Pope forces Maltese knight’s resignation
Rome’s Villa del Priorato dei Cavalieri di Malta. Source: Wikimedia
The embattled head of Catholic order the Knights of Malta has resigned over a row with the Vatican about free condoms.
The Rome-based religious body and charity said Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, had resigned at Pope Francis’ request. Grand masters of the 11th-century order usually keep the position for life.
“The pope asked him to resign and he agreed,” a spokesperson said.
The Vatican has been in dispute with the order, which issues its own stamps, passports and licence plates, since a senior knight, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked in December after condoms were given out as part of a medical project for the poor.
Von Boeselager appealed to the pontiff, who appointed a commission to investigate with which Festing refused to cooperate, calling it illegitimate.
Festing, one of the few British Catholics to hold the role, denounced the papal commission as contravening the order’s sovereignty, accused five-members of the probe as having a conflict of interest and instead established his own internal commission.
The Vatican then ordered the knights to cooperate with the inquiry.
The all-male leadership of the order are not clerics but take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pontiff.
The order, which has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers, was formed to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims heading to the Holy Land. The institution has diplomatic relations with more than 100 nations and the EU, and permanent observer status at the UN.
The German Von Boeselager was accused of trying to hide the fact that he allowed the distribution of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the charity’s humanitarian aid agency.
Von Boeselager said the condom claim was smokescreen for a power grab by Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a conservative who has accused the pope of being too liberal.
The church, not always the finest example of personal virtue itself, traditionally teaches that condoms should be banned as a means of birth control and says abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage are the best ways to combat Aids.
Von Boeselager said he closed the developing-world projects when he discovered condoms were being distributed but kept a third running for temporarily because closing it would have ended all medical services for residents.
Francis has said the 1.2 billion-strong church should avoid “culture wars” on moral instructions and show mercy to those who cannot live by all its rules, especially those living in poverty.