Knights of Malta head quits over Vatican condom row

Pope Francis asks Grand Master of Malta to resign.

The head of the Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic order, has agreed to Pope Francis' request for him to resign from his post, following a row relating to the order's distribution of condoms in Myanmar.

The Grand Master of Malta, Matthew Festing from England, must now present his resignation formally to the council of the 900-year old lay religious order which is based in Rome.

His resignation ends a turbulent phase in the chivalric order's relations with the Vatican which began in December when Festing dismissed his Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over an anti-HIV and family planning initiative which involved condom distribution in developing countries.

According to a report in The Guardian von Boeselager is said to have closed two projects but kept a third open for a while because to have shut it immediately would have meant closing basic health services for poor women. Von Boeselager then appealed to the pope who appointed a five-member commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the order's dismissal of its chancellor.

Albrecht von BoeselagerAlbrecht von Boeselager

Festing instead opened an internal commission, leading to an uncharacteristically public spat between the Vatican and the ancient order.

The dispute is seen as a power struggle between traditionalists and reformers within the order and the Vatican. The order will now be run by its second-in-charge, the Grand Commander, until a new head is elected.

The sacking of von Boeselager was reportedly backed by the papal envoy to the order, the conservative American cardinal and outspoken critic of Pope Francis, Raymond Burke, against the pope's advice.

In 2014 Pope Francis removed Burke from his post as head of the Vatican’s highest judicial authority to the largely ceremonial position as cardinal patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta.

Festing, an expert in decorative arts, became a member of the order in 1977, took religious vows in 1991 and from 1993-2008 was the Grand Prior of the Order in England. In 2008 he was elected as the order's 79th Grand Master, a post that is usually held for life.

The Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta is an international aid agency with 13,500 members, 25,000 employees and 80,000 lay volunteers who provide health care and development aid in non-emergency situations around the world.

Von Boeselager, who is an expert in humanitarian aid, has long been a critic of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq which have put the lives of millions at risk, as well as large and ancient Christian minorities.