What started out as a fight over staffing of the Catholic branch of the Order of Malta, has escalated into a public battle between His Holiness Pope Francis and the ultra conservative Vatican forces who oppose his progressive policies.
The dispute began when British born Grand Master Mathew Festing sacked Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager who was accused of allowing the distribution of condoms to the poor in Burma. Von Boeselager protested that his dismissal was deeply unfair, a complaint that resulted in Pope Francis launching an investigation that was considered unacceptable to the Grand Chancellor who considered it meddling by the Pope in the Order’s internal affairs and refused any cooperation with the Pope’s commission of enquiry which in his opinion had no jurisdiction over the Order.
The Vatican reacted to the challenge with barely concealed anger, saying that the Pope had every right to intervene in the affairs of the Order because as leader of the Catholic Church, he was its spiritual head. The row between the Vatican and the Grand Master has ended with his forced humiliating resignation and the appointment of a papal delegate that will govern the Order until a new Grand Master, supposedly with progressive views more in tune with those of His Holiness is appointed.
Immediately after the resignation of the Grand Master, the Pope announced that all “disciplinary procedures” against Mr von Boeselager were immediately scrapped and his suspension from the Order, which had been decreed by Mr Festing, was annulled and he was reinstated as Grand Chancellor by the Sovereign Council, the governing body of the Order.
The New York Times has published that, “Conservatives have denounced what they call an illegal annexation of the Order and a purging by the a power- obsessed Pontiff, while liberal observers saw the whole episode as resulting from an act of subterfuge by the Pope’s most public critic within the Vatican hierarchy, the American cardinal Raymond Burke.”
The confrontation was viewed as a microcosm of the battle within the Vatican between conservatives and liberals, as Pope Francis upsets hardliners with his more compassionate stance on many important matters such as divorce, homosexuality, inter-religious dialogue, multi-culturism etc.
The new political climate with the election of Trump as President of the United States and the rise of far-right populists in Europe have emboldened ultra conservatives in the Vatican who sense that the Pope could be vulnerable.
It is known that Pope Francis is critical of the paraphernalia surrounding the Knights of the Order and has, when he was cardinal in Argentina, a series of run-ins with the Argentinian Knights because of their display of wealth and their lack of charitable activities that in those days were limited to a charitable ball.
The resignation of the Grand Master has delighted the Pope’s followers around the world who support his compassionate approach as it has showed that conniving conservatives cannot push His Holiness around.
The Lieutenant Grand Master of The Sovereign Order of the Ecumenical Knights of Malta, Baron of Lobera has made a statement after the resignation of Mathew Festing: “We are glad that the unfortunate and regrettable dispute that the Catholic branch of the Order of Malta has had with His Holiness Pope Francis has been solved with the resignation of the Grand Master. Our branch has nothing to do with this dispute and we are totally supportive of His Holiness’ view point in this dispute.
We are purely a humanitarian organization with members of both genders, all religions and many different cultures serving the common good. We support fully the Declaration of the Vatican Council II, entitled Nostra Eatate, on the relations of the Church with non-Christian religions, one of the milestones in the propitiation of inter-religious dialogue, which spread through the Secretariat for non-Christians, instituted by H.H. Pope Paul VI in 1964, and continued with the Pontifical Council for the interreligious dialogue created by H.H. Pope Juan Pablo II in 1988 with the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus. This policy is now followed by H.H Pope Francis”.
The Ecumenical branch of the Order of Malta moved to Russia and placed itself under the protection of the Tsars when the Order was exiled from Malta after Napoleon’s invasion of the island.