[Editor’s note: Today, Crux contributing editor Austen Ivereigh comments on the drama surrounding Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta. Tomorrow, Dr. Kurt Martens of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America will provide another perspective.]

ROME — When it came, the skirmish was brief. Despite their aggressive shows of defiance, the rebels’ surrender was unconditional.

Following a tense standoff between the leadership of the Knights of Malta and the Vatican, its Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, agreed to resign last week following a report by a papal commission that documents serious claims about dysfunction in his leadership.

The report highlights the need for serious reform of the order’s tiny leadership clique, drawn from around 50 “professed” Knights, who take vows, and are traditionally drawn from noble European families.

The pope named another of the senior knights, its Grand Commander, Fra’ Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, as interim leader until his own legate was appointed.

Some speculated that the order’s ruling Sovereign Council might reject Francis’s intervention. But when it met on Saturday, the council bowed to the need for the change.

It accepted Festing’s resignation by a clear majority, agreed to appoint Rumerstein, and reinstated the former Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager. It was the sacking of Boeselager by Festing and the order’s chaplain, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, that sparked the Vatican intervention.

Despite Festing earlier angrily claiming that the pope had no right to intervene in the Order of Malta because it was a “sovereign state,” the council’s statement rejected any such notion. Francis’s decisions were “carefully taken with regard to and respect for the order, with a determination to strengthen its sovereignty,” the council said.

In its statement the order also pledged “full collaboration” with the to-be-named papal delegate, who will oversee “the spiritual renewal of the order, specifically of its professed members.”

No mention was made of Burke, who was absent from Saturday’s meeting. The leader of an anti-Francis crusade from the start of the papacy, Burke was removed in 2014 as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura, because of his opposition to marriage annulment reform.

He is also the prime mover behind a letter made public last November in which four cardinals challenged the pope over the orthodoxy of his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia.

It was Burke’s attempt to use Pope Francis’s authority as part of an internal power-play by Festing in December to remove his rival Boeselager that prompted the papal putsch.

Boeselager, who is a figurehead for the largely German-speaking knights, claimed that the firing was illegal and unconstitutional. His supporters described it as the latest of a series of dictatorial attempts by Festing to stifle criticism and consolidate his hold over the order.

The German-speaking Knights have been growing more and more frustrated at the way needed changes were being blocked by Festing and his council, elected from the small group of professed members dominated by the English and Italians.

The president of the order’s German Association, Erich Lobkowicz, has described the struggle as “a battle between all that Pope Francis stands for and a tiny clique of ultraconservative frilly old diehards in the Church — diehards that have missed the train in every conceivable respect.”

Festing’s clique is known for its love of Old-Rite liturgies and suspicion of Pope Francis. The reformers want to focus on the Order’s humanitarian work among the poor, downplay the ceremonial pomp, and align the order more with Francis’s vision of an evangelizing, missionary Church.

But Francis did not step in to try to shape the order in his own image but to curb what he calls  “spiritual worldliness,” the use of the Church for self-interested purposes. It is the unhealthy nexus of interests — financial and ecclesiastical — that undermines the order’s good name.

“The Germans want a much more legal and transparent operation,” an ambassador close to the German-speaking knights said. “They are worried that the good work is undermined by the scandals.”

He offered an example. When Boeselager reportedly objected to the naming of two arms traders to senior positions, arguing that the appointments didn’t sit well with Pope Francis’s condemnation of the small-arms trade, Festing ignored him and named them anyway.

Critics also point to Festing’s failure of governance in his handling of a 2014 scandal in the UK, in which a pedophile companion of the Order was found guilty of possessing child pornography on video tapes. An inquiry led by Baroness Julia Cumberledge, who has chaired inquiries into the Church’s handling of abuse, uncovered a catalog of serious errors in dealing with the concerns.

In a sign of Festing’s apparent obliviousness to the damage to the order of such scandals, one of the three knights criticized in her report, Duncan Gallie, was later appointed by the Grand Council and lives in Rome.

The reformers have been especially incensed by Festing’s indulgence of the knights’ Italian branch, which has close connections to the wealthy and powerful order in Argentina. Both have long been linked to power plays in Italian politics and high finance, as well as to conservative networks in the Vatican.

“Part of it is a wonderful humanitarian organization, but part of it is a mafia, pure and simple,” one observer close to the pope told Crux.

Francis saw the second element first hand when he was the target of a ham-fisted attempt in 2008 by senior Knights to remove him as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and replace him with a bishop who was chaplain to the order in Argentina.

A similarly incompetent attempt was made in November last year by Burke and Festing to remove Boeselager, whose criticisms of Festing’s leadership were an increasing irritation to the Englishman.  Emboldened by Burke, Festing tried to sack Boeselager in early December on grounds of disobedience, after the German refused to stand down at the Englishman’s request.

The grounds for his removal were manufactured by a militant traditionalist organization close to Burke, the Lepanto Institute for the Restoration of All Things in Christ, which describes itself on its website as “dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church against assaults from without as well as from within.”

