By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis will name his own man to run the Knights of Malta temporarily after the head of the ancient chivalric and charity institution resigned in the climax of a bitter dispute over sovereignty with the Vatican.
The pope asked Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, to step down at a meeting on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Rome-based Catholic institution said. Grand masters usually rule for life.
Festing and the Vatican had been locked in a dispute since the Knights’ Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager was sacked in December in the chivalric equivalent of a boardroom showdown – ostensibly for allowing the use of condoms in a medical project for the poor.
The two-month battle of wills reflected broader opposition inside the Roman Catholic Church to Francis’s efforts to modernize the Holy See and gently unravel the legacy of his conservative predecessors.
The Vatican, which is a sovereign state, said the pope would name a “pontifical delegate” to run the group, which also enjoys sovereign status and is recognized by about 100 countries.
Vatican sources said this was a temporary solution until the Knights were in a position to elect their own leader again.
The move was similar to one in 1983 when the Pope John Paul II named a delegate to temporarily run the Jesuit order, which he feared was becoming too leftist. More recently, the Vatican named a delegate to run the conservative Legionaries of Christ, which has hit by a sexual abuse scandal.
The Knights’ top governing body, the Sovereign Council, was convened for Saturday to take stock of the crisis.
When the dispute broke out, von Boeselager appealed to the pope, who appointed a commission to investigate. Festing, a Briton, refused to cooperate, saying that violated the order’s sovereignty.
Some insiders said the push against von Boeselager was an excuse by Festing and arch-conservative American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the order’s patron, to increase their power.
Burke, who was demoted from a top Vatican job in 2014, is one of four cardinals who have made a rare public challenge to Francis, accusing him of sowing confusion on moral issues.
The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics but 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 was formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land.
When Festing fired von Boeselager, he accused the German of hiding the fact that he allowed the use of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the order’s humanitarian aid agency.
The church does not allow 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 he closed 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.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tom Heneghan)