British Knight Falls On His Sword In Vatican Condoms Row

Happier times: Pope Francis blesses Matthew Festing, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, during a private audience at the Vatican last June.Reuters

The British-born head of the Knights of Malta, a chivalric and charitable order, has resigned in the latest twist in the Vatican condoms row.

Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, was asked by Pope Francis to stand down after he refused to cooperate with a Vatican commission set up to investigate the sacking of one of his knights, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager.

"The Pope asked him to resign and he agreed," a spokesperson for the order told Reuters. 

Boeselager was fired by Festing because he had supported the use of condoms in a project for the poor. Festing then opposed the Vatican's enquiry into the dismissal of Boeselager because he said it was interference in the order's sovereign affairs.

"Considering the legal irrelevance of this group and of its findings relating to the legal structure of the Order of Malta, the Order has decided that it should not cooperate with it," the order stated on its website, in reference to the enquiry.

Festing, who like all Grand Masters was appointed as leader of the 11th century order for life, was correctly addressed as His Most Eminent Highness Fra' Matthew Festing, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, Most Humble Guardian of the Poor of Jesus Christ.

Festing is from an old British Catholic "recusant" family on his mother's side. He was educated at Ampleforth and has served as a Deputy Lieutenant for Northumberland and is a trustee for Northumbria Historic Churches.

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the ultra-conservative who has has clashed with Pope Francis on issues such Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, is chaplain to the Knights of Malta.

The order, formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, has the status of a sovereign entity. It maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union and permanent observer status at the United Nations. It has about 120,000 members. 

Members are not ordained but take vows of poverty and chastity.

When Festing fired von Boeselager, he accused him of hiding the fact that he allowed the use of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the order's humanitarian aid agency.

Von Boeselager and his supporters say the condom issue was an excuse by Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an arch-conservative who has accused the Pope of being too liberal, to increase their power.

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.

Chris Gillibrand, a British Catholic commentator from the conservative wing, told Christian Today: "The Pope is trying to change the very nature of the Catholic Church. He will not succeed."