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Order of Malta: Draft reform would impose term limits, end veto power of Grand Master

What’s new: The newly obtained text of a draft constitution submitted to Pope Francis by the Order of Malta’s leadership would introduce dramatic new limits on the office of Grand Master, including term limits, the power of the Sovereign Council to override his decisions, and the requirement that the Grand Chancellor sign off on decrees of the Grand Master.

What it means: The proposals are among competing options under consideration by Pope Francis, as he decides the order’s future. Critics of the proposed plan say that it would turn the 1,000-year-old religious order into an “international NGO,” by dividing its international diplomatic and charitable work from the religious life of the professed knights.

Why it matters: The office of Grand Master, and the role of the first degree knights, who profess religious vows, are at the center of an increasingly bitter divide among the knights themselves — suggesting that, even after Pope Francis makes a decision about the constitutional reform of the order, the knights will remain divided among themselves.

Knights of Malta. Credit: James Bradley (CC-BY-2.0)

As the knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta wait for a final decision from Pope Francis on the constitutional reform of their order, they remain locked in a fierce internal debate over a controversial draft constitution put forward by their own leadership.

The text, obtained this week by The Pillar, would reorder the knights’ governing institutions and offices, with dramatic changes proposed for the office of Grand Master which would, according to supporters of the plan, separate his roles as superior of a religious order and “constitutional monarch” of a sovereign international entity.

After announcing earlier this year that he would personally decide on a legal restructuring of the millenia-year-old religious order, the pope has met several times with delegates of both the knights, and Francis’ own reforming commission which he charged with drafting a revised code and constitutional charter for the order.

Even though Francis has made it clear that meetings with him are now the only acceptable venue for constitutional debate, a draft constitutional charter and code for the order, presented to the pope in February by the knight’s leadership, continues to cause disagreement within the order’s ranks.

Although the pope has stressed to delegates from both sides that “there is no urgency in making a final decision,” debate and division has continued among the knights about the office of Grand Master, and the future role of the first class knights, who profess religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and their place within the order’s governing structures.

Critics of the draft proposals, obtained this week by The Pillar, claim it is a blueprint for separating the office of Grand Master from the day-to-day governance of its international relief work and diplomatic relations — the order has sovereign legal status in international law, issuing its own passports and maintaining full diplomatic relations with dozens of states, and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

The proposals, submitted to the pope ahead of his first meeting with delegates in February, were drafted by the order’s senior leadership in Rome, but was not, The Pillar was told, the product of consultation with either the professed knights, the order’s Sovereign Council, or the order’s wider membership.

The draft constitution and code provide for radical changes to the office of Grand Master, which is currently elected for life and exercises, in the words of the current constitution, “supreme authority” over all aspects of the order. The office is currently vacant, and has been since the death of Fra’ Giacomo Della Torre in 2020.

Under the proposals advanced by the order’s leadership, the Grand Master would be elected for a ten-year term, renewable only once, and have a mandatory retirement age of 85.

The Grand Master’s authority as “religious superior” over the professed knights and the second degree knights, who make promises of religious obedience, is addressed in considerable detail in the proposal, but his direct authority over other aspects of the order’s governance is notably curtailed.

The current law of the order allows the Grand Master the authority to reject decisions of the order’s Sovereign Council, including the express option of a “pocket veto.” However, the draft constitution would create a new power for the council to override a veto of the Grand Master by a two-thirds majority vote.

The proposed new code would also require the countersignature of the Grand Chancellor for all acts of the Grand Master before they became legally enforceable.

Criticism by sections of the order’s membership of reforming proposals emanating from the order’s leadership in Rome, widely identified with the knight’s German Association and the Grand Chancellor’s office, has long focused on alleged ambitions to strengthen the office of Grand Chancellor into a kind of governing prime minister of the order’s non-religious affairs and to functionally separate the religious life of the professed and the spiritual nature of the order from its international character and work.

Francis’ decision at the beginning of this year to intervene personally in deciding the order’s future followed years of stalled internal reforming efforts after a 2017 constitutional crisis triggered by a standoff between the then-Grand Master of the order, Fra’ Matthew Festing, and the order’s current Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, which resulted in the pope demanding Festing’s abdication.

