VATICAN CITY — The Vatican announced Wednesday it was taking over the embattled Knights of Malta in an extraordinary display of papal power after the leader of the sovereign lay Catholic order publicly defied Pope Francis in a dispute over condoms.

The move is remarkable – and controversial – because it marks the intervention of one sovereign state, the Holy See, into the internal governing affairs 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 the Knights’ grand master on Tuesday during an audience with the pope, and that Francis had accepted it on Wednesday. A Vatican statement said the Knights’ governance would shift temporarily to the order’s No. 2 “pending the appointment of the papal delegate.”

Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his decision to oust the order’s grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the Knights’ charity branch had distributed condoms under Boeselager’s watch.

Festing had cited the Knights’ status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate with the pope’s investigation. Many canon lawyers had backed him up, questioning the pope’s right to intervene in what was essentially an act of internal governance.

The naming of a papal 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.

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.


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