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Is the Order of Malta still 'sovereign'?

The pope has made very big changes to the Order of Malta. But what do they mean?

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


Pope Francis has completed his reform of the Order of Malta, after a five-year process aimed at revising leadership structures in the religious order, which also functions as a global aid organization recognized as a sovereign entity in international law.

The pope was widely expected to announce his decision on the shape of a new constitution for the knights last weekend, paving the way for an Extraordinary Chapter General of the order to formally adopt what he put forward.

But in the end, Francis went much further than anyone expected. The pope decided against proffering a draft for the order to approve. Instead on Saturday, he promulgated a new constitution for the knights himself, with no provision for the knights to vote in its favor before it became their operative law.

At the same time, the pontiff announced a complete changing of the guard at the order’s headquarters, the Grand Magistry, dissolving and completely reconstituting the order’s Sovereign Council and replacing every high officer but the order’s current superior, the Lieutenant of the Grand Master.

In doing so, Francis has capped off his involvement in the reform of the knights in a manner every bit as dramatic as it began five years ago, when he compelled the abdication of the order’s then Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing.

The pope’s actions have sweeping implications for the order’s internal organization, and appear to settle a long stalemate between rival camps among the knights themselves.

But at the most basic level, Francis’ decision to impose his reforming vision on the knights, rather than allow them to make his decisions their own through an internal process, has raised one fundamental question about the order’s legal status, both within the Church and in international law:

Is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta actually sovereign — indeed, was it ever?

The answer is, as with everything to do with the order’s reforming process, complicated. While supporters and opponents of the pope’s reforms emphatically insist it is a clear “yes” or “no,” a better answer might be: “as much as it has ever been.”

But, whatever the answer, the question of the orders’ sovereignty has been repeatedly raised throughout the reforming process — the knights’ diplomatic status underpins their humanitarian work around the world, and is seen by the order itself as essential to its mission, history, and character.

A brief history

The Order of Malta has, for 900 years, existed in a unique legal space. Founded as a hospitaller order of noble knights during the middle ages, it eventually found itself as the sovereign rulers of various territories, including the islands of Rhoades and of Malta, finally losing control of its namesake territory during the Napoleonic Wars.

By the 19th century, the knights, now headquartered in Italy, were still recognized by various European powers - including the papacy - as a sovereign entity, albeit without a territory to govern.

Today, the order is considered a sovereign entity under international law; it issues its own passports and stamps, maintains full diplomatic relations with nation states, and has the same status as the Holy See at the United Nations.

Alongside their diplomatic network, the knights run an international network of aid missions, providing disaster relief and medical support across the world. The order’s sovereign status, meaning it is unaffiliated with any government, has meant it can be present in many places, like Burma, where other international organizations struggle to gain admittance.

But while the order has a long history of sovereign independence (older than many of the countries with whom it has diplomatic relations), it is and has always been a Catholic religious order.

Knights of the first class, called Fras, make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The third-class knights and dames, who make up the vast majority of the members of the order, do not, as a class, possess all of the same rights and obligations within the order as do the professed, but oversee much of the order’s humanitarian work through the national associations around the world.

Second-class knights serve in diplomatic posts and some senior roles in the order’s leadership, including on the sovereign and government councils, while the most important offices, including Grand Master, are reserved to the professed religious. The second class knights, drawn from the third class, are often married men, and make temporary promises of religious obedience to the order, usually for periods of five years.

The extent to which the order can be religiously and obediently Catholic and at the same time sovereign has long been a curious hypothetical for lawyers, canonists, and ecclesiologists.

The knights themselves have always insisted they are fully both — their previous constitution established religious obedience to the pope through the Grand Master but governing independence from the Vatican through the appointment of an ambassador to the Holy See.

A dramatic year

Although Francis first became involved in the constitutional reform of the order in 2017, much of the current furore over his role in the knights’ internal reordering has focused on the pope’s actions during the last 12 months.

Last October, Pope Francis gave Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, his special delegate to the Order of Malta, sweeping power to take charge of the constitutional-reform process and, if necessary, govern the order himself, under a papal mandate.

Cardinal Silvano M. Tomasi Photo: Pierre Albouy/Order of Malta

Although the decision to appoint Tomasi provoked concern among the knights’ senior leadership, many within the order have since conceded that it was necessary.

The knights had been, for years, deadlocked among themselves about their future direction — with rival camps fundamentally at odds over who should have effective control of the day-to-day governance of the order’s global humanitarian work.

