While the knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are waiting for the sovereign pontiff to put an end to their reform, the draft of the text of the new Constitution, drastically limiting the powers of the Grand Master, is already fueling controversy.
The religious press in the United States were the first to relay the post the terms of the Millennial Order's reform project: whether the leak was orchestrated or not, the draft of the new Constitution is not likely to pacify the knights.
Part of the project’s aim is to effect radical changes in the position of Grand Master, who is currently elected for life and exercises, according to the terms of the current constitution, “supreme authority” over all aspects of the Order. A position that has been vacant since the death of Fra’ Giacomo Della Torre in 2020.
More precisely, under proposals drafted by the Order's leadership – apparently without consultation with professed knights – the Grand Master would now be elected for a ten-year term, renewable only once, and would automatically retire when he reaches 85 years old.
But that's not all. Until now, the Grand Master has had the power to reject the decisions of the sovereign council of the Order; if the pope promulgates the text under construction, the sovereign council would have the option of overriding the Grand Master’s veto, by attaining a two-thirds majority vote.
In addition, the draft Constitution also requires the countersignature of the Grand Chancellor for all acts of the Grand Master before they can become legally enforceable.
The most critical knights denounce a strategy aimed at further isolating the function of Grand Master from the day-to-day governance of the Order, from its international charitable actions, and from its diplomatic prerogatives. Indeed, the Order of Malta is a subject of international law, and as such, can issue its own passports and maintain full diplomatic relations with dozens of states around the world.
Still, according to the opponents of this reform, in the long term, the new Constitution would establish a partition between the religious aspect of the Order embodied by the professed knights with the Grand Master at their head, and social action, entrusted to the hands of the Grand Chancellor who, after a fashion, would play the role of a prime minister of an English-style monarchy.
But critics of the plan argue that changes to the office of Grand Master are part of a wider effort to “secularize” the Order of Malta and to house professed knights away from its day-to-day governance.
For other members of the Order, the current proposals “offer a way for competence and good governance to be advanced, while retaining the religious core of our identity within the professed. The proposals for the [office of] Grand Master are entirely in line with the order’s traditions. This idea that the Grand Master has autocratic power is a modern fallacy, the history of our governance has always been collegial,” confides a professed knight.
The ball is now in Pope Francis’s court, who must decide on approving or modifying a project which still seems far from creating the conditions for appeasement among the knights.