ROME — The Knights of Malta is still insisting on its sovereignty in its showdown with the Vatican, even after Pope Francis effectively took control of the ancient religious order and announced a papal delegate would govern it through a “process of renewal.”
The Knights’ current grand master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, was at work Friday at the order’s swanky Rome palazzo near the Spanish Steps, pending a meeting of his governing council to either accept or reject his resignation.
The Saturday meeting is no rubber-stamp formality: It’s evidence of the order’s sovereign status under international law, which is recognized by the more than 100 countries that have diplomatic relations with the Knights of Malta and essentially consider it a state.
Festing, a 67-year-old British aristocrat, met Tuesday with Francis and said he would resign after he lost an internal power struggle that started with a scandal over condoms. Festing sacked the Knights’ foreign minister, Albrecht von Boeselager, over the condom scandal.
But the Vatican intervened on Boeselager’s behalf, and announced this week that the pope had accepted Festing’s resignation and would name a papal delegate to run the order.
The Knights of Malta is an ancient chivalric order that runs hospitals and clinics around the world. It counts 13,500 Knights, Dames and chaplains, 80,000 permanent volunteers and 25,000 employees, most of them medical personnel who lend first aid in war zones, natural disasters and conflict areas.
The Knights are questioning the pope’s right to name a delegate to govern the order, since its sovereign constitution clearly sets out the process for selecting interim leadership and the election of a new grand master.
“Festing is the grand master,” order spokesman Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate told The Associated Press. “If he resigns, the sovereign council will take the appropriate decisions.”
The saga has sown chaos within the Knights, but the Vatican’s actions have added to the tumult.
For starters, Francis named a commission to gather information about Boeselager’s ouster, and packed it with Boeselager allies. They were essentially asked to report back objectively on a power struggle between a friend and the religious superior — Festing — who removed him. At around the same time, Boeselager’s brother, George Freiherr, was appointed to the supervisory board for the Vatican Bank.
Then, the Vatican seemed to ignore the order’s sovereign status altogether in announcing Festing’s resignation and that a papal delegate would be named to govern.
And finally, Francis’ deputy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in a letter this week that all of Festing’s decisions since Boeselager’s Dec. 6 ouster were “null and void” and that the papal delegate would “assist the order in the renewal process which is seen as necessary.”
The tone of the letter, reported by the National Catholic Register and confirmed by the order, made clear that Parolin believes he is now calling the shots.
It was addressed to the sovereign council and said the order’s No. 2 would govern temporarily “until the papal delegate is appointed.” No mention was made of the order’s laws that call for the No. 2 to organize an election for a new grand master within three months.
The order’s spokesman, Ajroldi di Robbiate, said Parolin’s letter represented the Vatican’s interpretation of events, but nothing more.
“Every decision concerning this must be taken by our sovereign council,” he said.