Catholic orders British leader, Grand Master Matthew Festing, had been in conflict with liberalising Pope Francis after sacking key official over aid project

The head of Catholic order the Knights of Malta has resigned over a bitter dispute with the Vatican about free condoms that become a test of the authority of liberalising Pope Francis.

The Rome-based chivalric and charity institution said Grand Master Matthew Festing, 67, resigned after Pope Francis asked him to step down at a meeting on Tuesday. Grand masters of the institution, which was founded in the 11th century, usually keep their positions for life.

The pope asked him to resign and he agreed, the spokesperson said, adding that the next step was a formality in which the groups Sovereign Council would have to sign off on the highly unusual resignation.

Festing and the Vatican have been locked in a bitter dispute since one of the orders top knights, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, was sacked in December after the charity distributed condoms as part of a medical project for the poor.

Von Boeselager appealed to the pope, who appointed a five-member commission to look into the unusual circumstances of the sacking. Festing refused to cooperate and called the commission illegitimate.

Festings resignation was the latest twist in a battle of wills between the heads of two of the worlds oldest institutions.

Festing, a Briton, had denounced the papal commission as intervention in the orders sovereign affairs, accused members having a conflict of interest and defiantly set up his own internal commission.

The Vatican, in turn, rejected what it said was an attempt to discredit members of the commission and ordered the leaders of the institution to cooperate with the inquiry. The papal commission was due to deliver its findings to the pope at the end of January.

The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics but take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The institution has 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 volunteers worldwide.

The order formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land has the trappings of a sovereign entity. It maintains diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and the EU, and permanent observer status at the United Nations.

When Festing fired Von Boeselager he accused the German of hiding the fact that he allowed the use of condoms when he ran Malteser International, the orders humanitarian aid agency.

Von Boeselager and his supporters said the condom issue was an excuse by Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke an arch-conservative who has accused the pope of being too liberal to increase their power.

The church does not allow the use of condoms as a means of birth control and says abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to stop the spread of AIDS.

Von Boeselager said he closed two projects in the developing world when he discovered condoms were being distributed but kept a third running for a while because closing it would have abruptly ended all basic medical services to poor people.

Francis has said he wants the 1.2 billion-member church to avoid so-called culture wars over moral teachings and show mercy to those who cannot live by all its rules, especially the poor. (Reporting by Philip Pullella, editing by G Crosse and Cynthia Oserman)

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Vatican condom row: pope prevails as Knights of Malta chief resigns
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