It either offered or was commissioned by Burke to investigate allegations that Boeselager had approved the distribution of condoms while head of the order’s humanitarian arm years earlier. The issue had already been dealt with in an internal Order of Malta investigation the year before, which had cleared the German of any wrongdoing. The Vatican had also been informed at the time.

Yet Lepanto’s president Michael Hichborn was told by Burke that he was “working on something” in response to his report.

A few days later, Burke went to Francis. Knowing Festing could not dismiss such a senior figure without the pope’s backing — Boeselager is a major figure in Germany, close to the German bishops and to many high-level Vatican officials — Burke told Francis on November 10 about the report.

In his letter that followed the meeting the pope made clear that Catholic moral precepts must be followed but that differences should be resolved through dialogue rather than expulsions.

But the letter was used by Burke as a justification for sacking Boeselager against the pope’s express wishes. Accusing the German of being a “liberal Catholic,” Festing and Burke demanded he step down, and, when he refused, sacked him on grounds of disobedience.

But it was Burke’s disobedience to the pope that was the real issue. Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, wrote twice to the American cardinal to make clear that the pope had approved no such action. He also made clear Boeselager should be reinstated, and any differences between them be resolved through dialogue.

Egged on by Burke, who insisted the Vatican had no right to intervene in the order, Festing refused to budge. At this point the pope named a commission to investigate. In an astonishingly aggressive statement Festing tried to claim the inquiry had no legal validity, on the grounds that the Order of Malta — founded in the eleventh century — was a “sovereign state.”

The argument was spurious. The order has international juridical personality and the trappings of a state (such as ambassadors and passports), but no territory beyond its palace on Rome’s most glitzy shopping street, the Via Condotti. Whatever its temporal status, it is also a lay religious institute whose members profess loyalty to the pope, and as such is subject — as are all recognized Catholic organizations — to the jurisdiction of the Holy See in religious matters.

The sovereignty argument beggared belief, given that Burke’s attempt to use the pope to justify Festing’s sacking of Von Boeselager had dragged the papacy into its internal affairs.

At this point, just before Christmas, the pope ordered a commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the sacking, and to take evidence from the knights about wider issues connected with the order’s leadership.

On Jan. 10 Festing pushed back, describing Boeselager’s dismissal as “an internal act of governance.” He poured scorn on the papal commission as “legally irrelevant” given the order’s sovereignty. He also ordered, under pain of obedience, that the knights back his decision to sack Boeselager — demanding, in effect, that the knights expressly reject the pope’s wishes.

The Holy See calmly expressed its confidence in its investigative group, led by Italian Archbishop Sivano Tomasi, which continued to take evidence. In a statement, the Vatican said it was awaiting the outcome of the investigation “in order to adopt, within its area of competence, the most fitting decisions for the good of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and of the Church.”

The evidence gathered by the pope’s commissioners  left no doubt about the need for reform. On Tuesday last week, Festing was summoned by Francis and told of its contents. At the end of the meeting, Festing sat down and hand-wrote his resignation — the first Grand Master in centuries to stand down before his life term.

Festing, who has had serious bouts of illness brought on in part by the stress of the internal disputes, “would have been relieved,” says one Vatican official who knows the former Grand Master. Sources say the aggressive statements from the Order were untypical of Festing, and were likely to have been drafted by Burke.

Even after Festing had agreed to the pope’s request to resign, Burke tried to persuade him to retract, in effect telling him to keep fighting Francis, according to sources in both the Vatican and the order.

The reaction from traditionalists and critics of the pope has been apopleptic, seeking to portray Francis as an autocrat imposing his vision of the Church on a hapless conservative order. In reality, he is doing no more than what popes have always done with Catholic organizations that suffer from abusive or dysfunctional leadership which undermines their witness.

Francis has done the same with other religious orders or societies, such as the Peru-based Sodalitium. Benedict XVI did the same with the Legion of Christ, among others.

Why should Francis’s critics believe this one is any different? Sadly, some have become so invested in Burke’s campaign against Francis over Amoris Laetitia that they have failed to spot what this is about.

Francis has no intention of making Burke a martyr by sacking him, but in reality he doesn’t need to. The American canon lawyer is officially the Holy See’s liaison with the Order of the Malta, but the papal legate will in practice reduce that to a merely titular role.

In his letter, Francis says his legate will be his “exclusive spokesman during his mandate” relating to relations between the Holy See and the order.

But the main point of the intervention is not to silence Burke, but to reform the order’s constitution and governance so that it better serves the purposes for which it exists.

Francis’s letter to the knights stresses that the unique character of the order as both a lay religious institute and a subject in international law should be the “basis for a more effective service according to its ancient yet ever relevant charism,” namely the defense of the faith and assistance to the poor.

In other words, its legal autonomy is at the service of, and for the purpose of, its mission, and cannot be used for other purposes — the furtherance of business interests, say, or the defiance of papal authority by arch-traditionalists.

Far from being like an invasion of one “country” by another, as some canonists have preposterously suggested, Francis’s intervention in the Order of Malta is the duty of care by a pope who does not want the Church’s witness to Christian mercy corrupted by privilege and spiritual worldliness.