Question: This summer we met a priest who said he was a member of a "military order." He also claimed that his order was exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishop because they were "in solemn vows." What is a military order, and how does one go about becoming independent of the bishop? What are "solemn vows"?
Answer: Religious orders, in general, are societies in which the members live a stable common life; under the direction of an approved rule; trying to perfect themselves; chiefly by keeping solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.1 (Societies without solemn vows are not "orders" in the sense that Canon Law uses the term.) The members of religious order approved by the Holy See, called "regulars" in Canon Law, enjoy a degree of exemption from the control of the diocesan bishop.2 The law governing such exemptions is complex, but may be summarized by saying that the regulars retain control over the internal affairs of their order, while the bishop retains control over the order in things that affect the souls in his care.3 The Holy See may exempt societies that are not "orders," but this is the exception rather than the rule.4
"Solemn vows" are a promise to observe poverty, chastity, and obedience to the degree that if the vow is broken the action is invalid. For example, a nun who takes solemn vows is pledged not to marry, and by her pledge becomes incapable of marriage. A sister in "simple vows," by comparison, is also pledged not to marry, sins if she does marry, but remains capable of contracting a valid marriage.
The military orders were established at the time of the crusades. The members of these orders took the regular vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of chanting in choir or farming in the field, they found their primary purpose in the defense of Christendom against the Moslem infidels. They protected the pilgrims and places of the holy land. Most likely, the military order priest that you met was a member of the Knights Hospitallers, also known as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (OSJ) and as the Knights of Malta. The only surviving military order, it was founded in 1092 to operate and defend a hospital for Christians in Jerusalem. It fought valiant battles to maintain Christian civilization on the Islands of Rhodes and Malta, and is still recognized in international affairs as a sovereign entity.5
Today there also exists an order of Teutonic Knights, first established at the hospital of Acre in 1189, and reestablished in Austria in 1834 with a more specifically medical mission.
Perhaps the most famous of the military orders was the Poor Knights of the Temple; the Knights Templar, founded in 1118 for the defense of Jerusalem. The Templars were violently suppressed in 1312 by Pope Clement V, the Avignonese puppet of the French King Philip IV, who owed them large sums of money. Historical conjecture suggests that the surviving Templars formed an organization for self protection which eventually became the anti-Catholic institution of Freemasonry.6
Spain, occupied for many centuries by the same Moslems that occupied the holy land, had its own military orders for the protection of pilgrims to its domestic holy places. The Knights of Calatrava (1258) are the most well known. The decrees against the individual Templars were largely ignored on the Iberian peninsula where the Moslem threat was clearly understood, and refugee Knights Templar were accepted into the Spanish and Portuguese military orders.7
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