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Disorder of Malta: How did it come to this?

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is in the middle of a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

Coat of arms of the Knights of Malta from the façade of the church of San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence, Italy. Credit: Sailko/wikimedia CC BY SA 2.5

Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the pope’s special delegate to the order, is at loggerheads with many in the knights’ leadership over plans for a new constitution, and he is set to invoke sweeping powers granted to him by Francis last year, dissolving the order’s sovereign council and convoking an extraordinary Chapter General, with delegates chosen according to new criteria.

The Vatican’s involvement in reforming the order has triggered both a sharp internal dispute and a crisis of sovereignty for the knights, one which seems to benefit no one, and from which there is no clear exit for either side.

So, how did this happen?

From a purely legal perspective, Cardinal Tomasi’s recent interventions look a lot like a Vatican incursion into the internal legal affairs of another sovereign entity, one recognized in international law in much the same way as the Holy See is, including equal representation at the United Nations.

And, indeed, from a purely legal perspective, that may not be an inaccurate description of what seems to be happening. But to anyone familiar with the order’s recent history, it is an incomplete description of a complicated and multivalent narrative.

And while Tomasi may now find himself acting as a kind of viceroy, the Vatican didn’t “invade” the Order of Malta, they were invited in — an invitation originally extended by some of the knights who are now most loudly protesting Tomasi’s presence.

The current impasse has come about largely as a result of a protracted leadership crisis within the order itself, one which has brought needed constitutional reforms to a standstill for years.

The Vatican’s current involvement in the order’s internal affairs dates back to 2017, when the pope was asked to settle a dispute among the order’s government.

After an internal report on how one of the Catholic order’s humanitarian projects ended up distributing condoms in Burma, then-Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing ordered the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, to resign.

Festing invoked Boeselager’s promise of religious obedience as a second class knight.

When Boeselager refused, Festing sacked him for violating his religious promise.

While the order is —  according to its current constitution and recognition in international law — sovereign in matters of its internal governance, it is also a Catholic religious order.

Knights of the first class, called Fras, make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and knights of the second class, often married men, make religious promises of obedience to their superiors in the order — similar, in some ways, to members of groups like the secular Franciscans.

Its governing independence notwithstanding, the knights remain under the authority of the pope in religious matters. For that reason, Boeselager’s supporters appealed to the pope after he was sacked. They argued that Festing had abused the religious promise of obedience when he fired the Grand Chancellor; they said Festing should have followed the order’s internal legal process.

A Vatican commission was created to look into the matter and, eventually, the pope demanded that Festing abdicate as Grand Master. Boeselager was reinstated to his position. The pope also appointed a special cardinal delegate to help the knights prepare to elect a new Grand Master and to oversee “the spiritual and moral renewal” of the order.

That renewal process evolved into preparations for a new constitution, one which would reform the role of the Fras in the life and governance of the order — something which the knights broadly agreed needed to happen, even while they continue to disagree on the direction their reform should take.

That disagreement is at the root of the current impasse, which has been exacerbated by a lack of stable leadership at the head of the order; Festing’s successor as Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Della Torre, was elected in 2018 but died in 2020.

Many of the order’s senior leadership positions, including that of Grand Master, are reserved to the Fras, who currently number only 38, many of them over 70 years old. The difficulty in filling all the senior positions in the order from among the ranks of the professed knights has been a problem for decades.

In the 1950s, the second class of knights was created as a way to allow more of the order’s membership to help in the sovereign works of the order, serving in diplomatic posts and some senior roles in the order’s leadership, including on the sovereign and government councils, but still reserving the most important offices, including Grand Master, to the professed religious.

In recent years, as discussion of a new constitution for the order progressed, some within the order, including Boeselager, have advocated for more of the order’s governing functions and power to be delegated to offices already open to second class knights, with the Fras continuing to serve in leadership positions like that of Grand Master, but with reduced day-to-day responsibility for running the order’s diplomatic and humanitarian endeavors.

Several knights have told The Pillar that the draft for a new constitution supported by Boeselager, and discussed within the order as recently as 2018 and 2019, included provisions that would have turned his office of Grand Chancellor into a de facto “prime minister,” with immediate practical responsibilities for the order’s governance. Under that schema, the Grand Master would have assumed the role of a constitutional monarch in matters of governance, and been focused more on leading the spiritual life of the order.

