VATICAN CITY (Reuters) The head of the Knights of Malta, who has been locked in a bitter dispute with the Vatican, has resigned, according to a spokesperson for the Rome-based Catholic chivalric and charity institution.
The spokesperson said Wednesday (Jan. 25) that Grand Master Matthew Festing had resigned after Pope Francis asked him to step down at a meeting on Tuesday.
Grand Masters of the institution, which was founded in the 11th century, usually keep their positions for life.
“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 have to sign off on the highly unusual resignation.
The order would be run by its number two, or Grand Commander, until a new head is elected.
Festing and the Vatican have been locked in a bitter dispute since one of the order’s top knights, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked in December in the chivalric equivalent of a boardroom showdown — ostensibly because he allowed the use of condoms in a medical project for the poor.
Von Boeselager appealed to the pope, who appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of the sacking, but Festing refused to cooperate and called the commission illegitimate.
The Vatican ordered the Knights to cooperate and in a statement said that after Francis received the commission’s report this month the pope would make “the most fitting decision” not only for the order but for the whole church.
Von Boeslager’s supporters say the condom issue was an excuse by Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a conservative American churchman based in Rome, to increase their power.
Francis had transferred Burke, one of his sharpest and most persistent critics, from an influential post in the Roman Curia — the Vatican bureaucracy — to what was considered a largely ceremonial role as patron of the Knights of Malta.
But Burke has continued to critique Francis, and was reportedly involved in the decisions regarding Festing.
The church does not allow the use of condoms as a means of birth control and says abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to stop the spread of AIDS.
Von Boeselager said in a statement that he shut down two projects in the developing world when he discovered condoms were being distributed but kept a third running for a while because closing it would have abruptly ended all basic medical services to poor people.
The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics, but they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The institution has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide.