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Knights of Malta agree to constitutional changes, new talks with Cardinal Tomasi

The leadership of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and Cardinal Silvano Tomasi have agreed to revisions of a draft constitution for the order, seemingly diffusing a diplomatic standoff which threatened to undercut the order’s status in international law.

In Jan. 28 letter addressed to the order’s senior knights, Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager said that “God has listened to your prayers,” and that an impasse between the Order of Malta’s leadership and the pope’s special delegate has been resolved.

Albrecht von Boeselager, Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta. Credit: Order of Malta

“Over the past week, we were able to open up and strengthen our communications at the highest levels of the Holy See, receiving important assurances from the Holy Father,” Boeselager said.


“The misunderstandings that have prevailed between the working group of the Special Delegate, H.Em Cardinal Tomasi and representatives of the Order are now beginning to subside,” the letter said, explaining that “we have received satisfactory assurances that there is no intention to infringe in any way upon the sovereignty and the right of self-governance of the Order of Malta and, as a result, certain articles in the proposed draft Constitution have been amended accordingly.”

The news that the order’s leadership and the pope’s special delegate have agreed to a path forward together follows nearly two weeks of escalating tensions between the order and the Holy See, after a constitutional text, drafted by the Vatican, proposed to make the order an explicit “subject” of the Holy See, undermining its sovereignty in international law.

In the ensuing standoff, Boeselager announced that he was standing down as head of the order’s own constitutional reform committee, and nominating Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the order’s Lebanese association, as his replacement in negotiations with Tomasi.

Earlier this week, The Pillar reported that although Sehnaoui flew to Rome to attend a scheduled two-day constitutional conference with the cardinal, and met privately with the pope, Tomasi declined to seat him when the meeting opened on Jan. 25, instead inviting the president of the order’s Italian association. 

Since those events, Boeselager wrote on Friday, he had met personally with the cardinal, together with other senior knights, and “had the opportunity to explain some of the basic issues of principle and peculiarities of the Order, and the need to rework the draft Constitution and Code submitted by the Special Delegate.”

Sehnaoui also met privately with Tomasi, Boeselager said, and the meeting “provided a most welcome opportunity for them to have clarification and reaffirm their mutual friendship and respect.”

A date for a new two-day joint meeting between the order and Tomasi’s team has now been set for next month.

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The announcement that questions regarding the order’s sovereignty have been mutually resolved by the knights and Cardinal Tomasi means that attention will now shift to other aspects of the reforming project. 

The Vatican’s intervention in the order’s internal reforming process is due, in large part, to a protracted disagreement among the order’s own membership on the future role of the professed first class knights, who take religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. 

While all sides agree on the need for reform of the role of the professed knights, called Fras, and their place at the heart of the order’s governance and spiritual life, there is disagreement about which direction that reform should take.

Boeselager acknowledged this tension in his letter Friday.

“During the past week, we have been reminded of the Holy Father’s call for the Order’s spiritual renewal, and especially for that of our Professed members,” he said. “In fact there is a real urgency to achieve this so that the Order can attract new vocations, of current and prospective members of the Order who wish to live a consecrated life through the Order’s mission.”

As The Pillar has previously reported, the draft constitution proposed by Tomasi would see an enhanced governing role for the professed knights, who currently number 38, but whom many of the order’s members see as crucial to preserving the order’s central identity as a Catholic religious order.

Other reforming proposals, including those favored by Boeselager himself, would see the Fras assume a more ceremonial role in the order’s day-to-day governance and management, while focusing more on leading its spiritual life, delegating more responsibility to offices like that of the Grand Chancellor. Critics of this proposal argue that it would marginalize the order’s religious character and identity and lead to its secularization. 

“I trust that the new atmosphere of collaboration and trust with the highest levels of the Holy See will assist us in finding the best solutions for addressing some of the challenges the Order faces in a timely, collaborative and transparent manner.”

A new two-day constitutional joint session has now been set for February 22-23, with Sehnaoui confirmed as leading the knights’ representation.

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