Vatican to take over Knights of Malta in condom dispute

Pope Francis greets the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Matthew Festing, right, at the end of a private audience in the Pontiff's private library at the Vatican in June 2015.File)
Pope Francis greets the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Matthew Festing, right, at the end of a private audience in the Pontiff's private library at the Vatican in June 2015.File)

The Vatican has said it is taking over the embattled Knights of Malta lay Catholic order in an extraordinary display of papal power after the Knights’ grand master publicly defied Pope Francis in a bitter dispute over condoms.

The move marks the intervention of one sovereign state – the Holy See – into the governance 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 grand master on Tuesday during an audience with the pope, and that Francis had accepted it yesterday.

The statement said the order’s governance would shift temporarily to the order’s No 2 “pending the appointment of the papal delegate”.

The naming of a 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.

Mr Festing had refused to co-operate with a papal commission investigating his ousting of the order’s grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the Knights’ charity branch had distributed condoms under his watch.

Mr Festing had cited the Knights’ status as a sovereign entity in refusing to co-operate with what he said was an act of internal governance.

Many canon lawyers had backed him up, questioning the pope’s right to intervene.

But Mr Festing’s defiance had been fraught from the start, given that he took a promise of obedience to the pope as a top-level knight, and regardless was the leader of a prominent Catholic order who was entering into a public fray with the leader of the Catholic Church.

The spat unfolded against the backdrop of Francis’s increasing clashes with more conservative elements in the church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount.

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 healthcare in hospitals and clinics around the world.