On Sept. 3, Pope Francis dismissed the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta, promulgated the new constitution, and summoned a general chapter for Jan. 25, 2023.
Boeselager was dismissed from his position of grand chancellor, too. Ironically, some say the crisis of the Order of Malta began with his re-installation as grand chancellor of the Order of Malta.
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 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, who the following year was appointed grand master.
Any progress was interrupted by the death of Dalla Torre on April 29, 2020. 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 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.
As seen, the pope has made several personal decisions regarding the order, to the point of abolishing its governing bodies and personally appointing the sovereign council.
The Order of Malta is a state without territory, a sovereign entity with diplomatic ties with 112 states. Pope Paschal II conceded the Order of Malta’s sovereignty almost a thousand years ago, in 1113 A.D.
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Although the sovereignty derives from this papal concession, it is noteworthy that only the First Class Knights, the so-called Fras, take vows and are comparable to a monastic order under direct obedience to the pope.
A case of Pope Francis intervening in the governance of the Sovereign Order of Malta is, therefore — to some degree, for critics — comparable to interfering with another state’s government.
The pope’s actions also raise further questions.
If the Order of Malta is a state subject to the Holy See, what is the purpose for other states to maintain diplomatic ties?
The lieutenant of grand master’s position
In an interview with the Italian Bishops’ Conference newspaper Avvenire on Sept. 21, Dunlap, lieutenant of the grand master, dismissed the dilution of sovereignty.