A skirmish between the Vatican and a medieval order of Catholic knights unveiled a proxy war between reformists and traditionalists.
In an extraordinary display of papal power, Pope Francis has taken control of the Knights of Malta. To non-Catholics, this move may seem like an obscure intramural skirmish, but it has sent shock waves throughout the Roman Catholic world.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is recognized as a sovereign entity under international law, so the pope’s firing of Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing amounts to a Vatican takeover of an autonomous state. This intrepid move sends a signal to Catholics around the world that Pope Francis isn’t afraid to play hardball with ultratraditionalists who oppose the way he is running the Catholic Church.
While the Knights of Malta was founded during the First Crusade to protect Christian pilgrims from Islamic persecution, it has since evolved into a global humanitarian organization with over 100,000 staff members and volunteers. Yet the tiny clique of around 50 professed “knights” who lead the order is still drawn from the aristocratic families of Europe.
The situation that led to Festing’s firing started in 2005, when the “foreign minister” of the Knights of Malta, Baron Albrecht von Boeselager, allegedly oversaw a humanitarian project in Myanmar that distributed condoms to the local population. This action violated the Catholic moral teaching against artificial contraceptives.
Baron von Boeselager is the son of Baron Philipp von Boeselager, a participant in the 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, and the husband of Baroness Praxedis von Guttenberg, the aunt of current Christian Social Union politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of Germany. Due to Boeselager’s alleged role in the Myanmar scandal, Festing demanded his resignation in a meeting held on Dec. 6, 2016. Also present for Boeselager’s dismissal was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Knights of Malta. Burke is perhaps the most influential critic of Pope Francis’s approach to Catholic moral teachings, especially on the subject of Catholic divorce and remarriage. (Click to Article)