“When you come to a fork in the road,” Yogi Berra is said to have recommended, “take it.” That is more or less what the Order of Malta have just done in their elections. The 56 voters had a choice between the old order, represented by previous Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing, and the reformist movement dominated by German knights, most prominently Albrecht von Boeselager.

That is an oversimplification, of course; but the two sides certainly exist. The Festingites believe that the order’s constitution works tolerably well. They merely want to expand the order’s charitable work in 120 countries around the world, and deepen its spirituality, particularly by encouraging religious vocations. (The number of knights professing poverty, chastity and obedience stands at about 60.) Their critics say they are stuck in the past – “frilly old diehards”, according to one prominent critic – and can’t see the need for reform.

The Boeselagerians, meanwhile, believe that the constitution needs updating if it is to meet the challenges of the modern age – an aim which Pope Francis supports. Their critics suspect them of secularising the order, particularly after a scandal involving the German-run humanitarian arm, Malteser International, which distributed abortifacients and defended contraception.

The order did not elect a passionate advocate of either side. Their choice, instead, was a temporary leader, the Italian Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, former Grand Prior of Rome.

While a Grand Master is usually elected for life, Fra’ Dalla Torre will only serve for a year, before another round of elections. But though his title is “Lieutenant ad interim”, this will be less an interim period than a struggle for the future of the order. The reformists’ plans would tranform the very character of the organisation.

What do Boeselager et al want to do? First, they would like to reform the office of Grand Master. At the moment, he is elected for life and has, in theory, absolute power. For instance, he can choose whether to put into effect the proposals of the sovereign council. Moreover, the Grand Master must be a knight who has professed poverty, chastity and obedience. The reformers would like the Grand Master to have a fixed term, and to be bound to accept some of the sovereign council’s decisions.

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