How did Pope Francis change the Order of Malta?

The flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The flag of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. | AM113 via Shutterstock.

The decision of Pope Francis to approve the new constitution of the Order of Malta, abolish positions, appoint a transitional government, and convene a general chapter to support the reform came quickly, but not suddenly. 

For some time, it had become evident that the pope wanted to bypass all resistance and carry out the reform of the order outlined by the men he called to that office — and to do so against any contrary opinion.

At the same time, Pope Francis’ decree of Sept. 3 cannot be simply described as a “victory” of the religious side over the secular side, the latter chiefly represented by German protagonists. That would be a reductive view of the situation.

The reform of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a reform in a more spiritual sense, at least in terms of its intentions.

At the same time, the reform had to be careful not to jeopardize the sovereignty of the Order of Malta while recognizing its complex reality and sometimes turbulent history. 

The Order of Malta’s structure includes priories, sub-priories, and 48 affiliated associations.

The organization also employs some 45,000 staff, assisted by almost 100,000 volunteers. The order’s humanitarian projects budget is said to amount to $2.3 billion. 

At the same time, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta — that is the full official name — 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.

The second class comprises 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.

So what has changed with the new constitution of the Order of Malta? CNA spoke with various knights and members of the associations and was able to view the text of the constitution, as well as deliberations formally approved by the pope but never officially presented.

The new constitution

The new constitution in many places reflects the 1961 Constitution, a document still visible on the order’s official website.

At the same time, there are substantial additions, both to the text of the constitution and the code.

These additions suggest radical changes, not only to the Order of Malta but also to the life of the associations.

The Holy See and the pope are pervasive. According to articles 6 and 14, the pope is a co-regulator. All members of the Order of Malta are directly subject to him. Under the old constitution, the members of the order enjoyed a certain autonomy.

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This crucial difference is expressed in the paragraph dedicated to the oath of the grand master. 

The old constitution, in force until Sept. 4, underlined that whoever would be elected as grand master took their oath “after having communicated the election to the Holy Father.”

The new constitution, approved by Pope Francis, establishes that “there is a need for confirmation of the election by the Holy Father.”

Grand masters are no longer elected for life but for a maximum of two five-year terms, or until they turn 85.

The requirement for professed knights to come from aristocracy no longer exists. A path of spiritual formation is to be the hallmark of those living the religious vocation.

Under the old constitution, “the Knights and Chaplains belonging to the first class make the Profession of the Vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the norm of the Code, thus tending to evangelical perfection. They are religious in all respects of Canon Law and abide by the particular norms that concern them.”

In the new constitution, among the duties of the members, we read that “the professed, mindful of their vocation and the obligations freely assumed before the Church and the Order, must conform their lives to the spirit of the Gospel and the Magisterium of the Church according to the Charter Constitutional Code, strive for religious perfection and dedicate oneself to the apostolic activities of the Order, bearing witness to Faith and Charity.”

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In the Grand Magisterium, all the organs are dominated by the professed. According to article 49, the professed knights are the “essential nucleus of the Order.” 

The grand master becomes sole sovereign: His authority, according to article 15, extends to all members, legal persons, and goods of the order; article 184 of the code establishes that the grand master directs the work of the associations and then also admits lay members and can suspend the president from an association.

But what about the Order of Malta’s third class, the lay members who make neither vows nor promises but are committed to living a fully Catholic life according to the order’s principles?

In the new constitution, they are recognized as “faithful linked to the Order” (article 82 of the code) and can be personally appointed by the grand master (article 87 of the code). 

More striking changes

Another significant change pertains to the national associations.

Previously, these were erected by decree of the grand master. Their statutes were drawn up to reflect the respective states’ internal legislation and requirements. 

Now, however, they are called to conform not only to their respective states’ laws but also to canon law. Article 196 requires the president of the associations to deliver an account statement to the Grand Master. 

According to article 49 of the new constitution, all offices in the associations, including the council, must be exercised by knights of the first or second class of the order.

What is more, the council of the association will transform itself from a governing body elected by the members to a group under the direct influence of the grand master, who will have to confirm all the members of the council and of an association.

Furthermore, the grand master can direct an association using a commissioner; the grand hospitaller supervises the work of the associations, including the implementation of pastoral directives issued by the Council of the Professed; the treasurer of the grand master oversees all the work of the Associations and draws up a consolidated balance sheet.

Another novelty is the three evangelical counsels for poverty, chastity, and obedience established by the code, which evaluate religious life.

In practice, the general idea of ​​the reform is to make the Order of Malta more spiritual. For this reason, many paragraphs recall religious life. The grand master is almost equivalent to a congregation’s superior, and the pope refers to the knights as if they were friars.

At first glance, it would seem one emphasis crowds out another: Membership is diluted in the sense that some 13,500 members are now considered merely collaborators of the 37 professed, who are the only members. There is also a shift in responsibility from the laity to the religious. 

Yet the Order of Malta is also a secular institution, a state without territory. The Holy See grants sovereignty, but the form of government, which allows for diplomatic relations with 112 states, must be independent. And this is where the sovereignty of the Order of Malta is called into question.

Sovereignty now diluted?

Fra’ Marco Luzzago, the lieutenant of the grand master who suddenly passed away this year, had raised the alarm about possible diluted sovereignty in his speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Order of Malta in January. 

He also stressed that “an extraordinary general chapter will be convened to approve the reform when as much consensus as possible has been reached on all the main issues.”