Critics of these proposals within the order have said it represents an unacceptable sidelining of the professed religious from operational authority within the order, and a step away from its core identity as a religious institution.

At the same time, Boselager has faced criticism from within the order for allegedly downplaying the knights’ Catholic identity while advancing its humanitarian works around the world — criticism Boeselager acknowledged as recently as last week, when he denied charges he wanted to “secularize” the order and “turn it into and NGO.”

Many of the same knights who have criticized Boeselager’s supposed “secularizing” of the order have also complained that he and other knights associated with the order’s influential German association coordinate on the selection of candidate lists for high offices in the order, and have successfully worked to skew representation at the order’s Chapters General to favor their own agenda for reform.

While all sides within the knights have insisted that the professed religious should remain at the “heart” of the order and its work, those pushing back against what they see as a bid to sideline the Fras from its daily governance have largely looked to the Vatican to support their cause — even though it was Boeselager’s reforming group which pushed for the Holy See to become involved in the process in the first place.

Of course, the draft constitutional text prepared under Cardinal Tomasi has provoked universal concern among the knights, over provisions which would make the order an explicit “subject” of the Holy See.

At the same time, many supportive of the cardinal’s work with the order have said these provisions can be easily addressed. They’ve pointed to Tomasi’s repeated insistence that the Vatican does not want to change the order’s sovereign status, even while reforming its religious structure.

Several senior knights have told The Pillar that, the sovereignty issue to one side, Tomasi’s draft secures the place of the Fras at the head of the order and would help ensure the primacy of its Catholic religious character.

But critics of the Tomasi draft point out that the text does more than preserve the Fras in their current positions of governing power, and actually concentrates more offices and responsibility in the professed knights, granting them enhanced, even supermajority representation at future Chapters General, along with the responsibility to create shortlists of acceptable candidates for election to senior positions open to knights of other ranks.

Those proposed changes, critics say, would amount to a situation in which professed knights must fill more roles than there currently are professed knights available to fill them.

Those supportive of Tomasi’s efforts have suggested that, like the question of sovereignty, these issues can be worked out in the coming weeks, and insist that some version of the cardinal’s reforms would enjoy broad support among the order’s membership, if put to them for approval.

But, they say, the current makeup of the order’s governing institutions would not allow this to be reflected in a Chapter General convened under the current norms, which would favor delegates sympathetic to Boeselager’s version of reform. They argue that Tomasi should convene an extraordinary Chapter General to consider his proposals, with delegates invited to better represent the order’s global membership.

That course of action, though, would set up a constitutional catch-22: by dissolving the order’s current governing structures and calling for a Chapter General under his own authority, Tomasi would be demonstrating his governing power over the order, even if he did so to pass a constitutional text redrafted to insist on its sovereignty and ensure broader consultation among the knights themselves.

The result is, for the moment, a protracted stalemate.

After stepping down as the chairman of the order’s constitutional steering committee last week, Boeselager recommended that the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, the constitutional interim head of the order until the election of a new Grand Master, appoint the president of the knights’ Lebanese association to take his place in meetings with Tomasi.

Earlier this week, Tomasi effectively refused to recognize that appointment, declining to include him in a two day meeting to discuss the draft constitutional text.

If Tomasi continues to reject the order’s legally designated representative in their own constitutional process, and if he does proceed to dissolve the current governing councils and call an extraordinary Chapter General, he will effectively vindicate those warning that the Order of Malta is no longer sovereign — with potentially disastrous consequences for its diplomatic status and humanitarian work.

If officials at the order’s Grand Magistry insist on opposing Tomasi’s continuing role in steering the order’s reform, or attempt to declare any further action he takes illegitimate, that could be taken as a rejection of papal authority over the religious order, and call into question its very identity as a Catholic institution.

Neither option presents either side with an acceptable version of what they want for the order.

At this point, Tomasi may have every reason to insist he’s a reluctant, even well meaning, interloper in the order’s governance, and to resent finding himself in the middle of a reforming battle which began among the knights themselves, and over which they still seem incapable of agreeing.

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