While Pope Francis is taking his time to reflect on the reform of the constitution of the Sovereign Order of Malta, a return to the elements which have led to the current situation and which explain the reluctance of certain members will be very useful. A well-documented article on the InfoCatolica site retraces this genesis.
The beginning of the difficulties can be dated to December 2016. This was followed by the interventions of the Holy See, dismissals, deaths, and the opening of a process of reform of the constitution of the Order. Recently, the Pope said there was no rush to make a final decision.
In December 2016, the Secretariat of State appointed a commission of inquiry into the replacement of Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, due to the distribution of condoms in the Order's humanitarian campaigns. The Order protested with a press release.
“The Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta is aware of the decision of the Holy See to investigate the replacement of the former Chancellor. This replacement is an internal act of governance of the administration of the Order and therefore falls exclusively within its competence. This measure is the result of a misinterpretation on the part of the Secretary of State.”
In January 2017, Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing restated that the replacement of the former Grand Chancellor was an internal act of the government of the Order. He quoted the Constitutional Charter of the Order, which stipulates that “the religious character of the Order does not affect the exercise of the sovereign prerogatives relating to the Order insofar as it is recognized by the States as a subject of international law.”
He also recalled that the confirmation of this status in international law was referred to in the Pontifical Yearbook of the Holy See, where the Order is mentioned only once, not among the religious orders, but among the States having an embassy accredited to the Holy See.
The Holy See responded by ratifying its support for the commission of inquiry ordered. And a week later, at the request of the Pope, Fra’ Festing resigned. Two days later, Francis declared null and void the last decisions of the deposed Grand Master. Albrecht von Boeselager then again became Grand Chancellor. The sovereignty of the Order had lived.
Cardinal Burke's Mission
The Cardinal Patron of the Order, H.E. Raymond Burke, had met the Pope a few months earlier to take stock of the internal situation of the organization and had received support to take the necessary measures.
Francis wrote him a letter stating that “the introduction into the Order of manifestations of a worldly spirit must be avoided, as well as membership in associations, movements and organizations contrary to the Catholic faith or of a relativistic nature.” It was referring to the alleged infiltration of Freemasonry among the Knights of Malta.
The sovereign pontiff also evoked the problem of the distribution of contraceptives in poor countries: “We will also ensure that the initiatives and works of assistance of the Order are not used to spread methods and means contrary to the moral law. If there has been a problem in this area in the past, I hope it can be fully resolved.”
The Pope’s objective was clear. “I have no doubt, however,” writes Pope Francis, “that, following the Pauline principle of ‘truth working through charity’ (Eph 4:15), you will know how to enter into dialogue with them and make the necessary adjustments. But when the Cardinal wanted to make these adjustments, he found that the Pontiff openly supported the one he had designated as responsible for the distribution of contraceptives.
Restored to office, Boeselager blamed the former Grand Master of the Order, Fra’ Matthew Festing, and Cardinal Raymond Burke as the instigators of the crisis. The interim head of the Order, appointed by the pope, expressed himself in the same sense. The American cardinal defended himself:
“Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein’s account is inaccurate. I had no authority to ask the Grand Chancellor to resign. I said that the person who knowingly authorized the distribution of contraceptives should take responsibility. The Grand Master then again asked the Grand Chancellor to resign, which he refused to do.”
“The Grand Master then proceeded to remove him without my being involved in the least. The explanation of the Grand Master and my person remain. To be frank, I am shocked by what Hoffmann von Rumerstein claims in the article. I consider that to be defamation.”
Faced with the possibility that Fra’ Matthew Festing may influence the election of the new Grand Master, or even be re-elected, the Secretary of State, through Msgr. Becciu, forbad him from being in Rome during the election process. Becciu was already the pontifical delegate of the order.
At the time, a public report confirmed that the Sovereign Order of Malta had distributed potentially abortifacient contraceptives.
Election and Death of Dalla Torre
The Holy See having taken control of the Order, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto was elected Grand Master on an interim basis for one year and then confirmed as Grand Master for life.
The day after his election, Francis confirmed Cardinal Angelo Becciu as a delegate to the Order. His role was to oversee the institution “until the reform process is completed and, in any case, until such time as you deem it useful to the College. Until then, you will have all the powers and will be my only spokesman for the relations between the Apostolic See and the Order.”
Fra’ Dalla Torre passed away at the end of April 2020.
Replacement of Cardinal Becciu by Cardinal Tomasi
In November of the same year, the financial scandal surrounding Cardinal Becciu led to the cessation of all his responsibilities. He was replaced by Cardinal Silvano Tomasi as the new pontifical delegate to the Sovereign Order of Malta. Shortly afterwards, Marco Luggazo was elected lieutenant of the Grand Master, a position that had become vacant, for a period of at least one year.
In October 2021, Francis confirmed Cardinal Tomasi, giving him the following powers:
“To convene the Extraordinary General Chapter for the date you determine and to co-chair it; to define ad hoc regulations for the composition and holding of the Extraordinary General Chapter; to approve the Constitutional Charter and the Code of the Order; to renew the Sovereign Council in accordance with the new regulations; to convene the Council of State for the election of a new Grand Master.”
The cardinal formed a working group for the reform of the Order, from which the Grand Chancellor was significantly absent. He complained that he no longer had contact with the Holy See. Cardinal Tomasi replied,
in an interview with the National Catholic Register, arguing that all exchanges should go through the Order’s ambassador to the Holy See. The Grand Chancellor was no exception.
In this interview, the Pope’s delegate denied any violation of the Order’s sovereignty in the draft reform: “The reform maintains the Order as a religious order. The religious dimension is desired by the vast majority of members.… The pope also wants it. Reforms do not detract from the sovereignty, autonomy, or special privileged traditions of the Order.”
The final chapter of this process took place on Saturday, February 26, 2022. Vatican News reported that Cardinal Tomasi presented his proposals for reform of the Order to Pope Francis, when he was received in audience by the Pontiff with the other representatives of the Order.
“We explained to him how the coming reform will preserve and improve the Order as a secular order,” the cardinal said. The goal, he said, is to continue charitable, diplomatic, and humanitarian action for the benefit of the sick and for the service of the Church. The Holy Father was pleased with these proposals.
Marwan Sehnaoui, chairman of the steering committee of the Order's constitutional reform process, said that during the meeting, Pope Francis opened and closed the two-hour discussion, stressing that he himself would ultimately decide on “critical issues concerning constitutional reform.”
“Pope Francis listened carefully to the presentations and speeches of both parties. Following this exchange of views, the Holy Father said there was no urgency in making a final decision. His Holiness also stated that he would like to gather and review more information and would likely convene another hearing.”
One thing seems to be clear: even though Cardinal Tomasi denies any violation of the Order’s sovereignty, in fact, Francis seems to have already decided in a different way.