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.
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
The last time this happened was more than two centuries ago.
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
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
“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
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.
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.
regardless of the future of the order, the stand-off has exposed the
Pope’s ruthless streak when it comes to handling internal dissent.
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.
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