At the time, it seemed that there was still scope for an entire discussion, despite the fact that in October 2021, the pope gave Tomasi sweeping new powers to carry forward reform of the almost 1,000-year-old institution.

The crisis began in 2014 when the Chapter of the Order of Malta decided not to re-elect Jean-Pierre Mazery as the order’s grand chancellor. Albrecht von Boeselager, previously the order’s grand hospitaller, was elected to the position as part of a reshuffle that saw none of the Italian members once in critical roles re-elected.

That shift had significant consequences. In 2016, Fra’ Matthew Festing, then grand master, asked Boeselager to resign in the presence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the order’s cardinal patron (the pope’s representative to the order). The request was tied to reports about the alleged distribution of condoms in Burma by Malteser International, the order’s relief agency.

Fra’ John Edward Critien was appointed interim grand chancellor. But several knights appealed against the decision, arguing that the situation in Burma had been resolved and Boeselager was not even grand hospitaller at the time.

The pope decided to establish a commission to clarify the situation. Ultimately, it was suggested that Fra’ Festing should step down instead. On Jan. 28, 2017, following the resignation, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then archbishop, as his special delegate to the order.

The order began a reform process after having appointed Fra’ Giacomo dalla Torre as lieutenant of the grand master, and the following year was appointed grand master.

Any progress was interrupted by the death of Fra’ Dalla Torre on April 29, 2020. Therefore, Fra’ Giacomo Luzzago was elected lieutenant of the grand master, a post that lasts one year and could be renewed. The pope, however, confirmed the appointment of the lieutenant without such a limit and, in the meantime, gave extraordinary powers to the new delegate, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi.

Then, on the sudden death of Fra’ Luzzago, the pope personally appointed a lieutenant of the grand master in the person of Fra John Dunlap. With him and Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda on the delegate’s team, this latest reform was carried out, forcing its approval without going through a discussion. 

There were moments of tension with the appointment of another committee for reforms, but then even the contribution of this committee was reduced to nothing.

On the eve of the pope’s final decision, a group of associations representing about 90% of the Order of Malta’s work sent a public appeal to the pope, also arousing the resentment of the lieutenant of the grand master, who instead invoked the obedience to the pope.

The underlying question

The problem, according to critics, no longer concerns the reform’s quality but whether the pope’s actions represent abuse or not. The interpretation given by the cardinal delegate’s team is that the Order of Malta must be considered a religious order in all respects and, therefore, under the authority of the pope.

In general, however, the order is monastic only on the part of the professed knights. At the same time, its sovereignty remains independent from the Holy See and has allowed diplomatic relations with 133 states and humanitarian activities recognized worldwide.

To what extent will a state with bilateral relations with the Holy See be interested in maintaining ties with the Order of Malta?

But, above all, even if the issue is formally resolved, will it be possible to go beyond papal interference in matters of governance of the order, or will the order’s autonomy be permanently affected?

The reform of the professed knights

It is a matter of principle, which goes beyond the question at the basis of everything. As regards the Order of Malta, issues of corruption and financial management have been talked about, rightly or wrongly, and this has been traced back to secular tendencies. 

The need, therefore, is to return to a spiritual vision, breaking the existing blocks of power and recreating a more “religious” style in the works of the Order of Malta.

Suppose these are the reasons behind the pope’s decision. In that case, it must be considered that a reform of the professed knights was necessary but did not necessarily have to touch the sovereign prerogatives of the order.

The reform concerned, first of all, the vow of poverty, for which there was a pardon, also because the knights had to support themselves, and the times were no longer those in which their noble families could have afforded them a livelihood.

Thus, to maintain the vow of poverty, it was necessary for the order to put the professed in a position where they could dedicate themselves entirely to the poor and sick within the charism of the order.

Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre’s idea was to include the professed as employed of the order in a way most suitable to their talents and education. He would receive a salary and enjoy social and old age security as an employee. There was to be a generously endowed fund to provide the necessary means.

“Such a scenario must come as a threat to any rich lawyer, architect, teacher, who while formally professing poverty, in fact up to date can remain in his old circumstances ad indefinitum,” a source within the order said.

The pope’s reform as the end of any reform?

The formal approach of newly created cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda influenced the order’s reform, putting everything under the umbrella of canon law. But is this a fundamental change, or is it a way of stopping any real difference? Will the new order be representative of all instances, even those of associations, or does it remain a purely religious organization in the hands of a few professed?

It is evident, at this point, that the situation in the order cannot be considered a struggle between the religious wing or the secular wing and that there is much more to consider. For example, Riccardo Paternò, president of the Italian Association of the Order of Malta, was present on Jan. 25 at the enlarged working group meeting to define the order's reform. However, he had not been appointed part of the group.

His presence was contested by Kristóf Szabadhegÿ, president of the Hungarian association, in a circular letter addressed to all the order's top officials. 

Paternò was appointed by Pope Francis to the position of grand chancellor of the order, pending the meeting on Jan. 25.

Similarly, another working group member, Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis, was appointed grand hospitaller. Their appointment to the transitional government suggests they also played a role in drafting the new constitution.

On Jan. 25, the general chapter must elect the new sovereign council. From there, all the offices of the order will be reconstituted. 

The risk, however, remains that associations will decide to disengage from the order, maintaining their autonomy to run their charitable work while avoiding being treated in the same way as religious organizations.