A top Order of Malta official has said that he won’t join a working group on the reform of the 1,000-year-old institution, citing a threat to its sovereignty.

In a letter sent to senior Order of Malta officials, the group’s Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager said that proposed reforms would undermine the order’s identity and he would not play an active part in the group studying changes to the order’s constitutional charter and code.

Boeselager’s letter, delivered on Jan. 19 and seen by CNA, emerged amid heated debate within the Order of Malta over a draft of the new constitution overseen by Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, Pope Francis’ special delegate to the order.

The new constitution would define the Order of Malta, which has sovereign status, as being “subject to the Holy See.” This would potentially jeopardize the order’s ability to engage in diplomatic relations as it could be seen as being dependent on another sovereign body: the Holy See.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is an ancient chivalric order with the task of serving the sick and the poor worldwide. The order consists of 13,500 knights, dames, chaplains, more than 100,000 volunteers, and 42,000 employees. It has full diplomatic relations with 112 countries.

The order’s current leader, Fra’ Marco Luzzago, stressed the importance of its sovereignty to carry out its charitable works in a speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the order on Jan. 11. Luzzago, the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, voiced a growing concern within the order.

Boeselager was at the center of events that led to a dramatic papal intervention in the order’s affairs in 2017. He was initially suspended by the order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, amid concerns about the distribution of condoms by the order’s relief agency in Burma. But he was reinstated after Pope Francis required the Grand Master’s resignation and launched a sweeping reform process.

The pope appointed Tomasi as his delegate in 2020, replacing the demoted Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who served as delegate from 2017.

In October 2021, Pope Francis issued a letter granting Tomasi full powers to draft a revised constitution, summon a council to discuss and approve the constitutional charter and code, call an Extraordinary Chapter General, “renew” the Sovereign Council, and convene a Council Complete of State for the election of a new Grand Master.

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A source within the order told CNA: “The question of sovereignty was already raised when the pope issued a letter in October that the constitution could be overrun by the delegate.”

“Concern spread further when Cardinal Tomasi wrote in January that he would call an Extraordinary Chapter General to vote on the text and replace the government, changing the composition of the Chapter in order to get the required majority.”

The source argued that this approach would lead to “anti-constitutional results.”

The working group overseeing the reform comprises Tomasi, canon law expert Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Msgr. Brian Ferme (secretary of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy), Maurizio Tagliaferri, Federico Marti, and Gualtiero Ventura.

This group will be expanded to include other members of the order on Jan. 25. On Jan. 26, Tomasi is expected to distribute the draft of the constitution to a larger group of members, including presidents of national associations and professed knights.

The Italian cardinal will then call a General Chapter to discuss and finalize the proposed documents a few days after.

Tomasi has assured the order’s leaders that the text can be changed and is not definitive. But there is little time for the expanded working group to study the draft and propose amendments.

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As the Grand Chancellor, Boeselager would be part of the expanded working group. But he has renounced that responsibility and, at his suggestion, Marwan Senahoui, president of the order’s Lebanese association, is taking his place. Senahoui will be assisted by Péter Szabadhegÿ.

Senahoui was asked by Fra’ Matthew Festing to resolve a crisis among the order’s members in England a few years ago. He was also part of the Tomasi-led commission appointed by the pope at the end of 2016 to look into the crisis in the order.

Why did Boeselager step aside? The reasons are in the letter delivered on Jan. 19. Boeselager said that he had been reviewing for the first time the draft texts of the new constitution and code as proposed by Tomasi, and stressed that “both the indicated process and draft content create significant constitutional challenges for our order, and I would have serious difficulties to accept them in good conscience.”

Boeselager lamented that the whole process “is not in accordance with the confirmations given to us by the special delegate that the Holy Father does not wish to put our sovereignty at risk.”

He added that he would “normally use the conventional channels between sovereign entities to voice this objection respectfully, but that avenue has been closed to me.”

Boeselager also blamed “certain groups” within the organization for accusing him of seeking to secularize the order and turn it into an NGO – an allegation he strongly rejected.

He added that he was not going to let a personal reputational issue “get in the way of preventing a detrimental outcome for the order.”

He said that he also understood that combining the task of managing the constitutional reform with his daily work would not be effective. For this reason, he wrote, he had decided not to join the working group, but would be available for consultation.

Boeselager’s letter indicates that the order is not going to give up its sovereignty easily and that, despite Pope Francis’ intervention, the debate remains intense.

It also suggests that the reform, as presented until now, may not be accepted by a majority of knights and dames, making the reform potentially ineffective and harmful for the order’s future existence.