To the outside world it may seem strange that a Roman Catholic organisation dedicated to serving the Poor and Sick, should still maintain its essential nobiliary character in the twenty-first century. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Malta is a Religious and Hospitaller Order of Chivalry has its origins in an eleventh century hospital in Jerusalem, originally attached to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria Latina. In 1113 it was formally constituted as a religious Order of the Church in a Bull of Pope Paschal II. Even though it was driven from the Holy Land at the end of the thirteenth century, it soon re-established itself as a powerful military and then naval force in the Mediterranean, after taking possession of the Island of Rhodes, circa 1310. It was driven from Rhodes by n overwhleming Ottoman force in 1523 but then, in 1530, was granted sovereignty of the islands of Malta and Gozo, as a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily, by the Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain).
Although today it is sometimes described as a Sovereign State, it is better characterized as a Sovereign persona, since it does not possess any territorial imperium. Nonetheless, its sovereignty is recognized as such by over one hundred states with which it exchanges mutual diplomatic relations. Other nations acknowledge it as an Entity in International Law and, as such, it was accorded the status of Permanent Observer at the United Nations in 1994, as well as at the UN organisations in Geneva. It is also an accredited observer at the European Union in Brussels and participates in other international forums. It still enjoys the protection of the Holy See in its religious aspect, but is not subordinate to the Holy See in its international personality. Its nobiliary status is a fundamental aspect of its constitution, without which it would have probably lost the elevated position that has enabled it to enjoy the support of Europe's Sovereigns; their protection insured its survival after the loss of Malta. The influence of the members, who are drawn from the most elevated strata of society, has also served to maintain the Order's continued independence and prestige. As a Sovereign entity it is entitled to confer, confirm or recognize titles of nobility and establish or exercise nobiliary jurisdiction.
The Knights and Dames, the vast majority of whom compose the third class of the Order, represent an elite among the Roman Catholic laity. The advantage of being recognized as a member of that elite also imposes an obligation of service, the responsibility of privilege which may be regarded as an essential characteristic of the Order. There are those who are uncomfortable with its elitist nature and some members of the Catholic hierarchy have demonstrated their opposition. It would be naive to suppose, however, that criticisms would cease if the nobiliary requirements for admission were relinquished. Opponents of the Order may almost always be identified with those who are opposed to the existence of any Catholic honours, including the non-noble Order of the Holy Sepulcher and the Papal Orders of Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Sylvester. The Order has never disguised the fact that entry into its ranks is difficult, a special honour and that it imposes a life-time obligation of service. It is not a good conduct medal for being a devout Catholic.
Its structure is hierarchical and its head, the Prince (of the Holy Roman and Austrian Empire) and Grand Master, before making profession as a knight of Justice, must have been enrolled as a member of the first rank of the third class, that of Honor and Devotion. This requires stricter proof of nobility_ than the third rank of the same class, that of Grace and Devotion. Membership of the Sovereign Council and tenure of one of the great offices of the Order is limited to members of the first class_ (knights of Justice); members of the second class (knights of Obedience) may only hold one of the great offices (Grand Chancellor, Receiver of the Common Treasure or Hospitaller) by Papal dispensation. The majority of North American knights and dames are members of the fifth rank of the third class, that of Magistral Grace, so it is rare that a North American holds high office in the Grand Magistery. Nonetheless in recent years, North Americans have provided the largest single national group on the Sovereign Council of the Order.
Candidates for the first and third rank of the third class must "possess the necessary requirements by birth or by clear merits towards the Church, the Order and Humanity". Every candidate must be a practicing Catholic of good character who has shown evidence of a willingness to serve the Order's mission and has the support of his or her local Association. It is unnecessary for a candidate for the first and third ranks of the third class, the nobiliary ranks, to show any "special merit" unless he or she has been exempted from all or some of the nobiliary requirements by motu proprio of the Grand Master. Candidates for the fifth class, however, must "manifest merits towards the Church, the Order and one's (their) neighbour" in addition to the general, requirement of being practicing Catholics of good character.