Nobles out: Pope dissolves Knights of Malta leadership to reform lifetime Grand Master rule

Pope Francis has dissolved the leadership of the Knights of Malta, for an election in 2023 under new rules that will no longer elect a member of the nobility as Grand Master for life

Knights of the Orderof St John
Knights of the Orderof St John

Pope Francis has dissolved the leadership of the Knights of Malta, the global Catholic religious order and humanitarian group, to instal a provisional government ahead of the election of a new Grand Master.

The papal decree comes five years after an acrimonious debate within the Order, which once commanded the islands of Malta for almost 200 years, over a new constitution that some feared would weaken its sovereignty.

The group, whose formal name is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, was founded in Jerusalem nearly 1,000 years ago to provide medical aid for pilgrims in the Holy Land.

Today it employes 13,500 members with a multi-million dollar budget, has 95,000 volunteers and 52,000 medical staff running refugee camps, drug treatment centres, disaster relief programmes and clinics around the world. It has been very active in helping Ukrainian refugees and war victims.

Warring knights, a moral crisis, and hidden monies

With permanent observer status at the United Nations, it maintains diplomatic relations with 110 states and acts as a neutral party in relief efforts in war zones.

And its only official territory is a palace and offices in Rome and the St Angelo fort in Malta, but is still recognised as a sovereign entity with its own passports and licence plates.

It is however still a religious order under the auspices of the Vatican.

A new Grand Master, to replace the late Giacomo Dalla Torre, who died in April, will take place in March 2023.

The new constitution will now eliminate the nobility rule as well as the tradition of Grand Masters being elected for life: previously, top Knights and the Grand Master were required to have noble lineage, something that excluded nearly everyone except Europeans from serving in top roles.

Future Grand Masters will be elected for 10-year terms, renewable only once, and will have to step down at age 85.

Past clashes with Francis

In 2016 the Knights sent Pope Francis an extraordinary rebuke after the Holy See appointed a commission to investigate the sacking of its Grand Chancellor.

Pope Francis set up a special committee to investigate discord within the Knights of Malta, after the grand master of the venerable order, Matthew Festing, ousted its ‘foreign minister’ Albrecht von Boeselager.

Von Boeselager was replaced by the Maltese knight John Critien, who took up the prominent position in the Order’s magistry.

Von Boeselager, who as Grand Chancellor was the number three in the Order, was reported to have told friends he had been accused of not following the Church’s teaching on the distribution of condoms in Africa. Italian daily Il Messaggero said the scandal concerned von Boeselager’s tenure as health minister and claims that he didn’t prevent the order’s workers in Africa from distributing condoms.