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Vatican reforms are 'hazard' to sovereignty, says Order of Malta Grand Chancellor

The Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has said that a new Vatican-drafted constitution is a “hazard” to the order’s sovereignty and announced he is stepping down from coordinating the constitutional reform process.

In a letter outlining his concerns with the new draft constitution, details of which were first reported by The Pillar last week, Albrecht von Boeselager also alluded to the factional disputes within the order which have resulted in years of reforming gridlock, and acknowledged criticism of his own proposals for reforming the order.

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

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, dated Jan. 19 and sent to the order’s leadership, diplomatic corps, and the heads of its national associations, Boeselager said that he had spent several days reviewing the draft versions of a new constitution and legal code for the sovereign religious which have been proposed by Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, Pope Francis’ special delegate charged with overseeing the order’s reform.

“Both the indicated process [for adopting the constitution] and draft content create significant challenges for our Order, and I would have serious difficulties to accept them in good conscience,” said Boeslager, who has served as the order’s Grand Chancellor since 2014.

The Pillar has previously reported that the draft constitution would make the order a direct “subject” of the Holy See, which would place its status as a sovereign entity in international law in jeopardy.

The Pillar has also reported that Cardinal Tomasi, who succeeded Cardinal Angelo Becciu as the pope’s special delegate to the order in 2020, intends to meet with the knights’ senior leadership on Jan. 25, to present the new, Vatican-drafted, constitution and legal code. Tomasi is then expected to summon a Chapter General of the order to formally adopt the reforms.

“This process, plus the contents of the draft, while changing long-established and judicially tested norms of the government of our Order, constitute a hazard to its long held sovereignty,” said Boeslager. “This is not in accordance with the confirmations given to us by [Tomasi] that the Holy Father does not wish to put our sovereignty at risk.”

The Grand Chancellor said that he “would normally use conventional channels between sovereign entities to respectfully voice this objection, but that avenue has been closed to me.”

Sources close to the order’s Grand Magistry in Rome told The Pillar on Wednesday that Cardinal Tomasi has informed senior knights that he intends to dissolve the order’s Sovereign Council following the meeting later this month; a move widely interpreted as an attempt to stymie opposition to the changes during the Chapter General.

As Grand Chancellor, Boeslager has served as a central figure in the order’s ongoing constitutional crisis, which was triggered by a confrontation between him and the former Grand Master of the order, Fra’ Matthew Festing, in 2017.

Following an internal enquiry into reports that a branch of the Catholic order’s humanitarian mission had been distributing condoms, Festing demanded Boeslager’s resignation under the latter’s religious promise of obedience.

When Boeslager refused, Festing sacked the Grand Chancellor, triggering an appeal to the Vatican by Boeslager’s supporters, who claimed Festing had failed to follow the order’s own legal processes and misused the religious promise of obedience.

Pope Francis then ordered a Vatican investigation into the internal governance of the order, despite its legal independence from the Holy See in matters of governance. Francis then forced Festing’s abdication as Grand Master, Boeslager’s reinstatement as Grand Chancellor, and appointed a special cardinal delegate to oversee the reform of the order’s constitution and legal code.

The reform process has made slow progress in the intervening years, in part due to an ongoing leadership crisis at the top of the order; Festing’s successor as Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre died unexpectedly in 2020.

The progress of constitutional reform has also been slowed by divisions within the order on the future role of the professed knights of the first class, known as Fras. Many of the order’s key leadership positions, including Grand Master, are reserved to the first class knights.

Within the order, the movement to reduce the role of the Fras in day-to-day governance and management of the order’s affairs has been criticized as an attempt to sideline the professed religious and diminish the religious character of the order. Boeslager’s role in that process also resulted in criticism of him personally within the order, with some members claiming he was pursuing a program of reform which would reduce the order’s character to that of an NGO.

In his letter Wednesday, the Grand Chancellor acknowledged the criticism, but denied he had any such motivation.

“It is clear that certain groups within the order have created a personal difficulty for me,” he wrote, “by accusing me of wishing to secularize the Order or ‘turn it into an NGO.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, but I cannot let a personal reputational issue get in the way of preventing a detrimental outcome for the Order.”

As a result, Boeslager said that he had recommended that the president of the order’s Lebanese association take over leading the constitutional reform process.

While the Order of Malta is a Catholic religious order dating back more than 900 years, it also has a unique 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 also 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 — which has been recognized in international law and treaties with governments for centuries.

Many within the order have insisted that retaining the professed knights at the centre of the order’s governance is essential to ensuring its identity as a Catholic religious order, while others have argued that, as the number of Fras has dwindled to fewer than 40 in recent years, leadership of the order needs to be opened up to lower ranks of non-professed knights.

The low number of professed religious knights, and the high average age among their ranks, has been exacerbated by a years-long ban by the Vatican on the admittance of new professed members during the constitutional reform process.

In recent years, the Fras themselves have complained that they were being sidelined during the constitutional reforming process. In 2020, Boeselager indicated that changes to the role of the first class knights could be forced through even without the Fras consent.

The Vatican-authored draft of the new constitution would preserve the centrality of the Fras, and the reservation of the most senior governing 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.