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Knights of Malta joust with 'arbitrary' Vatican intervention

As Pope Francis prepares to announce his decision on the future of the Order of Malta, senior knights have warned that a slate of Vatican-imposed changes to its leadership have left the order’s sovereignty in shreds, and drawn the authority of the order’s new leader - Lieutenant Grand Master John Dunlap - into question. 

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

Francis is expected to direct the knights soon to convene a chapter meeting, at which they will be expected to ratify a draft constitution approved by the pope before the summit. Ahead of the impending chapter,  the pope has already appointed an interim leader for the Order of Malta, and his cardinal delegate reshuffled the heads of the group’’s priories around the world.

But senior members of the order have been quietly, but frantically, pushing back — begging the pope to reconsider proposals for their future governance, and warning that Vatican “arbitrary interference” in their affairs has divided their members, and pushed beyond limits the balance between the order’s sovereign legal status and its religious identity. 

Some leaders warned the pope this month that plans under papal consideration might cause even “a break-up of the Order of Malta” itself. 

The Order of Malta is a Catholic religious order dating back more than 900 years, it also has a unique status in international law, with the ability to maintain full diplomatic relations with nations, and a seat as a permanent observer at the United Nations. The order operates humanitarian relief efforts around the world.

The group has been in a protracted process of constitutional reform since 2017. After years of gridlock, last October Pope Francis gave his personal delegate to the order, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, sweeping powers to change the knights’ religious life and internal governance, despite concerns that this could violate the order’s sovereign status in international law.

After a public breakdown of negotiations between Tomasi’s team and the order’s leadership, Pope Francis announced earlier this year that he would make a final decision on the reform of the knights himself, and held a series of listening sessions with Tomasi’s delegation and representatives from the knights.

As they wait for Francis’ final decision, unprecedented exchanges in recent weeks between and among the knights’ members and leaders suggest that the order may already be so divided that a workable settlement is now impossible.


In a meeting with his own advisors and the order’s leadership last week, Francis was presented with options for the order’s constitutional future — a presentation that some believe will be the pope’s final consultation on the order before he announces a decision on how it should be reformed.

Some sources suggest that decision could come as early as September 3. 

The Aug. 17 meeting took place just days after the presidents of 13 national associations of the order presented the pope with a “plea for a lawful and effective reform process to avoid a possible break-up of the Order of Malta.”

“If the draft constitution proposed by [the pope’s special delegate to the order] Cardinal Tomasi remains in its current state,” the presidents warned the pope, both the order and its charitable works around the globe “would suffer massive damage.”

The letter to Pope Francis, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, was sent Aug. 12, and reiterated widespread concerns among the order’s leadership about plans to concentrate operational control of the order’s work among the first class knights of the order, who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and from whom the order’s senior officers are drawn —  but who now number only 36.

In addition to being a Catholic religious order, the knights are a recognized sovereign entity in international law, issuing their own passports, maintaining bilateral diplomatic relations with other nations, and enjoying the same recognition and status at the United Nations as the Holy See.

“While these Professed Knights are valuable members to the Order,” the national presidents wrote, “it is not feasible that the work of over 13,000 heavily engaged people can be fulfilled by less than 40 people, who do not have the experience or qualifications to responsibly manage an organisation of that scale.”

“We, therefore, plead to Your Holiness to allow the newly appointed Lieutenant of the Grand Master Fra’ John Dunlap, together with the elected Government and your delegate [Cardinal Tomasi] to reunite the Order and to work with all its members in good faith towards determining the most appropriate canonical structure for the Order of Malta under its valid constitution and code without arbitrary interference.”

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Throughout the current constitutional reform process, which was meant to address the spiritual and religious life of the professed knights, the order’s leadership has repeatedly warned Vatican-imposed changes to their governing structures are endangering the Order of Malta’s sovereign status.

On Aug. 15, nine members of the order’s own governing council issued a highly unusual statement to the knights’ most senior officers essentially outlining the need to preserve the international and constitutional sovereignty of the order alongside its religious nature in the face of Vatican interference.

“Only when the three above-mentioned dimensions of the Order of Malta are warrantied can an agreement be reached on a new Constitution & Code that fits the current requirements of the Holy See while enjoying broad-based support with the Order worldwide,” the council members wrote.

These formal warnings have been accompanied by an intense discussion among many of the order’s members, after Ernst von Freyberg, of the order’s German association, forwarded the Aug. 12 “plea” to the pope via email to association presidents and senior members worldwide.

In his Aug. 14 email, von Freyberg urged his confreres to canvass their local members for feedback, and encouraged individual knights to register their support via a dedicated “pleas to the pope” email address. 

The email triggered a lengthy train of responses, obtained by The Pillar, with members airing a range of concerns about a variety of reforming proposals. 

In response, the order’s current leader, Lieutenant of the Grand Master Fra’ John Dunlap, wrote a letter to all the order’s senior leadership worldwide on Aug. 16, drawing attention to the email, and calling “ridiculous” the notion that the knights’ membership could be expected to weigh in on the merits of reforming drafts which they had not actually seen in full. 

