The Order of Malta is unique and not only a spiritual body. It is a sovereign entity under international law – with its own passports, diplomatic relationships, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. 

But how sovereign is the order, following the repeated interventions by Pope Francis and his delegate? And what is at stake for an organization that is present in 120 countries, with over 2,000 projects and more than 120,000 volunteers and medical staff, providing emergency relief in many developing areas and crisis zones?

With a letter dated July 25, 2022, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, Papal delegate to the order of Malta, and Fra’ John Dunlap, papal nominated Lieutenant, assigned a series of professed knight to the Grand Priories order, without giving a notification of this decision to the Grand Commander, nor getting the approval of the Sovereign Council.

Cardinal Tomasi’s move is the last of a series that have jeopardized the Order of Malta’s own sovereignty.

Cardinal Tomasi’s letter frames the decision within the special powers Pope Francis has given to Cardinal Tomasi on October 25, 2021. These powers were confirmed in the Pope Francis’ decree for the appointment of the Lieutenant of Grand Master of June 13, 2022.

Both the Pope Francis decisions represented a Pope Francis’ breach in the Order of Malta’s sovereignty. 

Pope Francis appointed a new head of the Order of Malta 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.

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By direct order of Pope Francis, Dunlap is the new Lieutenant of the Grand Master and is thus working closely with the pope’s special delegate, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi.

The delegate also advised to proceed with the elected governmental body, the Sovereign Council. 

In both cases, the Pope strongly intervened in the Order of Malta’s governmental affairs, thus jeopardizing its sovereignty. It is true that the Order of Malta is a monastic order, and that it derives its sovereignty by Papal concession. It is also true that the Order has its autonomy and independence as a sovereign entity. As a monastic order, it is subjected to the Pope in as much as the knights who live as friars are concerned.

It is worth remembering that the Order of Malta has three classes of Knights. 

The First Class consists of the Knights of Justice or Professed Knights, as well as Professed Conventual Chaplains. The Knights of this class take the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They are defined as religious but not required to live in community. They also benefit from a dispense of their vows of poverty, including the recently Profess consecrated by Cardinal Tomasi.

The Second Class is composed of Knights and Dames in Obedience, who promise to obey their superiors and strive for Christian perfection in the spirit of the order.

The Third Class comprises lay members who make neither vows nor promises but are committed to living a fully Catholic life according to the order’s principles.

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Only First Class knights who descend from a family of four quarters of nobility are eligible to be elected as the Grand Master, the order’s religious superior and sovereign. This provision means that fewer than 40 people in the order can be considered for the position.

The Grand Master oversees the order with the help of a body called the Sovereign Council, whose members are elected for five-year terms by the order’s General Chapter.

Members of the Sovereign Council include the influential figure of the Grand Chancellor, who oversees the order’s 133 diplomatic missions, and the Grand Hospitaller, responsible for the order’s extensive humanitarian initiatives.

The order has three different types of national institutions spread around the world: six grand priories, six sub-priories, and 48 local associations.

Those do all the works, which have been blossoming over the years under the management of knights of the second and third Class, where all the professional talents are available. The first class comprises less than 40 members, with a majority above 70 years of age. Whereas the second and third class amount to 13,500 Members.

Cardinal Tomasi directly intervened with the Grand Priories and nominated new members and heads of the Grand Priories, which normally are in fact elected.

In a letter dated July 25, 2022, the Papal delegate said that the extraordinary situation of the governance of the priories had “come to an end,” and that the current “presence of professed knights with solemn vows” would allow “to return to fully live the religious charism of the order.” 

Tomasi also wrote that Professed Knights, in several meetings, confirmed to be “fully available” to take the commitment of running the grand priories. 

The papal delegate then went on and appointed the head and members of the Grand Priories of England, Rome, Naples and Sicily, Bohemia and Austria.

Cardinal Tomasi letter also required the new Grand Priories to establish — by the end of September — their assembly to enable elections. 

The Papal delegate letter shows a strong will to bring forward the reforms as planned, mostly by him and his working team, as no agreement has been reached on a draft with the elected bodies of the order.

Cardinal-designate Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ has been working on the draft of the new constitution along with Tomasi. Pope Francis received the two in a private audience on June 11. 

The Jesuit 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, i.e., the Vatican City State. Hence vastly diminishing the efficiency of its works on the ground.

The actions undertaken so far, both by the Pope and Tomasi, show that Ghirlanda’s line has been widely considered when it comes to overhauling the Constitution of the Order of Malta. 

With the decision to appoint only professed at the helm of priories, Cardinal Tomasi is enforcing that rationale. 

However, members of the Order of Malta are sincerely worried about the sweeping changes to be made – and set in stone – with the new constitution. 

CNA spoke with several knights to understand what is at stake. 

The knights underscored that they “accepted in humility the granting of extraordinary power over the Order to Cardinal Tomasi by the Holy Father.” At the same time, they felt Cardinal Tomasi, with the help of the nominated Lieutenant, was now blatantly overstepping the mark, and doing more than what the Pope’s instructions detailed. 

There is a perception that Cardinal Tomasi plans to change the composition of the Chapter General to ensure his draft constitution is adopted, by something akin to a 'false' majority, thereby securing the election of a new Grand Master and replacing the elected Sovereign Council in the middle of its elected term.

Such a series of moves, it is feared, would spell the end of the sovereignty of the Order.

By the same token, the appointment of the Professed Knights in running the works will make those lose their dynamism and be detrimental to “The poor and the sick”.

Some Knights appealed to the Pope early 2022 so that he could personally take over the reform. The Holy Father agreed and held two audiences with the combined representatives of the Order and of the Tomasi working group, to foster consensus. The Pope then surprisingly changed his mind at the death of Fra’ Luzzago in appointing the new Lieutenant, overruling the Constitution of the Order, and granting back to Cardinal Tomasi the powers he had suspended at the beginning of the year. 

According to the Knights, the Pope “should consider with cautiousness the way his Delegate is pushing things around under the very strong influence of the very same people who ill advised the Former Grand Master Festing in late 2021 in suspending illegally the Grand Chancellor of the Order.” 

The Knights went on: “Already at the time, with the help of Cardinal Burke, these people had pretended that the Pope was backing that illegal decision. This attempted coup at the time had brought Pope Francis to ask for Fra’ Mathew Festing’s resignation in January 2022.”

There is also some concern for the style adopted by Cardinal Tomasi and his team, and which by some is described as “dictatorial.” On this view, the appointment of Grand Priors through the delegate is clearly not covered by the Holy Father’s letters, which asked to take decisions with the Sovereign Council.

The Sovereign Council has not been consulted, and it seems will simply be convened on July 30 to vote to accept the priories.

Finally, Cardinal Tomasi’s intervention interferes with local national statutes, several knights asserted. By these statutes a Grand Prior has to be elected, and so the national authorities in every country might refuse to recognize a person not elected in line with local bylaws.