Internal dysfunction has been exacerbated by a lack of stable leadership within the order itself; the last Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre, was elected in 2018 but died in 2020. After that, the order was headed by the Lieutenant to the Grand Master, Fra’ Marco Luzzago.

When Tomasi’s delegation to the order proposed a draft constitution that appeared to expressly subject the order to the Holy See, the knights’ leadership — led by the influential Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager — publicly denounced the draft as an attack on their sovereignty, something Tomasi repeatedly denied was the intention, but which resulted in a total breakdown of the reforming committee’s work.

After that, the pope announced that he was taking personal responsibility for deciding the knights’ future reforming direction.

While different factions within the order continued to press their cases to the pope personally, matters came to a head when Luzzago died suddenly in June and Francis stepped in to appoint the Canadian-born Fra’ John Dunlap as the new Lieutenant by papal decree, effectively bypassing the order’s internal governing bodies and processes.

While the order’s leadership publicly welcomed Francis’ action, it left many, including members of the Sovereign Council, privately seething that the pope had acted unilaterally, without consulting or even informing the Grand Magistry ahead of the event, and without regard for the legal formalities of the order’s own processes.

Matters escalated further when, in late July, Dunlap and Tomasi co-signed a decree reshuffling the professed knights’ assignments among the order’s priories around the world, and appointing new priors in place of several special procurators, often not professed knights, who had been serving, in some cases for years, as temporary-but-stable leaders.

Several members protested against the move, pointing out that the priories had the right under their own laws to elect their priors, and questioned the legitimacy of the act and, in some cases, even of Dunlap’s appointment by the pope.

Now, they say, Francis has gone even further — promulgating a new constitution for the order, and replacing all of the senior leadership, apart from Dunlap.

Several knights have said this weekend that there is now no way to pretend the order is still sovereign if the pope can exercise direct and total authority over its constitutional order and governing offices.

But is that true, exactly?

Neither one nor the other

As a sovereign entity and Catholic religious order, the Order of Malta has been legally both fish and fowl for centuries. The credibility of that double identity has depended a great deal on external perception, with the knights usually being able to swim or quack as the situation requires.

Diplomatically, the order has always been distinct and independent from the other non-territorial sovereign entity in international law — the Holy See.

In fact, the order appoints an ambassador and maintains formal relations with the Holy See, and that reality, and indeed much of the previous constitutional language on sovereignty, is preserved in the new, papally promulgated version delivered on Saturday.

But how is it possible for the order to have both sovereign independence from the Holy See and religious obedience to the pope at the same time?

In a sense, that question has no perfect theoretical answer.

While the order has been and remains — at least on paper — independent and sovereign in all its internal governing matters, its governing class of professed knights and, for lack of a better term, its administrative class of second-degree knights have always owed religious obedience to the Holy Father.  

As with all Catholic religious orders, the religious life of the professed knights has always been subject to the supreme, ordinary, immediate, and universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome.

As such, there is a perfectly coherent rationale — one which has been repeatedly advanced by Cardinal Tomasi — for the pope’s own intervention in the process, Tomasi’s own role, the appointment of Dunlap, the restructuring of the order’s priories, and even the promulgation of a new constitution.

Those interventions, the argument goes, address the order’s religious life and identity, and as such, they are prerogatives of papal authority.

On the other hand, it is true that in the past papal interventions have been more sensitive to the order’s need to both swim and quack at the same time.

Out of respect for the order’s sovereign international legal status, previous popes usually adopted the method of making more or less pointed requests or suggestions to the order’s leadership, which the knights then formally enacted through their own legal processes.

That nuanced and respectful restraint, Francis’ fiercest critics within the order say, is exactly what has been lacking in the pope’s involvement in the order’s affairs over the last 12 months.

While that criticism doesn’t actually deny the pope’s religious authority to do what he has done, it is, on balance, probably a fair point — or it would be, absent a wider context.

But for some observers of the Order of Malta, the context of this intervention is everything.

The context matters

The most ardent critics of the pope’s recent interventions have been the order’s established leaders in the Grand Magistry and on the Sovereign Council — all of whom were sacked and replaced by Francis on Saturday.

That group — usually recognized as close to the order’s influential German and Bohemian (present through much of what was the Austro-Hungarian empire) associations, is centered around the former Grand Chancellor Boeselager.

It has long faced criticism from within the order itself.

