By Anthony Tokarz
On January 28, the Knights Sovereign Council of the Sovereign Order of Malta- the ancient Roman Catholic order of friars- accepted the controversial resignation of Friar Matthew Festing, the Order’s Grand Master. The previous day, Festing had personally delivered the handwritten note to Pope Francis in his private residence, in the culmination of a months-long power struggle between the papacy and the Order. The resignation marks the first time in centuries that a Grand Master resigned rather than holding the office until his death, a move many within the Order have likened to the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.
The Vatican-splitting controversy stemmed from the activities of one volunteer corps in Myanmar, Malta Today says. The aid projects have included the provision of condoms among the services provided to the poor. Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager had shuttered two of the projects, but maintained the third for fear that the poor serviced by it would otherwise lose all access to basic medical supplies and services, reports Reuters. Upon discovering this, Festing fired Boeselager in the presence of the ultra-conservative American Cardinal Leo Burke, whom Pope Francis had in 2014 demoted from high-ranking Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura to lowly Patron the Knights of Malta. The latter role constitutes little more than a ceremonial sinecure, usually proffered to Cardinals past the age of 75 and nearing retirement. Pope Francis also broke with the precedent of reappointing high-ranking officials to positions of similar authority, leading many to think that the pope intended to snub Burke for his refusal to cooperate with Francis’s reforms.
The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms and all other means of contraception, advocating instead for abstinence and the restriction of sexual relations to heterosexual marriages. Boeselager, in deciding not to halt the aforementioned aid project, faced the difficult task of choosing between providing services contrary to his faith or blocking an entire local population from receiving basic medical assistance.
According to The New York Times, Festing then told Boeselager that the Vatican had demanded his resignation. In response, Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, sent Boeselager a letter denying this mandate and urging a solution through dialogue. Festing proceeded to fire Boeselager, and Pope Francis responded with an investigation into the matter. On January 17, Festing pledged not to cooperate in the investigation, citing threats to the Order’s sovereignty, and the Pope issued a public order demanding his obedience. A week later, Festing resigned. Cardinal Burke then urged Festing to withdraw his resignation and push back against Francis, but before tensions could escalate, Francis reinstated Boeselager, thus frustrating the nascent challenges of his ultra-conservative critics.
The Sovereign Order of Malta entrusts the execution of its charity missions to its 13,000 official members, 80,000 volunteers, and 20,000 paid medical professionals. Its activities fall under the categories of providing aid and services to refugees, disaster relief and prevention, fighting diseases and epidemics, creating medical facilities, and providing social assistance in 120 countries. Though political crisis engulfed the top of its hierarchy and created tensions with the Vatican, the Order’s missions will not be affected. Pope Francis emerged from the infighting with a strengthened hand in future disputes, but insists that the Church ought to avoid culture wars and instead make every effort to understand, sympathize with, and show mercy to all. He hopes that mercy will inspire those disenfranchised people to live as holy lives as they can within their specific circumstances.