Warning of chaos in the Order of MaltaKnights of Malta in “great chaos” and “on the brink of disintegration”
The time-honoured Order of Malta is in turmoil. Leading Knights of Malta from 15 countries are publicly appealing to Pope Francis to stop pending reform plans.
The Order of Malta in the Catholic Church is an institution that is almost 1000 years old. It is legally recognised internationally. For decades, the Order has been doing humanitarian work in hot spots on various continents. And yet there are now bitter controversies about a structural re-organisation. In an open letter that is unique in this form, leading Knights of Malta have now turned to Pope Francis and called on him to stop the reform plans. In Germany, Erich Prince von Lobkowicz is the highest-ranking Knight of Malta as President of the Order’s German Association. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he explains his reservations about the re-organisation.
Prince von Lobkowicz, you signed the appeal to the Pope. Why?
Prince von Lobkowicz: In such a large structure as the Order of Malta is today, it is very important that the rules of conduct are observed. They are laid down in the Order of Malta in a Constitution and a Code. Since October 2021, the group responsible for reform in the Vatican has made its actions completely free from the influence of the Constitution and Code. This has caused great chaos and is bringing the Order to the brink of disintegration. We therefore appeal directly to the Holy Father to urge his Legate for the Order of Malta to respect the Constitution of the Order as recognised by the Vatican.
This legate is Cardinal Tomasi. He was appointed specifically for this reform by Pope Francis and was given very far-reaching powers. Has Tomasi taken sides in the conflict?
There are rumblings all over the Catholic Church, as you know. The organisation is moving from clerical to lay, to self-organisation, to modern structures. But here, of all places, where 13,500 religious ladies and knights worldwide have built up a really very efficient aid organisation, a small group is now trying to turn back the clock so that 36 knights alone, who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and of whom only 17 are under 70, should have all the powers. Cardinal Tomasi is not responsible for this as actors in his environment are responsible. But this plan will lead to chaos. And that is why we, as long-standing Presidents of the Knights of Malta International’s humanitarian work, say: Stop! We have to take a closer look at this.
Your Order hit the headlines a good five years ago with a dramatic showdown. It seemed almost like a coup attempt by reactionary forces, mainly from the North American area. Do you see a similar situation now? Do you fear something like a second coup attempt also against the actual intention of Pope Francis?
One can certainly suspect that. Because already in 2017, the attempted coup – as you say – was directed against Pope Francis’ ecclesiastical line. Our Holy Father is otherwise very modern, he knows the Church very well. He knows where a modern Church has to go. And he is carefully trying to lead it there. It cannot be the Pope’s intention that we, of all people, as the largest Catholic order of nursing and care, should turn back the clock to the 1950s.
With a normal association, party or comparable organisation, one would expect public consultations or a formal hearing in the course of a major reform. Why have you not used such opportunities since autumn 2021?
That is precisely what we are complaining about. That is precisely the problem. The proposals now on the table were hammered out behind the walls of the Vatican. We, the Presidents of the Knights of Malta National Associations were granted a zoom hearing in October 2021. I would like to say: a so-called hearing. Because we were not allowed to say anything. Instead, we were presented with excerpts from the plans – and then the Zoom session was already over. Our assessment was not asked for at all.
In the open letter, you also warn about the effects on the humanitarian commitment of tens of thousands of Knights of Malta volunteers, which has grown massively over the past decades, be it in Lebanon or Iraq, in Ukraine or on the Ahr. Do you really see this commitment at risk?
Yes. The commitment is endangered the moment our really very great resource, namely the sovereignty of the Order and its diplomatic service. For it is precisely these aspects that enable us to negotiate and take action very quickly and in the right places in the crisis areas. But if countries – and this danger would be acute with the reform – would see us only as an appendage of the Vatican, that would be a real danger. It is imperative to prevent this.
In the longer term, you see the unusual status of the Order of Malta, which is a subject of international law in its own right and thus truly sovereign, at risk?
Yes, that is so. The diplomatic work is an essential pillar of the humanitarian work and also only serves this goal. We have no political goals of our own. But we use all the tools of the diplomatic armoury to do humanitarian work effectively. In this we have always been supported by the Popes. And it is certainly in the Holy Father’s spirit that we continue to do so.
The open letter has now been signed by 15 Presidents of the Knights of Malta National Associations. What do these 15 national organisations stand for in the Order? Are they marginal or are they important?
The National Associations whose Presidents have signed this letter represent about 90 per cent of the Order’s humanitarian work. 90 per cent of the Order’s aid, which is equivalent to about 2.5 billion euros a year. There are many other Associations, but their output is rather small because of the precarious situation in the respective countries. For example, we have a very active association in Nicaragua – but there the President and the Vice-President are currently in prison because they messed with the regime. One can say: those who signed the letter speak for the majority of the aid agencies. It may be that the Associations in Italy and the USA have very many members in comparison . But their total share of the aid agencies is well below ten percent.
You are committed to making it clear that you are not opposed to Pope Francis, that you are committed to fighting alongside the Pope for this humanitarian commitment and this history of the Order. On the other hand, a fault line is currently looming. What is your hope with regard to Francis?
I simply hope very much that the Holy Father hears our cries and takes our warnings seriously. And that he will ensure a reform that is worthy of the name and in which all parts of the Order are heard. From the perspective of the tens of thousands of Knights of Malta volunteers in the field of emergency aid and humanitarian work, we hope for a workable solution that supports and safeguards our work and does not endanger it. With such a reform, Pope Francis would be following in the tradition of so many of his predecessors.
Personal details: As President of the German Association of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Erich Prinz von Lobkowicz (66) has been the highest-ranking representative of Knights of Malta in Germany since 2006. He also represents the General Assembly of the Knights of Malta Charities, is Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Deutsche Malteser gGmbh and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Knights of Malta Foundation.
The Order of Malta, founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century, corresponds to a Catholic religious order and has had its headquarters in Rome since 1834. It enjoys the status of a sovereign subject of international law and maintains diplomatic relations with 112 states, including Germany.