“Please do NOT send this to your members” (emphasis original), Dunlap wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar

“I am told that [Pope Francis] is currently reviewing the three sets of draft constitutional documents given to him and I expect the Holy Father will let us know in early September from which set of draft documents we shall be asked to work.”

“Though I do not presume to speak for His Holiness, barring acts of disobedience or misinformation by members of the Order, I am confident that we shall have ample time and opportunity to negotiate a viable draft Code and Constitution that will be acceptable to our members worldwide and then proceed to a an Extraordinary Chapter General [to ratify it].”

But far from settling matters, Dulap’s letter has itself drawn criticism from within the order, with senior knights questioning the manner in which he was appointed by the pope earlier this year, and the legitimacy of an order Dunlap signed last month, which restructured the order’s regional leadership.

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Francis appointed the Canadian born Fra’ John Dunlap as Lieutenant of the Grand Master by decree in June, following the sudden death of the previous Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Fra' Marco Luzzago. Luzzano himself had been acting as head of the order since the death of the previous Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Della Torre in 2020.

Fra’ John T. Dunlap, SMOM. Credit: Order of Malta

While Dunlap’s appointment by papal fiat was accepted by the order’s leadership, members of its sovereign council privately expressed deep concern at the pope’s action. 

According to the order’s constitution, on the death of Luzzago, the Grand Commander of the Order, Fra’ Ruy de Villas-Boas, was to assume temporary charge, until a new Lieutenant being elected.

Francis’ decision was made without consulting or even informing Fra’ Ruy or the council of his intentions. Cardinal Tomasi simply delivered Dunlap’s decree of appointment on the morning the Vatican announced the decision publicly.

Critics of the decision say that process violated the order’s rights.

Although the Order of Malta is a Catholic religious order, centuries of tradition, as well as legal agreements between the Holy See and the knights’ own constitution, recognize that it is sovereign in all its internal governing affairs, answering to the pope only on religious matters. 

The Vatican’s working group on the order’s constitutional reform has argued that the pope’s religious authority effectively extends to all the offices and functions held by professed knights — and therefore the entire governance of the order itself. 

But a group within the knights’ senior leadership contend that the Vatican’s view amounts to a total subordination of the order’s sovereignty in international law to the Holy See, and disregards historic legal agreements between the knights and the Vatican.

While some within the order’s Grand Magistry in Rome questioned the legality of Francis’ action to appoint Dunlap, there has been universal agreement among knights that accepting his appointment as a fait accompli was preferable to the prospect of provoking an explicit, public rejection of the order’s sovereignty by the pope. 

Even members of the order’s governing council who oppose of the manner of Dunlap’s appointment have generally agreed that, since the new lieutenant was known to be broadly sympathetic to Cardinal Tomasi’s efforts to reform the order, he might be well-placed to check any further erosion of the knights’ legal independence. 

But a decision signed jointly by Dunlap and Tomasi at the end of July raised even more questions about the legitimacy of how the order is currently being governed, leading to the flurry of pleas and statements over the last two weeks.

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A key priority of Cardinal Tomasi’s reform proposals for the order involves the reconstitution of the leadership of the order’s Grand Priories and sub-priories around the world. 

Those divisions are meant to be led by professed knights of the first class but because the number of professed knights is so low worldwide some have lacked for years any legally qualified candidates for the office of prior. 

When qualified candidates are lacking, either professed first class knights lacking some criteria for election as prior, or in some cases knights of the second class - who make temporary promises of obedience, but do not take religious vows - have been elected and appointed as procurators to serve as in the absence of a prior.

A July 25 decree from the office of Cardinal Tomasi shuffled the assignments of qualified professed knights among the priories and appointed new priors ex officio for those previously led by procurators and instructing local knights to convene assemblies to ratify the appointments by election. 

The decree, countersigned by Dunlap, said the moves were meant to address “the extraordinary situation of the government of the Priories” resulting from the absence of any qualified professed knights in some parts of the world.

The decree added that its leadership shakeup was supposed to allow the knights “to return to fully live the religious charism of the Order and restore its founding institutional profile.” 

But it was met with shock among the affected priories and knights, who have raised both legal and practical objections to the move.

In some cases, professed knights were assigned to lead priories in parts of the world in which they had never lived, and tasked with leading large national networks of volunteers and aid projects in countries where they did not speak the language. 

Although the procurators were dismissed with immediate effect, some elderly knights named to lead priories in other parts of the world reported they were too infirm to travel in the immediate term, leaving the order’s sometimes substantial operational presence without a leader, bringing the knights’ entire operational presence to a legal halt.

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

As a matter of law, the knights of several priories have raised repeated objections to the decree, noting that the priories are separately constituted and recognized legal entities with the right and exclusive power to elect priors. 

