The head of the Knights of Malta resigned after entering into a public spat with Pope Francis over the ouster of a top official involved in a condom scandal, a spokeswoman for the ancient lay Catholic order said Wednesday. Matthew Festing met with the pope on Tuesday and offered his resignation, Knights of Malta spokeswoman Marianna Balfour tells the AP. Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his ouster of the grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the order's charity branch had distributed condoms under his watch. Festing had cited the Knights' status as a sovereign entity under international law in refusing to cooperate.
The remarkable showdown is the latest example of Francis clashing with more conservative elements in the Catholic Church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount. In a Jan. 17 statement, the Vatican called the issue a "crisis of the central direction" of the Knights of Malta. Festing suspended Boeselager on Dec. 8 over revelations that the Knights' charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar under his watch. Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Festing 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. (Read more Pope Francis stories.)