The Order of Malta has a new head, but has it lost its sovereignty?

Pope Francis appointed a new head of the Order of Malta on Monday even before the funeral of its previous leader Fra’ Marco Luzzago, who died suddenly on June 7.

The Canadian-born lawyer Fra’ John T. Dunlap will serve as the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, a role that Luzzago held for two years. Dunlap was sworn in on June 14, the day of Luzzago’s funeral.

The Lieutenant of the Grand Master is normally elected for a one-year term. But in 2021, Pope Francis extended Luzzago’s tenure indefinitely until the election of a new Grand Master of the order, a position traditionally held for life.

Now, by direct order of Pope Francis, Dunlap is the new Lieutenant of the Grand Master and will collaborate closely with the pope’s special delegate, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi.

Tomasi was received by Pope Francis in June 2021 with Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda (now a cardinal-designate), who was among those who worked on the reform of the order. The audience foreshadowed Pope Francis’ latest intervention in the 1,000-year-old institution.

Constitutional questions

The pope has now effectively taken control of the Order of Malta — and not only in relation to its identity as a lay religious order. He has also intervened in the order’s government with a decision that appears to be unconstitutional, if only because, when the head of the order dies, the organization’s Grand Commander is expected to immediately take power for three months.

Straight after Luzzago’s death, the Order of Malta announced that the Grand Commander Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas had taken on the interim leadership of the order until the election of a new head.

Pope Francis, however, has decided entirely on his own to carry out the reforms the way he wants.

This is perhaps ironic because Luzzago had recently underlined the importance of the order’s sovereignty. In a speech to the diplomatic corps in January, he noted that the order’s great humanitarian works were “possible above all thanks to the sovereignty of the order, a founding element of our constitution.”

It seemed, at the time, that the pope wanted a balanced decision, and everything was in his hands.

The general hope was that the pope would appoint, after the three months, Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas as an interim figure to continue the path of reforms and then proceed to a vote for the Grand Master according to the already reformed statutes. But this was not the case.

Perhaps what lies behind Pope Francis’ forceful intervention is the fear that most of the order’s members still want to oppose the idea of ​​reform that he has in mind.

Generational change

The choice of Dunlap favors the idea of ​​a new generation. He is a lawyer specializing in corporate and immigration law, and a legal adviser to the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations. He has been in the Order of Malta since 1996 and made his perpetual vows as Knight of Justice in 2008. Since 2014, he has served on the Sovereign Council.

In a June 13 letter to the order, published by the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, Pope Francis recalled the popes’ role in protecting the Knights of Malta. He also noted how popes including Pius XII and John XXIII had intervened in the order’s affairs for the good of the institution.

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“Unfortunately, new events and circumstances seem almost to want to prevent the Order of St. John the Baptist from making the necessary path of renewal in fidelity to the original charism,” the pope wrote.

“Indeed, the premature death of the Lieutenant of Grand Master Fra’ Marco Luzzago, in addition to causing the temporary arrest of the reform process, risks further accentuating the tensions that still exist.”

Dunlap’s appointment was made “notwithstanding any rule or provision of law to the contrary contained in the Constitutional Charter or the Melitense Code, as well as any privilege or custom, even noteworthy ones, which may be contrary to this decision of mine, aimed at the greater good of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta.”

Pope Francis also confirmed that Cardinal Tomasi would continue to exercise “all the faculties and prerogatives already granted to him in the past, and in particular in my letter of Oct. 25, 2021.”

That letter gave Tomasi full powers to draft a revised constitution, convene a council to discuss the constitutional charter and the code, convoke an extraordinary Chapter General, renew the Sovereign Council, and convene the Complete Council of State for the election of a new Grand Master.

The question of sovereignty

Pope Francis’ idea is to treat the Order of Malta as a whole as a religious order and, therefore, directly subject to the pope. But in reality, the religious element is limited to the knights who make perpetual vows and live as friars.

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Pope Francis wanted a working group to be established around the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, along with the reform group around Cardinal Tomasi. The two groups presented two contrasting proposals for reform.

Tomasi's group believes that the professed knights should lead the order. The group set up by Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager calls instead for a more collegial style of government.

The two visions have shaped the debate ever since Pope Francis launched the reform process in 2017, after he accepted the resignation of the Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing in the middle of an internal governance crisis.

The debate over the new constitution intensified after the death of Festing’s successor, Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguineto, in 2020. After Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Pope Francis’ first delegate to the order, had to step aside, the pope appointed Tomasi as the new delegate.

The order has diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and permanent observer status at the United Nations. Although it possesses no real territory, it has the hallmarks of sovereignty, such as its own official currency, postage stamps, and vehicle registration plates.

Cardinal-designate Ghirlanda maintains that authority in the Order of Malta derives from religious consecration. This idea is valid only if the order is considered primarily as a spiritual body. The emphasis on the order’s religious character could arguably jeopardize its sovereignty, as it would be controlled by the head of another state (Vatican City).

The Boeselager group proposes that the Chapter General, the body bringing together representatives of all classes, would have 15 representatives of the professed knights, while the associations would be represented not by assessing the number of works carried out, but rather the budget allocated to these works. This way, the associations would have between one and four delegates, depending on whether they had a budget of less or more than $20 million.

With his decision to personally appoint the Lieutenant of the Grand Master, Pope Francis accepted Ghirlanda’s view and took the reform into his own hands. It is likely that he will also influence the outcome, opening another chapter of papal interventionism that risks altering the Order of Malta’s long-established identity.

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