While the Grand Master - or in the current circumstances, the Lieutenant of the Grand Master - is recognized as having the authority to appoint and remove procurators, and even to effect by decree the transfer of professed knights from one priory to another without consultation or consent, only the priories themselves can elect a prior under the order’s laws and constitution.

Both the priories and the order’s senior leadership in Rome have challenged the legality of the July appointments, with several knights writing directly to Dunlap.

One complaint obtained by The Pillar said the move is “comprehensively illegitimate, inexpedient, and will not fail to do great harm to our Order,” according to one complaint seen by The Pillar

While the July decree was signed jointly by Dunlap and Tomasi, it invoked Tomasi’s absolute authority to govern and reform the order as he sees fit, granted to him by Pope Francis in October last year. 

The pope’s decision to give Tomasi unfettered authority is widely seen within the order as irreconcilable with the knights’ constitution and sovereignty in international law but has not been publicly disputed, senior knights have told The Pillar, out of religious respect for the pope, and in the hope that Tomasi would not invoke its provisions, thereby triggering the kind of constitutional crisis that some say has now occurred.

But Tomasi and some of the knights themselves argue that since the office of prior, and the organization of the life and functions of the professed knights, are religious matters, they fall under the pope’s universal and immediate jurisdiction as head of the Catholic Church, irrespective of the order’s institutional sovereignty or diplomatic independence. The pope’s authority can empower Tomasi to take whatever action he decides with regards to matters touching the professed, that position holds.

While the extent to which the professed knights should be inextricably linked to the day to day governance of the order is the central issue in the constitutional reform debate, the reality is that the professed’s position in the order’s current constitution means that arguments both for and against the Vatican’s legal power to intervene can be made with equal conviction. 

The result is a dispute which is forcing the knights to choose between their Catholic identity and their sovereign status. But, according to senior sources familiar with the decree’s signing, Dunlap was not consulted on the decision to appoint priors by executive order, and his willingness to add his name to the decree was meant to prevent just this split from widening within the order. 

Instead, The Pillar has been told, Dunlap, was presented with the choice of co-signing with Tomasi, making it a joint act of the knights’ own constitutional head, or of seeing the cardinal issue the decree himself. 

One senior knight close to Dunlap told The Pillar that the lieutenant opted to sign because “whatever the questions about the legality of the move according to the order’s own laws, the alternative was for [Tomasi] to impose it on his own, which would have been a public declaration that [the order] is an occupied state and not sovereign at any level.”

That, the knight said, could have triggered immediate diplomatic consequences. “Our relations with states are already suffering through all of this,” he told The Pillar

“The sense is setting in that we are not independent, not sovereign. That we are just a Vatican NGO. If that impression sticks, our entire diplomatic network, all of our access to trouble spots where we work to help the poorest, is in jeopardy.”

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According to internal correspondence seen by The Pillar, many within the order suspect that Tomasi’s decision to impose priors has less to do with an immediate desire to restore the “religious charism” and “institutional profile” of the priories, and more to do with preparing the ground for a forthcoming Extraordinary Chapter General which would be called to ratify whatever constitutional settlement Pope Francis decides upon.

By law, the heads of the order’s Grand Priories and Sub Priories attend the chapter ex officio — whether they are priors or procurators. 

By reshuffling the leadership of the priories, some knights have accused Tomasi of seeking to replace the order’s representative regional leadership with his own picked candidates who will be more likely to ratify a new constitution.

Although Dunlap assured the knights in his letter earlier this month that he is “confident that we shall have ample time and opportunity to negotiate a viable draft Code and Constitution that will be acceptable to our members worldwide” ahead of an Extraordinary Chapter General, many in the order’s Grand Magistry do not share his confidence.

One senior source close to the order’s headquarters in Rome told The Pillar that more changes are expected, further altering the scope to “negotiate” whatever proposal the pope approves. 

There is little confidence, he said, that whatever document emerges from the pope’s desk would be acceptable to all sides, but that attempts to push back on it would likely only lead to another decree from Tomasi: “Many if not most of us expect that Tomasi will dissolve the sovereign council sometime in the coming weeks,” the knight said. 

“I think the sense is Fra’ John [Dunlap] doesn’t want to see that any more than anyone else in the order, because it would tear what’s left of the veil away [of the order’s sovereignty] and be very hard for us to recover from in the diplomatic sphere.”

“That, of course, will further change the makeup of a Chapter General, unseat many of the order’s leadership, and further limit any discussion of whatever draft is supposed to be approved.”

If the pope does approve a new draft constitution for the order in the coming weeks, and if there are further changes to its governing structures ahead of a Chapter General to adopt that constitution, that could trigger yet another round of dissent from its national associations and regional priories. 

The potential for those disputes to spill over into the order’s external bilateral diplomatic relations is growing, as is the rift between many quarters of the knights’ membership and the Holy See, and it is no longer clear that the order can survive its own reform.

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Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Ernst von Freyberg as president of the Order’s German Association. The Pillar regrets the error.

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