THE GUARDIAN- Harriet Sherwood –Religion correspodent –

 Catholic order’s British leader, Matthew Festing, had been in conflict wiht liberalising pontiff over charity project

The head of the Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic order, has resigned over a dispute with the Vatican about free condoms that has become a battle of wills between the heads of two of the world’s oldest institutions and a test of   Pope Francis’s authority.

The Rome-based chivalric and charity institution said Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, resigned after the pope asked him to step down on Tuesday. Grand masters of the institution, which was founded in the 11th century, usually hold their posts for life.

“The pope asked him to resign and he agreed,” the order’s spokesperson said, adding that the group’s sovereign council would sign off on the highly unusual resignation within days.

Confirming Festing’s departure, the  Vatican  said Francis had “expressed his appreciation and recognition for [Festing’s] loyalty and devotion to the successor to St Peter [the pope] and his readiness to humbly act in the interests of the Order and the Church”.

Ludwig Hoffmann-Rumerstein will act as the order’s interim Grand Master until an election can take place.

The Vatican said it was taking the unusual step of appointing a pontifical delegate to the order – a move seen by some as an attempt to curb its conservative faction. 

Festing and the Vatican have been locked in a dispute since early December, when one of the order’s top officials, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked after the charity distributed condoms as part of a project for the poor.


Von Boeselager and his supporters claimed the condom issue was an excuse by Festing and the papal envoy to the order, Cardinal Raymond Burke – an American arch-conservative who has accused the pope of being too liberal – to increase their power.

Some Vatican observers have seen the Knights of Malta drama as a proxy battle between Francis and Burke. The US cardinal has been outspoken in his criticism of the pope’s efforts to reform Catholic teaching on the family, marriage and divorce. He was one of four cardinals who signed an open letter to Francis last year questioning new guidance allowing priests to decide whether divorced and remarried believers should be able to receive communion.

After Von Boeselager was sacked by Festing, he appealed to the pope, who appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of the dismissal.

Festing, a Briton who has been grand master for nine years and is seen as a conservative, refused to cooperate, saying the papal commission was an illegitimate intervention in the order’s sovereign affairs. He established his own internal inquiry.

The Vatican, in turn, rejected what it said was an attempt to discredit members of the commission and ordered the leaders of the institution to cooperate with the papal commission, which was due to deliver its findings in the next week.

“Behind this dispute is an internal struggle within the Knights between reformers who want the order to focus on humanitarian work and a traditionalist clique out of step with Francis,” said Austen Ivereigh, the pope’s biographer.

“Historically, the Knights have mixed ecclesiastical policy and high finance in a way which is repugnant to Francis. He is naturally inclined to support the reformers, and seized the opportunity to encourage them.”

Andrew Chesnut, professor of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the row could be “read as a proxy battle between Burke and Pope Francis.  Writ large, it’s really about the reformist vision of Francis versus the arch conservative old guard-ism of Burke.”

He added: “The Vatican hierarchy tends to be more conservative than the laity in general, but Francis has the backing of the vast majority of parishioners – he’s still wildly popular, he has momentum.” For now, Francis had reasserted his authority, “but only time will tell how far his reform project can be pushed.”

The all-male leaders of the Knights of Malta take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The institution has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide.

The order – formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land – maintains diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and the EU, and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

When Festing fired Von Boeselager, he accused the German of concealing his authorisation of the use of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the order’s humanitarian aid agency.

The church forbids the use of condoms as a means of birth control and says abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to control the spread of Aids.

Von Boeselager said he closed two projects in the developing world when he discovered condoms were being distributed, but kept a third running for a while because closing it would have abruptly ended basic medical services to the poor.

Francis has said he wants the 1.2 billion-member church to avoid so-called culture wars over moral teachings and show mercy to those who cannot live by all its rules, especially the poor.



Wednesday 25 January 2017