A row over the sacking and suspension of the Grand Chancellor of Catholicism’s most venerable chivalric order is ballooning into a full-scale battle with the Vatican.
Its aristocratic members, whose leaders take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, are now at each other's throats.
But the dispute goes much deeper than a ferocious internal row among the Knights of Malta: it has laid bare the bitter divisions inside the Church between those supporting Pope Francis’ vision for a more flexible, compassionate Catholicism rooted in discernment and dialogue and their opponents, who are determined to return to a Church of unbending rules.
On the one hand we have the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Matthew Festing, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, the knights’ patron and prominent Francis critic: they are the driving force behind the sacking of the order’s Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, who is accused of overseeing the distribution of condoms in the order’s development programs designed to help prevent the spread of HIV-Aids in Burma.
He was removed from his role, effectively the number three in the order, because of this breach with Catholic doctrine and, according to the German-born von Boeselager, because he was regarded as a “liberal Catholic” and “unwilling to accept the teaching of the Church”.
The Pope has made it clear that he opposes von Boeselager’s dismissal.
The Vatican has insisted that it urged Festing to address the crisis in a spirit of dialogue.
The Pope’s wishes have, however, been ignored.
As a result, a papal commission has been set up to investigate the saga.
This commission is looking into the chain of events that reached a dramatic climax on December 6, when the Grand Master, in the presence of the papal representative to the order, Cardinal Burke, asked von Boeselager to resign.
After the respected German knight refused, Festing sacked him for breaching his vow of religious obedience and suspended him from the order.
According to von Boeselager, the Grand Master, who is the son of a former British Army field marshal and a former Sotheby’s representative in Northumberland, told him that the demand for his resignation was in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See: Cardinal Burke’s presence in the room with Festing backed this up.
But in a letter, leaked to The Tablet, the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, told Festing that his actions did not have Francis’ support: “I wish first of all to reiterate that these measures [the sacking and suspension of von Boeselager] must not be attributed to the will of the Pope or his directives,” Cardinal Parolin wrote in a letter dated December 21.