In an interview with The Pillar last month, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, Pope Francis’ special delegate to the order, insisted that “there is no debate about the role of the professed within the Order of Malta, since everyone agrees that they have the leadership because the order is a religious order.”

However, despite Tomasi’s confidence that Pope Francis’ involvement would bring an end to internal disputes in the order, senior members both in favor and against the proposals have told The Pillar that divisions among the knights are only deepening as they await a papal decision.

One senior knight close to the order’s Grand Magistry in Rome told The Pillar that the proposed reforms were necessary for ensuring stability and good governance in the knights’ international work, and denied that the professed religious were being marginalized within the order.

“These proposals are working suggestions for the Holy Father to consider,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing the pope’s instruction not to pursue reforming debate outside audiences with him.

“They offer a way for competence and good governance to be advanced, while retaining the religious core of our identity within the professed. The proposals for the [office of] Grand Master are entirely in line with the order’s traditions. This idea that the Grand Master has autocratic power is a modern fallacy, the history of our governance has always been collegial,” he said.

The knight also pointed to the proposed creation of a new Council of the Professed which, he said, would guarantee that the first class knights remain at the center of the order’s life.

But critics of the plan contend that the changes to the office of Grand Master are part of a broader effort to “secularize” the Order of Malta and cabin the professed knights away from its daily governance.

“Underpinning the entire ‘German project,’ if we’re calling it that, is this idea that the professed knights are old and unfit to run anything,” one senior professed knight told The Pillar.

“Quite a few of us have had, or continue to hold, quite senior roles outside of the order itself — this notion that we’re all quasi-senile and unfit for governance is just not true. Is the total number of professed low and the average age high? Yes, but that is to a great extent a problem made into a crisis by a years-long ban we had on admitting new professed.”

“The real questions are, or ought to be: are there younger vocations coming through, and is there a plan to increase them? Yes and yes. This is about a vision for the future: do we see the order continuing as a religious vocation, or a charitable enterprise with a ‘religious heritage’?”

The extent to which the knights remain divided among themselves was reiterated last week, when the president of the order’s French association wrote to members to offer an itemized assessment of complaints among some of his members about the draft proposal.

“I don't want to get into any controversy whatsoever but I can't, for all that, allow erroneous elements [of the proposals] to be disseminated to sow seeds and spread trouble in the minds of our members without reacting,” wrote Thierry, Comte de Beaumont-Beynac, who also serves as president of Malteser International, the order’s global charitable arm.

In the letter dated April 20, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, Beaumont-Beynac went on to say that during “the various audiences held in the presence of the Holy Father in recent weeks, it was again reaffirmed by the Lieutenant of the Grand Master and the representatives of the Grand Magistry that the Order intended to remain a religious order!”

“It is therefore totally irrelevant to continue to agitate this argument of transformation from a religious order into a simple NGO!” the comte said. “This is a point that has nothing to do with reality.”

The French association president went on to tell members that provisions like the election of the Grand Master for a set term “is not settled; this is a point still in abeyance,” and that the intention of the proposal was to outline “a distribution of the powers of the Grand Master between his two qualities of Sovereign Head and Spiritual Head of the Order.”

“Furthermore,” Beaumont-Beynac said, “I remind you that the Order has always been a constitutional monarchy and it is also under this regime that it still lives today. So having a Constitution that lists the Grand Master's responsibilities is nothing extraordinary or new.”

The letter concluded by reminding the knights that ultimately Pope Francis would decide on the future shape of the order’s constitution and laws, and in the meantime all members should “continue more than ever to invoke the Holy Spirit for the good of our beloved Order.”

Prayers for the intervention of the Holy Spirit notwithstanding, the divisions among the order’s membership and leadership over its future shape and direction appear to be hardening as they wait for the pope’s final decision.

While Francis may eventually put his authority behind a reformed constitution which sides definitely with one side or another of the internal debate, the promulgation of that document seems increasingly unlikely to reconcile the order’s membership to itself.

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