Lesson: Don’t Mess with the Pope
The unexpected resignation of the head of the Knights of Malta at the request of Pope Francis is a big deal. It shows that for all his good-natured openness, the Holy Father still demands respect, loyalty and discipline.
The Order of the Knights of Malta goes back to the times of the Crusaders in Jerusalem as the Knights Hospitallers (the Malta connection refers to a time in exile. The order is now based in Rome, near the basilica of Santa Sabina).
They do fine charitable work in 120 countries, including in Mandeni in KwaZulu-Natal. The order has sovereign diplomatic standing, so they’re not just a big NGO. They are powerful.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an outspoken critic of Pope Francis, is their “patron”, or chief chaplain.
Here is a brief — and slightly flippant — timeline of the events leading to the resignation of Fra Matthew Festing.
- Festing wants to fire his #2, Albrecht von Boeselager. The pretext is that Boeselager had cooperated with an organisation which distributed condoms to prostitutes in Asia.
- A hearing is called in December. The Holy See asks the Knights to settle this issue fairly and amicably. Their preference seems to be that Boeselager should not be fired.
- In the meeting, facing Festing and Cardinal Burke, Boeselager refuses to resign. Festing or Cardinal Burke (it seems unclear who) apparently tells him that it is the wish of the Holy See that he resign—an “alternative fact”, in current parlance.
- Boeselager refuses to resign and is fired. The Vatican isn’t happy — even less so when the alternative fact Boeselager was presented with becomes public.
- The pope appoints a commission to investigate what happened.
- Festing says the pope has no authority to investigate because the order is sovereign, and even instructs members not to cooperate with the commission. The Vatican replies: “Oh, but he does have the authority to investigate, since the Knights swear an oath of loyalty to the pope.” Festing says: “Oh no, he doesn’t” and blows a raspberry in the direction of the Domus Sanctae Martae…
- …where Pope Francis lets out a big sigh at the shenanigans of those who think he’s a fool.
- Festing is called to meet with Pope Francis. The Holy Father asks him to resign. Festing suddenly realises that the pope actually does have authority and is not a fool after all. His holds a losing hand and quickly folds.
- The pope is now appointing a pontifical delegate to the order to fix what the pope sees as a mess, especially what he reportedly believes to be an excessive attachment to money.
Then there is the question of Cardinal Burke’s role in the false representation of the Vatican wishes and the subsequent rebellion against the pope’s authority.
Many believe that the cardinal used the order as a proxy in his endless campaign against Pope Francis. If so, that should come to an end now, though it’s unlikely that Cardinal Burke will be fired or demoted.
- And the lesson is this: Don’t confuse kindness and mercy with weakness. When he has to be, Pope Francis is every bit as tough as his two predecessors — because that’s what a pope sometimes has to be.