ROME – Pope Francis decreed a new constitution for the Knights of Malta Saturday and dissolved its government ahead of the selection of a new leadership team, effectively ending a tumultuous debate over the group’s future but threatening further divisions among the group’s 13,500 members and 48 national associations.

Founded in the 11th century during the Crusades, the “Sovereign Military Order of Malta” long has been a sort of hybrid entity within the Catholic Church.

It has elements of a religious order, including a small class of roughly 35 professed religious who take vows. Yet it’s also a sovereign entity under international law, enjoying diplomatic relations with over 100 nations and the European Union, and virtually all of its activities are administered by the order’s lay members.

In effect, the changes decreed Saturday come down on the side of the Knights being fundamentally a religious order with control vested in its clergy, subject to the direct authority of the pope. That point was stressed in a briefing for reporters by Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an expert on canon law who was part of the drafting team for the new constitution, who said the group had to remain under the purview of the Vatican.

Critics, however, warn that the changes may jeopardize the sovereign standing of the Knights of Malta, and also sideline lay members of the group who actually have the expertise to effectively oversee its works.

The Knights of Malta employ some 45,000 staff, assisted by almost 100,000 volunteers, who are engaged in a variety of humanitarian projects around the world, with a budget of roughly $2.3 billion.

Tensions within the Knights burst into public view in 2016, when a group around American Cardinal Raymond Burke, at the time the spiritual patron of the Knights of Malta, demanded the resignation of the group’s chief executive, German layman Albrecht von Boeselager, in the wake of a controversy regarding the distribution of condoms by a Knights-sponsored charity in Myanmar.

Pope Francis ordered von Boeselager reinstated and began a review process of the group’s internal structures which eventually led to Saturday’s overhaul.

In addition to issuing the new constitution, Pope Francis also installed a provision leadership team for the Knights and set Jan. 25 as the date for a general chapter meeting to elect a new Grand Master.

Among other changes, the new constitution eliminates a requirement that the Grand Master and other top knights must have noble lineage, which critics argued effectively limited leadership roles to European aristocrats. It also does away with the tradition of Grand Masters being elected for life, limiting them to a 10-year term that can only be renewed once, and requiring them to step down at age 85.

“It will be more democratic. The question of nobility has now become secondary,” said Italian Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, tapped by Pope Francis to lead the team that prepared the new rules.

Officially, the Knights’ new management has welcomed the changes, calling them “a clear blueprint for more efficient, streamlined governance” in a statement released Sunday by Fra’ John Dunlap, head of the provisional government.

Yet in the run-up to Saturday’s decree, the proposals drew protest from several influential members of the order, including German businessman Ernst von Freyberg, former head of the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank.”

“Contrary to all current developments in the Catholic Church, this draft Constitution proposes a massive transfer of responsibility from the Lay Members (around 13,000) who work in and lead the Works to the Professed members (around 40),” von Freyberg wrote in an August 13 email to dozens of other Knights of Malta.

“The Sovereignty is significantly reduced and transferred to the Holy See,” he wrote.

Von Freyberg charged that among other things, the emphasis on control by a small clerical cadre within the Knights runs contrary to Pope Francis’s own repeated warnings about the dangers of clericalism.

Von Freyberg’s email followed a public letter to the pope signed by the heads of 13 national associations of the Knights of Malta, collectively representing almost 95 percent of its charitable activity. The group included the head of the German branch, which by itself employs 33,000 of the group’s 45,000 staff.

“If the Order of Malta is reformed in the proposed way, the Order would suffer massive damage, and its many works might get into difficulties,” the group wrote.

“Cardinal Tomasi’s current draft recommends removing responsibility from lay members and instead giving organizational control to 36 Professed Knights,” they wrote.

“While these Professed Knights are valuable members to the Order, it is not feasible that the work of over 13,000 heavily engaged people can be fulfilled by less than 40 people, who do not have the experience or qualifications to responsibly manage an organization of that scale.”

The presidents proposed that members be consulted ahead of a new constitution.

In an Aug. 26 letter to fellow Knights, Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Lebanese branch of the Knights of Malta, called the proposed overhaul a “blunder.”

“Today, when I look upon what we have become, I am ashamed,” Sehnaoui wrote. “I am living a nightmare … When I think of our valiant ancestors, my eyes fog up with tears, because our order is on the verge of disintegration, breakup, even dissolution.”

Marc Odendall, an investment banker who served on the first commission tasked with reforming the order, told Crux that if the new government goes along with the provisions contained in the constitution, “one can only recognize that the Sovereign Order of Malta is not sovereign anymore.”

“Thirteen thousand and five hundred members are now simple collaborators of only 37 de jure members, i.e., the professed,” Odendall said.

In terms of what comes next, Odendall said he sees a stark choice.

“The associations [could] refuse and quit, as they have the members, the employees, [and] the national governmental and institutional grants, leaving Rome with only the pomp and useless professed,” he said.

He compared it to what corporate observers call a “reverse takeover,” in which an outside entity attempting to attain complete control ends up losing all its leverage.

Otherwise, Odendall said, “the national associations will lose their effectiveness, [and] soon their financing … [along with] a number of members who will not like to be called ‘simple collaborators’ when they actually do all the work.”