ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - The head of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has stepped down at the request of Pope Francis. A spokesman said Frey Matthew Festing, leader of the Knights of Malta for the last nine years, resigned after a Tuesday meeting with the Holy Father, who asked that he step down.
"The Pope asked him to resign and he agreed," said the spokesman, who explained that the order's Sovereign Council will have to approve of the unusual act — something it's expected to do. Its next-in-line, the Grand Commander, will take charge of leadership duties until a new Grand Master is elected.
The Knights have been locked in a power struggle with the Vatican over the dismissal of its Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, sacked after allegedly having knowledge of Malteser International's condom distribution in Africa.
Pope Francis announced in late December the establishment of a commission to investigate the dismissal of Von Boeselager, who is denying the charges, claiming he had no knowledge of the condom distribution.
Investigative journalist Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute says the evidence shows otherwise, and that the disgraced Grand Chancellor is lying. Hichborn's investigation — which revealed that Malteser had been handing out contraception in Africa since 2005 — came after the order itself had produced a report showing its humanitarian arm had been involved in anti-Catholic activities, with the explicit knowledge of von Boeselager.
The establishment of the papal commission was reportedly the result of a "misunderstanding" between the Vatican Secretary of State and the Order of Malta. The pope had told Cdl. Raymond Burke, patron of the order, on November 10 to investigate the claims of condom distribution; he also reportedly wanted freemasonry "cleaned out" of the ranks of the Knights.
After von Boeselager was dismissed, he claimed that Burke had falsely told him it was the pope's express wish that he be fired. Burke, denying the claims, said he would never have told Boeselager that the Pope had specifically asked for his dismissal." But von Boeselager's claims had already reached the Holy See, which decided it would take action to investigate the fairness of the ex-Grand Chancellor's firing.
The order was quick to remind Pope Francis he lacks jurisdiction to investigate. "The replacement of the former Grand Chancellor is an act of internal government administration of the sovereign Order of Malta and consequently falls solely within its competence," read a December 23 statement. An investigation would be "unacceptable."
Canon lawyer Ed Condon weighed in on the side of the Knights. "Although the Order is Catholic," he wrote January 9, "its constitution clearly separates it from the oversight of any Vatican department."
The Order of Malta, founded in 1113, is one of the oldest institutions in Western civilation. It is a sovereign entity, printing its own coins, stamps and passports, and today is an international humanitarian organization with diplomatic relations with more than 100 states. It has permanent observer status at the United Nations.
The Holy See is asserting it has jurisdiction because the Knights are a religious order, some of whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and thus fall under the authority of the pope.
"Regarding the dismissal of the Grand Chancellor of the Order," wrote Abp. Silvano Tomasi, spearheading the papal investigation, "the issue is not the sovereignty of the Order, but the reasonable claim of questionable procedures and of lack of proven valid cause for the action taken as raised by the concerned party."
Tomasi went on to clarify in his letter that because von Boeselager's "refusal of obedience" was the reason for his firing, it requires that his "religious superiors" — in this case, the Holy Father — look into the matter.
Von Boeselager had allegedly defied the Grand Master's request that he step down on December 6. The act of defiance — a violation of his vow of obedience — resulted in his dismissal.
"I'm demoralized by what's happened," he said in a meeting in Munich December 29, "but I want to fight for justice."
In its statement released January 10, the Order of Malta asserted that its Constitution makes clear that "the religious nature of the Order does not prejudice the exercise of sovereign prerogatives pertaining to the Order in so far as it is recognized by States as a subject of international law."
In other words, although the pope may have spiritual jurisdiction over the Knights, legally, he has no administrative jurisdiction. This was established in the papal bull of 1113 officially granting recognition to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and granting it autonomy in its decision to elect or depose whom it will without Church interference.
The order's statement also noted that the Knights are not listed as a religious order in the Annuario Pontificio of the Holy See (the annual directory that lists all the Holy See's departments), "but rather amongst the States with Embassies accredited [by] the Holy See."
The statement concluded that the pontifical commission has no authority to contradict "directly or indirectly ... the decision of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council concerning the replacement of the Grand Chancellor."