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Knights who can't say 'nay': Cardinal empowered to 'reform' Order of Malta

Pope Francis on Monday issued a letter granting sweeping powers to a special delegate to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, authorizing the cardinal to enact historic reforms in the ancient religious and charitable order. 

In an Oct. 25 letter, Francis authorized Cardinal Silvano Tomasi to untangle a complicated leadership struggle within the  Knights of Malta, which is both a religious order and an international aid organization, with sovereign status in international law. 

The order has been in a state of constitutional crisis since the forced 2017 abdication of their former Grand Master and the death of his successor in 2020. 

Villa Malta, Rome. Credit: Giorgio Minguzzi


The Knights of Malta, founded in 1099, was originally an order of hospitaller religious in the Holy Land, caring for pilgrims. 

Today, it is still led by professed religious knights, who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, though most of the members are lay knights and dames of lower rank. The order is a major international aid and health organization, deploying tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, relief workers and volunteers in dozens of countries.

The leadership of the order and its members have been divided for years over its governance, and especially the roles reserved to the celibate, professed knights which are thr order’s core members. Their division has now spanned the abdication of one Grand Master, the death of another, and complaints about Vatican interference in the order’s reform process.

By granting the cardinal “the power to take upon yourself aspects of the ordinary government of the Order, even derogating, if necessary, from the current Constitutional Charter” and to “resolve all internal conflicts within the Order ex auctoritate Summi Pontificis,” Francis effectively authorized the cardinal to end years of internal wrangling over the future of the knights, and to settle questions about the future constitutional makeup of the order and its leadership. 

The pope specifically gave Tomasi the power to convoke a special general chapter of the order, and to decide how it will proceed and who can participate in it. That chapter will vote on a new constitution, which Tomasi has the power to approve.

The knights themselves, the pope wrote, are to “willingly collaborate” with the cardinal “in a spirit of authentic obedience and respect.”

A rift began in the order when in 2016 an aid project of the order in Myanmar was found to have distributed thousands of condoms.

After that became known, the order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, ordered the Grand Chancellor, Albercht von Boselager, to resign. Boselager insisted that he had not known about the distribution of condoms, and that he had put a stop to it as soon as he became aware.

After supporters of Boselager petitioned the Vatican Secretariat of State and the pope directly, Francis intervened, ultimately leading to the forced abdication of Festing. Boselager was reinstated to his position after Festing resigned. 

After the abdication, the pope created the post of “cardinal delegate,” effectively side-stepping the traditional office of Cardinal Patron of the order, held by Cardinal Raymond Burke since 2014. Francis initially named Cardinal Angelo Becciu to the role of special delegate to oversee the “spiritual and moral” reform of the order. 

Becciu was forced to step down from that position when the pope ordered him to resign his curial offices and rights as a cardinal in September last year, amid allegations of abuse of office and financial crime. Tomasi was appointed in his place on Nov. 2, 2020.

After Festing resigned, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre was elected to lead the order, but he died in 2020. For almost a year, the order has been led by Fra' Marco Luzzago, who was elected Lieutenant of the Grand Master shortly after the appointment of Tomasi, and given full governing powers for a one-year term.

Tomasi will now be empowered to oversee the election of a long-term leader for the order. 

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The Vatican’s intervention in the order’s internal affairs is a complicated matter. It is, on the one hand, a Catholic institute of consecrated life, with professed members owing the pope religious obedience. On the other hand, the order has the same sovereign status in international law as the Holy See, including full diplomatic relations with nation states, its own passports, and permanent observer status at the UN.

The order’s current constitution specifically delineates its independence in matters of internal governance. 

The order has been working toward a new constitution since the resignation of Festing in 2017, and the process has been largely shepherded by Boselager as Grand Chancellor of the order. 

The proposed reforms include changes to the office of Grand Master itself, and the role of the first degree of knights – those who profess perpetual religious vows – in the governance of the order, as opposed to the second and third degrees, which includes Boselager and many of the order’s other officers, who do not profess religious vows. 

Professed religious knights now number only a few dozen, and they tend to be of advanced age, with few new vocations coming in recent years - a problem exacerbated by a freeze on new religious members joining during the reform process. 

Advocates for change within the order say that allowing second and third tier knights to assume more duties is essential to securing the orders future, but critics of the process say that the professed religious are the core of the order, but they are being excluded from a reform process which would marginalize them.

The Grand Chancellor said last year that a new constitution had been drafted and sent to the Vatican for papal approval, but some within the order have complained that the knights themselves are being left out of the process.

In an interview last year, Boselager said that the reforming agenda comes directly from the pope and that “regarding the professed, the Holy Father has demanded especially that the regulations dealing with the first class of the order are revisited.”

But in September 2020, 25 of the order’s most senior knights sent a letter to the order’s leadership and to the Vatican, voicing concerns that they were being left out of the constitutional process which affected them directly and specifically asking that the professed religious knights be given final approval of reforms to their own status. 

Asked to confirm if the professed knights would have the last word on their own future, Boselager said that “We have to, of course, seek, as far as possible, consent – we will never have total consent because there will always be different opinions – at the end it has to be decided and compromises have to be found.”

The pope’s letter to Tomasi on Monday appears to signal an end to the need for compromise.

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