Grand Master of Order of Malta resigns in bitter papal dispute

The head of the Knights of Malta has resigned following a row with the Vatican over a condom programme, the ancient Catholic order has said.

According to the spokesman, Fra' Matthew Festing stepped down after Pope Francis asked him to resign at a meeting on Tuesday, Reuters has reported.

The Order of Malta and the Vatican clashed last month when Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, the Order's third most senior leader, who was said to have twice refused, and was later dismissed on grounds of insubordination.

As if to drive home that point, the Knights issued a statement Wednesday saying the sovereign council had been convened for January 28 to formally accept his resignation.

Boeselager had been the Knights' health minister when its charity, Malteser International, was found to have been involved in programs that distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar.

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ROME- Pope Francis has forced the head of an ancient Catholic order to resign in an unusually public rebuke of conservative leadership within the Catholic Church.

Mr Boeselager said he did not know about the condom distribution programme, which was an anti-HIV and family planning initiative, and stopped it when he learned of its existence.

As the row dragged on, the Holy See last week issued a strongly worded statement saying it expected full co-operation from the order.

The Vatican says Pope Francis will name a pontifical delegate to run the embattled Knights of Malta, effectively taking over the sovereign lay Catholic order after its leader resigned in a bitter dispute with the pontiff over condoms.

"The governance of the Order will be undertaken ad interim by the Grand Commander pending the appointment of the Papal Delegate".

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Defending his refusal to cooperate with the papal commission, Mr Festing cited the Knights of Maltas' status as a sovereign entity.

Von Boeselager's dismissal had been seen by some as being the result of him being too liberal for Burke, who has acted as the Vatican's liaison with the Order since being sidelined from more important roles by Francis.

Cardinal Burke, the order's patron, was critical of numerous potential reforms to Catholic teaching regarding the family, marriage and divorce discussed at the two Vatican Synods on the family in 2015 and 2016.

The Knights of Malta has numerous trappings of a sovereign state, issuing its own stamps and coins, having its passport and licence plate and holding diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries. Grand Masters usually hold their position for life, prompting some to speculate that this week's events represent something of a Vatican takeover.

Festing insisted the removal of Boeselager was an internal matter and, in letters leaked to the press, urged members not to cooperate with the Vatican commission.

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