadly medical conditions. The church is still extremely traditional in the types of deeds it considers miraculous and has shown little inclination toward including political accomplishments, so don't expect to see John Paul II canonized for his role in the downfall of Soviet communism.

When the Congregation begins its investigation, it first seeks the advice of a panel of doctors that it maintains throughout the world. For a recovery to be declared miraculous, it must be "complete," "instantaneous," and "durable" -- meaning the cured condition doesn't return -- as well as scientifically inexplicable. (Improvements in medicine and scientific understanding of the body don't seem to have slowed down the pace of beatifications much.)

After the doctors have signed off, it goes to a panel of theologians who then have to judge whether the miracle is the sort of thing that God would do. After that, it goes before the cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, who are entrusted with ensuring that the beatification is in the church's best interest -- a particular beatification may or may not be politically opportune any given time. Finally, it is referred to the pope himself, who has the final say. 

The second miracle, needed for sainthood, can come a few months or a few centuries after the first. This is partly because it can take a while for new miracles to occur, but also because political realities change. Holy figures can become increasingly popular or influential, or less so, over the years, leading the congregation to reopen their causes. Causes are never permanently closed. The Congregation keeps a file of all those considered for beatification on record in the Vatican archives, but the vast majority of those who are beatified will never become saints. The last new saints were a group of six -- including the first ever Australian -- canonized by Benedict XVI on Oct. 17. There are currently over 10,000 named saints.

Normally, individuals are only considered for beatification after they've been dead for five years, but in John Paul's case, the process was fast-tracked. There are a few likely reasons for this. The late pope is a globally known and loved figure, so there's no reason to wait for support to build. Because of his popularity among Catholics, his eventual sainthood is generally considered a foregone conclusion. The 83-year-old Benedict, who worked at John Paul's side for years, is believed to want to see through his mentor's canonization himself. Plus for the Catholic Church, in the midst of a number of political, financial, and sexual scandals, some good publicity couldn't hurt.

Thanks to John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter.