The Vatican said Wednesday it was taking over the embattled Knights of Malta lay Catholic order in an extraordinary display of papal power after the Knights’ grand master publicly defied Pope Francis in a bitter dispute over condoms.
The move marks the intervention of one sovereign state — the Holy See — into the governance of another, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an ancient aristocratic order that runs a vast charity operation around the globe.
The Vatican said Matthew Festing, 67, offered to resign as grand master Tuesday during an audience with the pope, and that Francis had accepted it on Wednesday.
The statement said the order’s governance would shift temporarily to the order’s No. 2 “pending the appointment of the papal delegate.”
The naming of a delegate signals a Vatican takeover, harking back to the Vatican’s previous takeovers of the Legion of Christ and Jesuit religious orders when they were undergoing periods of scandal or turmoil.
But those are religious orders that report directly to the Holy See. The Knights of Malta is a sovereign entity under international law, making the Vatican intervention all the more remarkable.
Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his ouster of the order’s grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the Knights’ charity branch had distributed condoms under his watch.
Festing had cited the Knights’ status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate with what he said was an act of internal governance. Many canon lawyers had backed him up, questioning the pope’s right to intervene.
But Festing’s defiance had been fraught from the start, given that he took a promise of obedience to the pope as a top-level knight, and regardless was the leader of a prominent Catholic order who was entering into a public fray with the leader of the Catholic Church.
The spat unfolded against the backdrop of Francis’ increasing clashes with more conservative elements in the church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount. The dispute had once again pit Francis against Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leading conservative and Francis critic who also happens to be the pope’s envoy to the order.
Burke had been by Festing’s side on Dec. 6 when Festing first asked, then demanded Boeselager’s resignation. Boeselager refused, but was ousted two days later under a disciplinary procedure he contends violated the order’s own rules.
Boeselager had been the Knights’ health minister when its charity branch Malteser International was found to have been involved in programs that distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar.
Church teaching forbids artificial contraception. Boeselager has said he stopped the programs when he learned of them. The order’s leadership has said the scandal was grave, that Boeselager had hidden the revelations of the programs, and called it “disgraceful” that he had refused an order to obey Festing and resign.
Boeselager has challenged his removal, appealing to the Knights’ internal tribunal.
Many of the order’s members had lamented how the confrontation with the Holy See had drawn unwanted negative attention to the order, which relies on donations to fund its charity works around the globe.
Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Festing, in Burke’s presence, that the Holy See wanted him to resign over the scandal. The Vatican secretary of state has said the pope wanted nothing of the sort and wanted the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.
Last week, the Holy See said it expected the order to cooperate with its probe, and in a sharply worded statement said it planned to take action to resolve the dispute.
The Order of Malta has many trappings of a sovereign state, issuing its own stamps, passports and license plates and holding diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.
The Holy See, however, has a unique relationship with the order since it is a Catholic entity, and the pope appoints a cardinal to “promote the spiritual interests” of the order and its relationship with the Vatican. Francis appointed Burke to that position in 2014 after removing him as the Vatican’s supreme court justice.
The knights trace their history to the 11th-century Crusades with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who provide health care in hospitals and clinics around the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.