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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, once known as the Knights Hospitaller, is under immense pressure from the Holy See as new reforms threaten its historical sovereignty.
The 900-year-old order, famous for its role in the Crusades and the Great Siege of Malta, has been racked by a constitutional crisis, prompting longtime members to warn that proposed reforms threaten its status as a sovereign entity. The Order of Malta currently runs many humanitarian programs worldwide and uses its sovereignty to sign treaties, maintain neutral status in war zones and conduct diplomatic relations. But after a series of controversies weakened its sovereign status, the order faces a crisis as it awaits the pope's decision on its constitution.
"When I look at what we have become, I am ashamed," the order's president, Marwan Sehnaoui, wrote in an Aug. 26 letter bemoaning the crisis.
Troubles surrounding the historically sovereign order began when Grand Master Fra' Matthew Festing removed Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager from his post and expelled him from the order in 2016 for allegedly authorizing distribution of condoms and contraceptives to the poor. The grand master is the head of the order and acts as its sovereign, while the grand chancellor sits on the sovereign council of the order and leads its executive branch.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the cardinal patron of the order and the pope's representative, backed the dismissal and expulsion despite von Boeselager's claim he was unaware of the contraceptives' distribution. Burke and Festing asserted Pope Francis had approved the move, but the pontiff repudiated it, claiming he wanted the dispute resolved through dialogue.
The order's sovereignty became tenuous after Pope Francis commenced an investigation into Festing's decision. As a result, the pope reinstated von Boeselager and demanded Festing's resignation. The pope also sidelined Burke by appointing Cdl. Giovanni Angelo Becciu his special delegate to the order and furnishing him with responsibility for the cardinal patron's duties. Becciu was later stripped of his rights as cardinal owing to a sensational financial scandal, and replaced by Cdl. Silvano Tomasi in 2020. Becciu is currently on trial and denies all charges.
The order is a sovereign entity under international law, with the pope wielding authority over the order's religious affairs. But the Holy See has asserted that this religious authority extends to the activity of the professed knights, who control the levers of power within the order. Many of the knights have objected to this interpretation, pointing out that this means de facto the order does not have control over its internal governance.
The Vatican's interventions did not stop with the investigation. Pope Francis gave Tomasi sweeping and unprecedented authority over the order in 2021. Pope Francis appointed Fra' John T. Dunlap to the position of lieutenant of the grand master, making him the interim head of the order and leapfrogging Grand Commander Fra' Ruy de Villas-Boas.
Tomasi has also shuffled postings of many of the fully professed knights at priories worldwide. The number of knights has dwindled over the years, so second-class knights led many priories. Tomasi made personnel changes among the knights to solve the issue, but the abrupt changes caused organizational chaos. According to The Pillar, Dunlap was given the choice to cosign these changes with Tomasi or have the cardinal issue the decree in his own name. Dunlap chose to cosign.
After friction between the knights and Tomasi escalated, Pope Francis announced in February that he would personally decide on the future of the order's constitution.
As various parties wrangle for control of the order, the knights' work and the people who depend on it hang in the balance. "The sense is setting in that we are not independent, not sovereign," one knight told The Pillar. "If that impression sticks, our entire diplomatic network, all of our access to trouble spots where we work to help the poorest, is in jeopardy."
Knights will be called to ratify the pope's decision shortly, perhaps as soon as September.