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Pope Francis strikes blow for church ‘liberals’ in condom row

Order of Malta chief forced to resign after disciplining colleague over ‘breach’ of doctrine

Pope Francis has accepted the ‘resignation’ of the Sovereign Order of Malta’s Grand Master, Englishman Matthew Festing (left), who had been involved in an internal row about the distribution of condoms. File image: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis has struck a blow for “reform” within the Catholic Church by weighing in on the side of the progressives against the traditionalists in a “condom row” involving the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Both the order and the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had accepted the “resignation” of the order’s Grand Master, Englishman Matthew Festing, who had been involved in an internal row about the distribution of condoms.

The ancient Order of Malta, which dates from the 11th century Holy Land crusade, is these days a charitable order which has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers, who provide health care in hospitals and clinics worldwide.

The order also enjoys some of the trappings of a sovereign state, since it issues its own, stamps and passports, whilst it maintains diplomatic relations with 106 states, Holy See included, as well as enjoying permanent observer status at the United Nations.

This most recent row began last December when Grand Master Festing sacked the order’s No. 2, Grand Chancellor, German Abrecht Freiherr von Boeselager.

Supported by conservative US Cardinal Raymond Burke, a regular critic of Pope Francis and the order’s patron, Mr Festing argued that Mr von Boeselager had been guilty of a serious breach in that he had allowed the order’s Malteser International group to become involved in the distribution of condoms via anti-HIV and family planning programmes.

Both Mr Festing and Cardinal Burke argued that the use of condoms was in breach of Catholic teaching, emphasising that no Catholic organisation should find itself involved in the distribution of condoms.

Catholic church teaching does not allow the use of condoms as a means of birth control, arguing that abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to stop the spread of Aids.

Both Mr Festing and Cardinal Burke had argued that Mr von Boeselager had committed an irredeemable breach by allowing the ancient order’s charity works to become involved in the distribution of condoms. Subsequently, Mr von Boeselager appealed to the Pope who, in turn, just before Christmas set up a five member commission to look into the dismissal.

Now, however, even before his own commission could report to him, the Pope has acted, prompting Mr Festing’s resignation and striking a blow for his own “merciful” pastoral approach to some of the Church’s hardline moral teachings.

Vatican observers argue that this dispute was between reformers who want the Order to concentrate on its charitable works and traditionalists “not on the same page as Francis”.

The Pope is unlikely to feel huge sympathy for an organisation, some of whose members mix huge historical and diplomatic “European” privilege with both high finance and hardline traditionalist theology.

Cardinal Burke, the order’s patron, was critical of many of the potential reforms to Catholic teaching regarding the family, marriage and divorce discussed at the two Vatican Synods on the family in 2015 and 2016. He was one of four cardinals who signed an open letter to Francis last autumn questioning new guidance allowing priests to decide on a case-by-case basis whether divorced and remarried believers should be able to receive communion.

In the meantime, the Vatican this week confirmed that it will appoint a “personal” papal delegate to run the Order of Malta until such time as a new Grand Master can be elected. Grand Masters usually hold their position for life, prompting some to speculate that this week’s events represent something of a Vatican takeover.