Friday, January 27, 2017

Pope Francis shows his mettle in victory over Knights of Malta

When the 11 members of the Sovereign Council of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic fraternity founded in the 11th century that does charity work in 120 countries, gather in Rome on Saturday, the mood will be grim.
 
Their task for a special meeting will be to formalise one of the most unsettling episodes in the order’s history: the resignation of Matthew Festing, their Prince and Grand Master. 

Fra’ Festing, 67, a former British soldier who was appointed in 2008, was supposed to hold the job for the rest of this life. But he was forced to step down this week after a showdown with Pope Francis that has captivated Vatican observers and many in the Catholic Church over the past two months. 

The last time this happened was more than two centuries ago. 

The row with the 80-year-old Argentine pontiff began with the knights’s decision in December, backed by Fra’ Festing, to sack Albrecht Von Boeselager, its Grand Chancellor, or prime minister, amid allegations that condoms were distributed to combat HIV in Myanmar on his watch. 

Contraception as a form of birth control is banned under Church teaching but Pope Francis has often taken a more liberal stance on social issues.

The dismissal of Mr Von Boeselager, whose father Philipp is known for participating in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler during the second world war, struck a nerve partly because it was unexpected and he was well liked within the order.
But the move also raised eyebrows at the Vatican because it was implicitly supported by Raymond Burke, an American cardinal who has emerged as one of the top conservative antagonists of Pope Francis on social issues and is now the Catholic Church’s envoy to the order.

The Pope reacted fiercely to the challenge. First, he set up a special commission to investigate Mr Von Boeselager’s firing, and when Mr Festing and the knights resisted the probe on the grounds the order is sovereign and independent of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis continued to press the issue. 

In the end, Mr Festing caved, presenting his resignation in a meeting with the Pope this week that will be rubber-stamped by the order on Saturday. The result is that Pope Francis has sent a warning to his internal dissidents that they should be prepared to pay a price for open disloyalty.

“This episode shows that there is opposition to the papacy and they have tried to force their hand, but what they are left with is a fistful of flies,” says Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

To make matters even more humiliating for the knights, the Vatican this week announced that it would seek to appoint a “papal delegate” to the order, which in effect means a takeover by the Church. 

This is particularly hard to digest for an entity that is staunchly protective of its sovereignty — printing stamps, issuing passports and even earning observer status at the UN. 

“Pope Bergoglio has in fact obtained what he wanted, but he had to use force, violating both law and common sense,” wrote Roberto de Mattei, a Catholic historian, in a column published on Rorate Caeli, a conservative website. “This is destined to have serious consequences not only inside the Order of Malta, but among Catholics from all over the world, increasingly perplexed and bewildered about the way Francis is governing the Church.”

A spokeswoman for the knights said their loyalty and devotion to the Pope was beyond question, and the order’s charitable work would be unaffected by the drama. A new Grand Master will be elected in the coming months. 

In medieval times, the organisation was devoted to helping provide medical care to crusaders in the Holy Land, but most recently it was involved in assisting earthquake victims in central Italy, and migrants and refugees all over the world. 

But regardless of the future of the order, the stand-off has exposed the Pope’s ruthless streak when it comes to handling internal dissent. 

“It will be taken as an index of Francis’s determination not to be cowed by his critics, and not just when it comes to the Knights of Malta,” says John Allen, the editor of Crux, a Catholic news site. 

“It also confirms what we’ve always known, which is that Francis has a stubborn streak. He may consult widely beforehand, but once he’s made a decision, there’s generally no turning back and no reconsideration,” Mr Allen added.

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