Will the Order of Malta Remain Sovereign?

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has been working toward a new constitution since 2017. Many fear for the future of the Order. 

Newsroom (28/01/2022 09:10 AM, Gaudium Press) The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has been working toward a new constitution. The process started in 2017 when Pope Francis forced the abdication of the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, in an internal dispute between Festing and the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boselager.

After the abdication, the pope created the post of “cardinal delegate,” effectively side-stepping the traditional office of Cardinal Patron of the Order, held by Cardinal Raymond Burke since 2014.

Pope Francis initially named Cardinal Angelo Becciu to the role of special delegate to oversee a “spiritual and moral” reform. Becciu, however, was forced to step down from that position when the pope ordered him to resign his curial offices and rights as a cardinal in September last year, amid allegations of abuse of office and financial crime. In his place, Francis appointed Cardinal Tomasi, on Nov. 2, 2020.

After Festing resigned, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre was elected to lead the Order. He died in 2020. For almost a year, the Order is led by Fra’ Marco Luzzago, elected Lieutenant of the Grand Master shortly after the appointment of Tomasi and given full governing powers for a one-year term.

In October 2021, Francis granted Card. Silvano Tomasi sweeping powers to govern the Order directly, suspend leadership if necessary, and make ad hoc changes to the composition and procedures of the Chapter General to oversee a constitutional reform of the Order and the election of a new Grand Master.

A leaked draft constitution exposes drastic changes 

 For the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, centuries of diplomatic independence could end if a new Vatican-drafted constitution is put into effect. The new constitution could see the religious Order lose its status as a permanent observer to the United Nations and would imperil its bilateral diplomatic ties.

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The new constitution, explicitly defining the Order as a “subject” of the Holy See, would end nearly a millennia of sovereign independence. It has sweeping implications for its diplomatic relationships with more than 100 nations and the United Nations and impacts its humanitarian work around the globe.

The new draft constitution, obtained by The Pillar on about Jan. 14, 2022, was drawn up under Pope Francis’ special delegate to Cardinal Silvano Tomasi’s Order.

The revised constitutional draft drops entirely the provision by which the Order has diplomatic representation at the Holy See, like any other sovereign entity.

The proposed changes are significant. The Order of Malta sovereignty in international law allows it to issue passports and maintain bilateral diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries — both of which assist in its global humanitarian and medical missions.

The Order has permanent observer status at the United Nations – the same membership and recognition as the Holy See.

That status, and international recognition of the Order of Malta as a sovereign subject of international law, would be challenged if the Order’s governing constitution defines it as the subject of another power.

The Order, permanent observer to the UN since 1994

The UN’s resolution on the subject was introduced in 1994 by Italy’s ambassador, who noted that the order “is certainly not a non-governmental organization; nor is it a State, since it has no territory and no population of its own: it is what the Romans used to call a sui generis institutio, in the unique situation of having lost its territorial power two centuries ago but enjoying international recognition.”

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That unique status, and the independence attached to it, was verified by the members of the United Nations. Under the terms of the new constitution, with the Order of Malta explicitly defined as a subject of the Holy See, diplomatic independence would be functionally abrogated. It would likely trigger a review of its status at the UN and its diplomatic relationships worldwide.

Cardinal Tommasi: the draft is provisional and a leak is unauthorized

Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, the special delegate of Pope Francis to the Order of Malta, has written to the Order’s regional leadership stressing that a revised constitution for the Order is only “provisional” and could be changed. Tomasi also complained that the confidential draft had been leaked and apparently circulated to senior figures in the Order without his permission.

In a letter addressed to the presidents of the Order of Malta 48 national associations, dated Jan. 14, Tomasi acknowledged the draft text, which had not yet been officially distributed to the association leaders.

The cardinal told the national associations’ presidents that he had intended to inform them of the proposed changes in full, but only after a “restricted consultation” with the Order’s senior leadership, including the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boselager.

“This consultation was aimed at integrating and possibly amending the text prepared by the Apostolic See according to the contribution made by qualified members of the Order,” Tomasi said, “so as to have a definitive draft of the Constitutional Charter and the Code to be subsequently distributed” to the Order’s priories and associations worldwide.

“Therefore, I am surprised,” Tomasi continued, that “the president of the German Association, on his own initiative and without having the right to do so, proceeded to distribute the provisional drafts, which moreover he should not have.”

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Stressing that the draft is not yet final, the cardinal asked the association presidents to “refrain from any evaluation of a text that is still in the process of final formulation.”

Sovereignty will be ‘totally preserved,’ Tomasi promises

In a Jan. 20 letter, Tomasi stated that he was “amazed” by the amount of feedback he had received on the Vatican’s draft, not intended to be circulated widely among the knights.

Cardinal Tomasi said circulation of the draft by leaders within the Order was a “questionable procedure.” It had resulted in a “unilateral” departure from a planned reform procedure and had created “confrontation and debate.”

“This is a questionable procedure which cannot be shared by me and the [constitutional reform] Commission,” Tomasi warned.

But, acknowledging the widespread criticism of the Vatican draft and the opposition to its plans to make the Order a subject of the Holy See, Tomasi told the Order’s leadership that he “would also like to reassure the Order as a whole, that it was never the intention of this commission, nor of the Holy Father, to undermine the sovereignty of the Order, which will be totally preserved.”

Tomasi confirmed that the constitutional reform commission, which includes representatives from both the Vatican and Order of Malta, would meet for a two-day session on Jan. 25 and that “pending that meeting” he is “working with the commission to eventually revise some articles of the current draft of the constitutional charter.”

Tomasi’s letter is the most recent in a string of correspondence circulating among the Order’s leadership in recent weeks, beginning with the circulation of the Vatican’s draft constitution earlier this month.

(With files from The Pillar)

Compiled by Saju Hasmukth

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