VATICAN CITY – The Vatican announced Wednesday it was taking over the embattled Knights of Malta in an extraordinary display of papal power after the leader of the sovereign lay Catholic order publicly defied Pope Francis in a dispute over condoms.
The move is remarkable — and controversial — because it marks the intervention of one sovereign state, the Holy See, into the internal governing affairs of another, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an ancient aristocratic order that runs a vast charity operation around the globe.
The Vatican said Matthew Festing, 67, offered to resign as the Knights’ grand master on Tuesday during an audience with the pope, and that Francis had accepted it on Wednesday. A Vatican statement said the Knights’ governance would shift temporarily to the order’s No. 2 “pending the appointment of the papal delegate.”
Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his decision to oust the order’s grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the Knights’ charity branch had distributed condoms under Boeselager’s watch.
Festing had cited the Knights’ status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate with the pope’s investigation. Many canon lawyers had backed him up, questioning the pope’s right to intervene in what was essentially an act of internal governance.
The naming of a papal delegate signals a Vatican takeover, harking back to the Vatican’s previous takeovers of the Legion of Christ and Jesuit religious orders when they were undergoing periods of scandal or turmoil.
But those are religious orders that report directly to the Holy See. The Knights of Malta is a sovereign entity under international law, making the Vatican intervention all the more remarkable.
The Order of Malta has many trappings of a sovereign state, issuing its own stamps, passports and license plates and holding diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.
As a result, even the Vatican’s statement announcing the takeover was problematic: According to the Knights’ own laws, the grand master is elected by the order’s top leadership and submits his resignation to the order’s top leadership. The pope is only informed of the decisions.
“It’s not for the Holy Father to accept the resignation of the Grand Master, it’s for the sovereign council to accept it,” noted Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America.
As if to drive home that point, the Knights issued a statement Wednesday saying the sovereign council had been convened for Jan. 28 to formally accept his resignation.
Martens said the Vatican intervention was “dangerous” as a result, because it set a precedent that could eventually be used against the Holy See, which has a similarly unique status as a tiny sovereign entity that nevertheless enjoys international recognition at the United Nations and elsewhere.
“You are giving ammunition to those who are opposed to an international status for the Holy See,” Martens said, noting some groups have challenged the Vatican’s status at the U.N.
The spat unfolded against the backdrop of Francis’ increasing clashes with more conservative elements in the church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount. The dispute had once again pit Francis against Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading conservative and Francis critic who also happens to be the pope’s envoy to the order.
Burke had been by Festing’s side on Dec. 6 when Festing first asked, then demanded Boeselager’s resignation. Boeselager refused, but was ousted two days later under a disciplinary procedure he contends violated the order’s own rules.
Boeselager had been the Knights’ health minister when its charity branch Malteser International was found to have been involved in programs that distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar.
Church teaching forbids artificial contraception. Boeselager has said he stopped the programs when he learned of them. The order’s leadership has said the scandal was grave, that Boeselager had hidden the revelations of the programs, and called it “disgraceful” that he had refused an order to obey Festing and resign.
Boeselager has challenged his removal, appealing to the Knights’ internal tribunal.
Many of the order’s members had lamented how the confrontation with the Holy See had drawn unwanted negative attention to the order, which relies on donations to fund its charity works around the globe.
Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Festing, in Burke’s presence, that the Holy See wanted him to resign over the scandal. The Vatican secretary of state has said the pope wanted nothing of the sort and wanted the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.
There is also something personal at stake: The pope is said to have had fraught relations with the Knights of Malta in his native Argentina. And stylistically they couldn’t be more different: The pope is known for his simple style and refusal of the trappings of the papal office. The knights are known for the noble lineage of their members, their fancy fringed uniforms and the grand palazzi where they live.
The knights trace their history to the 11th-century Crusades with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who provide health care in hospitals and clinics around the world.