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Order of Malta: Fight over ‘Fras’ could lead to Vatican-imposed reform

Pope Francis’ special delegate to the Order of Malta will convene this week a two-day meeting with representatives of the knights, to discuss the controversial draft of a new constitution for the 900-year-old sovereign institution.

The unfolding process of constitutional reform is being closely watched in both Catholic and diplomatic circles. At stake is the order’s status in international law, but also the role of the professed knights, who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the way in which the order’s religious character informs its life and work.

Order of Malta. Credit: Giorgio Minguzzi (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With the order’s membership divided over the future role of the professed knights — known as Fras — the Vatican looks set to force a resolution. But, in efforts to see through reform of the order’s religious life, the Holy See could upend its sovereign status, even while insisting it has no interest in doing so.

The order has been in a protracted crisis of leadership and reform since the 2017 abdication of its then Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, whose resignation was demanded by Pope Francis following a confrontation with the order’s Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, whom Festing ordered to resign.

The draft text of a new constitution for the Order of Malta was drawn up under the authority of Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, who has served as the pope’s personal delegate to the knights since 2020, when he replaced Cardinal Angelo Becciu in the role, created in the aftermath of Festing’s resignation.

Earlier this month, The Pillar reported on the draft, proposed by Tomasi, which would explicitly make the order a “subject” of the Holy See, despite its sovereign status in international law and formal recognition by the United Nations. If carried through to the final draft, such a provision would have a serious impact on the order’s bilateral diplomatic relations with more than 100 nations, and the order’s international relief work.

In response to the draft, Boeselager, who as Grand Chancellor has been a key part of the constitutional reform process, announced that he would have “serious difficulties to accept [the reforms] in good conscience” was stepping aside from the process and nominating the president of the knights’ Lebanese association to take his place in discussions with Tomasi as part of a constitutional reform committee.

The circulation of that draft and it’s provisions related to the order’s governing independence prompted a rebuke from Tomasi, who wrote to the knights’ leadership to emphasize that it was only a working text, and to insist that the Holy See was committed to preserving the sovereignty of the order in its self-government and diplomatic status.

The question of sovereignty in the draft text is expected to be addressed by the order’s constitutional working group, headed by Tomasi, during a two-day session beginning Tuesday.

Several sources close to the reforming process predicted that several articles in the proposed constitutional text would be revised in an effort to end the controversy over sovereignty.  However, senior knights from several of the order’s associations and its Grand Magistry in Rome have told The Pillar that, while there is internal consensus on defending the order’s governing independence from the Holy See, its members remain divided over the future role of the Fras, the first class knights who take religious vows — and warned that disagreement could result in a Vatican-imposed resolution.

The future role of the Fras is at the center of the order’s reforming process. Key figures in the order’s leadership, including the roles of Grand Master, Grand Commander, are reserved to the professed religious knights, who make up a tiny fraction of the order’s total membership.

The extent to which the Fras should continue to serve at the governing head of the order, as well as forming its spiritual core, has been the subject of fierce debate among the knights for several years.

The number of professed knights of the first class has dropped considerably in recent decades, with only 38 Fras currently in the order, and fewer than 20 of them under the age of 70. Advocates of broadening participation by other ranks of knights in senior leadership positions argue that the order’s current constitution places unworkable demands on a small number of aging religious.

On the other side, many within the order see the Fras’ place at the head of governance as the necessary guarantee of the order’s Catholic religious character, and point out that a years-long freeze on new professions has prevented new and younger members from joining their ranks.

The Vatican has been pushing, for years, for regulation of the spiritual life of the Fras to be updated to reflect their current circumstances and numbers.

While the order is, under the terms of its current constitution, independent of the Vatican in relation to its internal governance and diplomatic functions, it is also a Catholic religious order and as such under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, with the pope remaining responsible for its religious character.

However, despite the intended priority of reforming the spiritual life of the Fras, the terms of the Vatican’s proposed new constitution expands the role of the professed religious in the governance of the order.

If, as is wider expected within the order, no consensus can be reached about the role of the Fras in the revised constitution, Cardinal Tomasi looks set to shepherd through the proposed reforms through a process which could critically undermine the order’s sovereignty, even if that is not the Vatican’s intention.

Following the meeting this week, Tomasi is widely expected to dissolve the order’s Sovereign Council and Government Council before convoking an extraordinary Chapter General to adopt the new constitution.

Neither action by Tomasi is provided for in the order’s current constitution, but would be done according to special powers granted by Pope Francis to Tomasi in October last year. Those powers, if exercised and accepted as valid by the order’s leadership, would seem to confirm the status of the order as a “subject” of the Holy See, even if that is not their intended purpose.

Knights both supportive and skeptical of Tomasi’s draft constitution have told The Pillar that religious deference to the Holy See, and a desire to remain loyal to the pope’s wishes was putting the order’s independence under pressure.

“The appointment of a special cardinal delegate in the first place [in 2017] is not something envisioned in the constitutional or diplomatic relationship with the Holy See,” a senior knight close to the Grand Magistry told The Pillar, “but it was accepted in a spirit of religious loyalty.”

“When the pope granted Tomasi these extra powers [in October of 2021] it was a point of real tension. It clearly goes against the sovereignty of the order, but there is no desire to provoke a confrontation with the Holy Father,” the senior knight said. “The hope was that, if the cardinal did not invoke the powers, their legality could remain ambiguous. That is looking less hopeful now, and the choice seems to be to either submit to external reform of our governance or resist.”

“The choice being forced on us is between our Catholic identity and diplomatic independence,” he said.

A second senior knight told The Pillar that he was supportive of Tomasi’s proposed reforms, and blamed internal division within the order for creating the current crisis. “The need for reform didn’t begin with the [Festing abdication] crisis in 2017,” he said, “but we haven’t put our own house in order.”

If Tomasi does proceed to dissolve the order’s leadership and convoke an extraordinary general chapter, the second knight predicted that it would result in the swift adoption of a new constitution and the reconstitution of the order’s leadership. “At that point, it will all hinge on the Chapter General’s legitimacy within the order itself,” he said.

“I think Cardinal Tomasi will be looking to ensure that the order’s membership is seen to have the final approval of the reforms, and his role is merely to facilitate a process we could not or would not manage for ourselves.”

The knight did concede that the Vatican’s intervention could precipitate a deepening of the constitutional crisis instead of a resolution.

“The discussion of sovereignty isn’t at the heart of all of this,” he said. “This is fundamentally about the professed knights. But just because consequences are unintended does not mean that they are not consequential.”

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