ROME — The Knights of Malta Prince and Grand Master position was supposed to be a job for life. At least that’s what Matthew Festing, the 67-year-old Briton who has held the role for the last nine years, thought until Pope Francis sacked him this week after a very public battle of wills, and won’ts, over condoms.
The scandal, which could be (and might be) the premise of the next Dan Brown novel, started last month when Festing fired the order’s Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager.
It seems Boeselager, a German, concealed the fact that one of the two Catholic missions offering medical assistance to sex slaves in Myanmar, which he oversaw on behalf of the Knights of Malta, doled out condoms as a part of its medical services.
According to UNAIDS (PDF), in 2014 about 220,000 people in Myanmar were HIV-infected and about 11,000 died that year of related illnesses. Free condom distribution is a “mainstay” of the fight against HIV/AIDS among all sex workers, and de facto sex slaves are, of course, even more vulnerable.
But the members of the Knights of Malta, while they are not full clerics, do take the usual strict vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience to the Catholic Church, which prohibits the use of birth control for any reason, even to stop the spread of a fatal epidemic.
The Sovereign Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (the Knights’ full formal name) dates back to the Crusades and is under the Vatican structure. Its 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers, are compelled to follow the rules set forth by the Holy See.
But the question here has become, precisely, not who makes those rules, but who enforces them?
Boeselager was understandably not happy about being fired. And, according to the Knights’ own website, his dismissal wasn’t smooth by any standard.
After it was discovered that Boeselager had been hiding the trail of the condom handouts, two missions were shut down (a third was left open to avoid creating a vacuum in medical services), and he was asked by Festing to resign, which he refused to do.
“After Boeselager refused this, eventually the Grand Master [Festing] had no choice but to order him, under the Promise of Obedience, in presence of the Grand Commander and the Cardinal Patronus, to resign,” the Knights’ press statement reads. “Boeselager refused again. Thus, the Grand Commander, with the backing of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council and most members of the Order around the world, initiated a disciplinary procedure after which a member can be suspended from membership in the Order, and thus all Offices within the Order.”
Boeslager then went to the pope himself, complaining that he’d been let go under what he said were unreasonable circumstances and that he was surely following the teachings of Francis when it comes to mercy and ministering to those in the margins who may or may not be able to uphold all the tenets of Catholicism.
Francis apparently agreed. He appointed a five-member commission to investigate the Knights of Malta matter, specifically the circumstances of the firing—and the pope’s decision was met with an astonishing rebuke.
Citing their own constitution, the Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Council of the Knights of Malta issued a statement outlining why they were essentially saying no to the pope and his secretary of state.
“The Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Order of Malta has learnt of the decision made by the Holy See to appoint a group of five persons to shed light on the replacement of the former Grand Chancellor. The replacement of the former Grand Chancellor is an act of internal governmental administration of the Sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence. The aforementioned appointment is the result of a misunderstanding by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See,” the statement said. “The Grand Master respectfully clarified the situation yesterday evening in a letter to the Supreme Pontiff, laying out the reasons why the suggestions made by the Secretariat of State were unacceptable.”
Clearly, the pope did not see it quite that way.
Shortly afterward, the Vatican issued its own statement of clarification. “For the support and advancement of this generous mission, the Holy See reaffirms its confidence in the five Members of the Group appointed by Pope Francis on 21 December 2016 to inform him about the present crisis of the Central Direction of the Order, and rejects, based on the documentation in its possession, any attempt to discredit these Members of the Group and their work,” the statement said. “The Holy See counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage, and awaits the Report of the above-mentioned Group in order to adopt, within its area of competence, the most fitting decisions for the good of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and of the Church.”
The Knights of Malta didn’t budge, refusing to cooperate with the papal group.
That’s when Francis decided that Festing had to go and called him in to ask for his resignation which, according to a spokesman for the Knights of Malta, he willingly gave. The Vatican will now assign an interim leader until the Knights of Malta hold their own election for Festing’s replacement.
While it may all seem medieval and Machiavellian, even for Rome, there is another wrinkle—and a distinctly American one—in this rather unholy thread.
The head of the Sovereign Council of the Knights of Malta is none other than Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American who is leading a campaign against Pope Francis for allegedly giving the impression that rules on divorced and remarried Catholics and LGBT Catholics have softened.
Burke and three other cardinals filed a list of dubia, or doubts, to Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
Burke was given his gig as Cardinalis Patronus of the Knights of Malta in 2014 after Francis fired him from his lofty job as head of the Vatican’s judiciary.
Francis has refused to answer the dubia, essentially drawing a line in the sand on the matter. Whether or not the Knights of Malta mess is Burke’s attempt at revenge or to embarrass the pope is a matter of conjecture. But this much is crystal clear: pissing off the pope has consequences.