ROME — It began as a fight over staffing. Then came a dispute about condoms, followed by papal concerns about Freemasons. Now it has become a full-scale proxy war between Pope Francis and the Vatican traditionalists who oppose him, with the battleground being a Renaissance palace flanked by Jimmy Choo and Hermès storefronts on Via dei Condotti, Rome’s most exclusive street.
The palace is the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, the medieval Roman Catholic order. For months, an ugly, if quiet, spat over staffing simmered behind the order’s walls before spilling across the Tiber River to the Vatican, setting off a back-and-forth between the two camps. Francis and his lieutenants sent angry letters. The Knights ignored them, claiming sovereignty.
This past week, the dispute finally blew up. Fed up, Francis took the extraordinary steps of demanding the resignation of the order’s leader — a decision the Knights officially accepted Saturday — and announcing that a papal delegate would step in.