The group was one side of the stalemate on reform efforts, arguing that more of the order’s governing functions and power should be delegated to offices open to second-class knights, with the professed knights continuing to serve in leadership positions, but with reduced day-to-day responsibility for running the order’s diplomatic and humanitarian endeavors.

Boeselager’s preferred constitutional re-draft included provisions that would have turned his office of Grand Chancellor into a de facto “prime minister,” while 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.

The same group has repeatedly pushed back on internal criticism that accuses it of wanting to “secularize” the order, or “turn it into an NGO,” by downplaying the knights’ Catholic identity while advancing its humanitarian works around the world.

But there have also been complaints that the order’s influential German association, and leaders like Boeselager, coordinated for years on the selection of candidate lists for high offices, and successfully worked to skew representation at the order’s chapters general to favor their own agenda.

This, internal critics say, made necessary Francis’ decision on Saturday to both impose a new constitution, instead of recommending it to a future chapter general, and replace at a stroke the entire central governance of the order below Dunlap.

Those critics say the order was so intractably divided that no compromise was ever possible, or would have been acceptable to both sides.

What some of the ousted leadership are privately calling a papal putsch, others within the order are saying was a long-needed and repeatedly blocked turnover in the Grand Magistry, without which the new constitution could not be implemented.

And, while Francis’ decisive action has provoked an outcry from many of those suddenly out of office, and prompted warnings that it has destroyed the order’s credibility as a sovereign entity, those claims should be assessed within the context of past papal interventions, which came at the express invitation of the now-departed leadership.

As sovereign now as before

Francis involvement in the order’s internal affairs — and indeed the knights’ constitutional crisis — dates back to 2017, when the pope was asked to settle a dispute within the order’s government.

After an internal report on how a humanitarian project ended up distributing condoms in Burma, the then-Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing ordered the then-Grand Chancellor Boeselager to resign.

To compel the resignation, Festing invoked Boeselager’s promise of religious obedience as a second-class knight. When Boeselager refused, Festing sacked him for violating his religious promise.

But Boeselager and his supporters within the order went to the Vatican — first to Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and later to Francis personally, begging for papal intervention.

After a papally ordered inquiry, Francis, to the delight of the Grand Chancellor’s supporters, ordered Boeselager’s reinstatement and compelled Festing to abdicate as Grand Master.

Boeselager’s supporters say now that Francis has trampled on their sovereignty and put the order’s international diplomatic status at risk. But those complaints must be weighed against that same group’s previous request for the pope’s involvement in their affairs.

In some ways, Saturday’s intervention is less dramatic than the events of 2017, which saw the Holy See’s governing apparatus, through the Secretariat of State, involved in the ousting of a head of state. In the most recent events, Francis instead appointed a “personal delegate” to the order, outside of the curial apparatus. Given that, it seems fair to say that the knights are, on balance, at least a sovereign today as they were after Festing’s abdication.

The risk now

Without a territory to govern, and with their internal governance and law inextricably bound up with their identity as a Catholic religious order, the knights’ independence has always been a matter of function, appearance, and perception, as much as clearly defined structural status.

Despite the dramatic nature of the event, the order was eventually able to move past the 2017 Festing abdication without lasting damage to its international network or legal status, largely because its members — most especially its senior governing officials and diplomats — were able to assure the world that everything was fine.

Yes, the pope had forced their sovereign Grand Master to abdicate, they said, but this was an internal matter involving Festing’s relationship with the pope as a professed religious, not head of state.

In 2017, Festing’s supporters, while privately furious about the result, tended to keep their objections in-house, in part out of religious deference to the pope and in part out of practical concern for the order’s international status.

But now that the papal slipper is on the other foot, will the ousted officers and council members do the same?

If they do not, complaints that the pope has obliterated the knights’ diplomatic status and sovereignty could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the new constitution and leadership see their legitimacy questioned, or opposed openly by the order’s former government, it could well trigger the kind of diplomatic crisis of credibility both sides have accused the other of courting at different points in the last five years.

The risk will be especially acute in any future efforts to reform the order’s national associations and regional Grand Priories, many of which are either incorporated in local civil law, or recognized by full-blown international concordats between the state and the order.

Whether viewed as an effort to reform a religious order, or to impose a new governing constitution on a sovereign entity, Francis’ actions on Saturday were as dramatic as they were definitive. The extent to which all the knights now accept them, both in private and in public, will likely demonstrate how Catholic the order is, and determine how sovereign it will remain.

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