- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Not long ago, I got an anonymous letter from 24 “knights and dames” of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta about the proposed induction of former Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams into one of the Catholic Church’s most prestigious lay organizations.

The problem? The former mayor is an unabashed supporter of several no-go places for Catholics: abortion rights, gay marriage, artificial contraception, and his administration’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs.

I called the order’s executive director, Joe Dempsey, and he confirmed the mayor is on a list of 50 to 60 people who may be inducted at a ceremony in October at St. Matthews Cathedral downtown.

“We’re working our way toward a satisfactory conclusion,” he told me Monday. “It’s complicated, private and good people are trying to resolve this.”

I also called Mr. Williams.

“This is still not resolved, and I don’t want to comment on it,” he said before hanging up on me.

In 2007, Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee chairman and soon-to-be 2008 campaign chairman for Hillary Rodham Clinton, also applied to join the Knights. He was turned down by Rome because of his liberal views on abortion, according to a raft of posts by lifesitenews.com.

“It got controversial,” Mr. Dempsey told me, “and he withdrew.”

The 11,000-member Knights of Malta dates back to the 11th century, when the order was dedicated to the medical care of pilgrims and the sick. It has a long history of defending the Catholic Church and Christian civilization, and is a sovereign entity with diplomatic relations with more than 80 nations.

These are the folks who fought the Ottomans (mostly Muslim Turks) all over the Mediterranean for 350 years. The people who belong are very proud of their organization and it takes many months of study to become a member.

So why would Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Williams be interested in joining a group they know may turn them down?

I called Mr. Williams’ two sponsors, but neither returned my calls.

I realized the people who wrote the anonymous letter are zealous to protect their brand, if you will, in a world where purity tends to get watered down, clarity is compromised and incisiveness is dulled. As one Catholic activist explained to me, the best way to weaken a group is to infiltrate, dilute the mix with people opposed to a group’s core mission, then neuter the group while retaining the same title and mission statement.

“There may be confusion on the degree to which Catholics need to subscribe to the church’s teachings,” Wade Hughan, an officer with the San Francisco-based Western Association of the Knights, told me. “Malta is about private holiness and caring for the sick. It has prestige associated with it. There are very prominent people involved and you can imagine some people wanting to be associated with their company.

“With all the current confusion with Catholic public figures dissenting from public teaching, maybe [Mr. Williams and Mr. McAuliffe] are saying they are good Catholics, too.”

Adding that the matter is “extremely upsetting” to members of the order, he lodged his own protest with Mr. Dempsey’s office.

“I sent an e-mail back to Washington,” he said, “asking ‘What were you thinking?’”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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