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Cardinal Tomasi: Draft Malta constitution still ‘provisional,’ leak unauthorized

Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the special delegate of Pope Francis to the Order of Malta, has written to the order’s regional leadership stressing that a revised constitution for the order is only “provisional,” and could be changed. 

Tomasi also complained that the confidential draft had been leaked, and apparently circulated to senior figures in the order without his permission.

Details of a draft constitution drawn up by the Vatican were first reported by The Pillar on Jan. 14. Among the reforms it would make to the order, the new constitution would make it an explicit “subject” of the Holy See, despite its sovereign status in international law.

Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta, Rome. Image credit: Giorgio Minguzzi (CC BY-SA 2.0)


In a letter addressed to the presidents of the order’s 48 national associations, also dated Jan. 14, Tomasi acknowledged the draft text, which had not yet been officially distributed to the association leaders.

The cardinal told the national association presidents that he had intended to inform them of the proposed changes in full, but only after a “restricted consultation” with the order’s senior leadership, including the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boselager.

“This consultation was aimed at integrating and possibly amending the text prepared by the Apostolic See according to the contribution made by qualified members of the Order,” Tomasi said, “so as to have a definitive draft of the Constitutional Charter and the Code to be subsequently distributed” to the order’s priories and associations worldwide.

“Therefore, I am surprised,” Tomasi wrote to the order’s association presidents, that “the president of the German Association, on his own initiative and without having the right to do so, proceeded to distribute the provisional drafts, which moreover he should not have.”

Stressing that the draft is not yet final, the cardinal asked the association presidents to “refrain from any evaluation of a text that is still in the process of final formulation.”

The draft constitution contains a number of potentially controversial changes to the order’s structure and governance. Most notably, it would identify the sovereign order as an explicit subject of the Holy See, and grant the Vatican, or the pope personally, the authority to confirm or veto the election of the Grand Master and any changes to the order’s constitution.

Those changes could have a significant impact on the order’s status in international law, including its ability to maintain full diplomatic relations with nation states, and its seat as a permanent observer at the United Nations. 

The order operates humanitarian relief efforts around the world. While it is a Catholic religious order, whose professed members make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the order’s constitution has, to date, distinguished the religious loyalty of the order to the Church as a Catholic institution from its governing independence as a sovereign institution.

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Tomasi has served as Pope Francis’ special envoy to the order, charged with reforming its constitution and legal code, since November of 2020, when he replaced Cardinal Angelo Becciu, whom the pope sacked from his official positions following allegations of financial crimes.

In October last year, Francis granted Tomasi sweeping powers to reform the order, which is a sovereign entity under international law, with the authority to govern the order directly, convene an extraordinary Chapter General, and impose a new constitution on it to resolve a lingering governing crisis triggered in 2017, when the pope ordered the abdication of the order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing.

Since that crisis began, the order has spent years working on changes to its constitution and legal code. 

A key point of contention within the order is the leadership role of the order’s professed knights, who take religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and form the core of the order as a religious institution.

The number of professed knights has declined significantly in recent years, exacerbated by a years-long freeze on the admittance of new members during the period of constitutional reform. There are currently 38 professed knights in the order, and 5 professed chaplains (priests incardinated in the order). 

Together they make up less than half a percent of the order’s total membership. Fewer than 20 of the professed knights are under 70 years of age.

Some figures within the order have argued for broadening the role of the second and third class knights, who do not take religious vows, and clearing the way for them to assume more leadership roles within the order. 

Proposals have included retaining the office of Grand Master, and reserving it to first class knights, but reducing it to a ceremonial role, while offices like the Grand Chancellor assume more day-to-day governing functions. 

Others have insisted that the first degree knights, known as “Fras,” are central to the Order of Malta’s identity as a religious order and must remain at the core of its life and governance.

The Vatican-authored draft of the new constitution would preserve the centrality of the Fras, and the reservation of certain offices to professed knights. 

It would also maintain either half or majority representation for the Fras on the order’s governing bodies, including Sovereign Council and the Chapter General. 

Cardinal Tomasi is expected to present the new constitution, together with a new legal code, to the order’s leadership during a two day meeting beginning on January 25, after which the cardinal is expected to call a General Chapter of the order to adopt the new constitution later this year.

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