Grand Master of Order of Malta resigns over Catholic church condom row

Pope Francis asked Fra' Matthew Festing to step down and he agreed, says spokesman.

Grand Master Matthew Festing during an audience with Pope Francis back in 2016
Grand Master Matthew Festing during an audience with Pope Francis back in 2016

The Grand Master of the Knights of Malta has resigned after a dispute between the Order and the Holy See.

According to a spokesman for the Order, Fra’ Matthew Festing, 65, a former soldier, stepped down after Pope Francis asked him to resign at a meeting on Tuesday, Reuters has reported.

“The Pope asked him to resign and he agreed,” the spokesperson said, adding that the next step was a formality in which the group's Sovereign Council would approve the highly unusual resignation. Normally grand masters serve for life. 

Albrecht von Boeselager
Albrecht von Boeselager

The Order will now be run by its number two, or Grand Commander, until a new head is elected.

The Order of Malta and the Vatican clashed last month when Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, the Order’s third most senior leader, who was said to have twice refused, and was later dismissed on grounds of insubordination. Maltese knight John Critien was appointed Grand Chancellor, who serves as a foreign minister for the sovereign order, in his stead.

Grand Chancellor John Critien
Grand Chancellor John Critien

Ostensibly, Boeselager was held ultimately responsible, following a commission of inquiry, of having alloed contraceptives to be distributed by the Order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International, in Myanmar.

Boeselager protested the charges, and argued against the manner of his dismissal, which he said happened in the presence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, an arch-conservative critic of the Pope.

He appealed to the Pope who appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of his sacking. But Festing refused to cooperate, saying the commission was interfering in the Order’s sovereignty and right to govern its internal affairs.

In what developed into a remarkable showdown between the ancient Catholic lay order and the Holy See, Festing refused to allow the commission to carry out its inquiry, and sent an extraordinary rebuke to the Roman pontiff.

Festing accused the commission of “serious accusations of a conflict of interest” involving three of its five members, which he said were linked to a Geneva-based fund in which the order had a financial interest and therefore couldn’t be trusted to address the spat objectively.

The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics, but they 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, has the status of a sovereign entity. It maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union and permanent observer status at the United Nations.